Wednesday, February 27, 2013

U.S. Counterterrorism Struggles in Africa

At WSJ, "On Terror's New Front Line, Mistrust Blunts U.S. Strategy":
KUMBOTSO, Nigeria—The shooting clattered on for 30 minutes, residents of this dusty town say, and when it ended, four militants holding a German engineer hostage were dead.

So were the engineer, and four innocent bystanders.

In vast West Africa, a new front-line region in the battle against al Qaeda, Nigeria is America's strategic linchpin, its military one the U.S. counts on to help contain the spread of Islamic militancy. Yet Nigeria has rebuffed American attempts to train that military, whose history of shooting freely has U.S. officials concerned that soldiers here fuel the very militancy they are supposed to counter.

It is just one example of the limits to what is now American policy for policing troubled parts of the world: to rely as much as possible on local partners.

The U.S. and Nigerian authorities don't fully trust each other, limiting cooperation against the threat. And U.S. officials say they are wary of sharing highly sensitive intelligence with the Nigerian government and security services for fear it can't be safeguarded. Nigerian officials concede militants have informants within the government and security forces.

For the U.S., though, cooperation with Nigeria is unavoidable. The country is America's largest African trading partner and fifth-largest oil supplier. Some 30,000 Americans work here. Nigeria has by far the biggest army in a region where al Qaeda has kidnapped scores of Westerners, trained local militants to rig car bombs and waged war across an expanse of Mali the size of Texas. Last month, al Qaeda-linked extremists' attack on a natural-gas plant in faraway Algeria left at least 37 foreigners dead.

In Nigeria, a homegrown Islamic extremist group loosely called Boko Haram has for years attacked churches and schools. The name translates as "Western education is sin."

Now, the sect's followers are joining a broader holy war, led by al Qaeda and financed by kidnappings. On Feb. 16, militants in Nigeria's Muslim north abducted seven mostly European construction workers.

Three days later, gunmen crossed into neighboring Cameroon to kidnap a family of French tourists outside an elephant park. The family appeared in a YouTube video posted this week, its four children squirming on camera, as a spokesman read a message for France, which last month attacked al Qaeda fighters in its former West African colony of Mali.

"We say to the president of France, we are the jihadists who people refer to as Boko Haram," the turban-shrouded man said. "We are fighting the war that he has declared on Islam."

French officials said they were analyzing the video and considering the difficulties in either entrusting Nigerian soldiers to rescue their citizens or staging a rescue raid in a foreign land.

Such kidnappings, like the attack in Algeria, show how extremist groups are leapfrogging borders.
Continue reading.