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Is West Africa a Terrorist Safe Haven? Going Beyond the Conventional Wisdom
By Captain Saio S. Marrah (Rtd) Expert in International Relations and Security Studies
Feb 13, 2013, 17:02
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Large chunk of literature concerning terrorist activities in West Africa maintain that weak political systems, ineffective security forces, and inefficient justice systems, has left West Africa vulnerable to drug cartels and has further made it susceptible to the possibility that terrorists could further incubate in the region.


While I may not entirely contest the possibilities of terrorist infiltration and incubation in West Africa due to the aforesaid factors, but such generic and stereotypical analysis by Western Security Experts are apparently flawed. West African states may not apply a homogeneous Rule of Law along their boundaries (due to Colonial Legacy), but they do have an intricate web of roadblocks along the international borders that can't be easily infiltrated.


Not all political systems in West Africa are "weak", not all security forces are "ineffective" and not all judicial systems are "inefficient". For instance, the justice system in the Gambia, Guinea Bissau and Guinea Conakry can't be compared to Sierra Leone nor can the security system in Sierra Leone be compared to Nigeria, Ivory Coast, or volatile Guinea Bissau. Sierra Leone is shoulder high above them and the recent Global Prosperity Index underpins my assertion.Western Security Experts and other observers should therefore not overstate West Africa's porous boundaries.

Captain Saio S. Marrah (Rtd)

This piece argues that there is no causal nexus between failed state and international terrorism and further maintains that the widely suggested notion that failed statehood readily strengthen terrorism is empirically flawed and unconvincing. However, this is not to refute the fact that terrorist organisations do not operates in failed states but it could be argued that it is not necessarily the condition of failed statehood which explains their presences in failed states.


Although it could be argued that failed states do provide an enabling environment for terrorist groups to operate but more vigorous and critical explanatory variables are required to demystify the commonsensical link between these phenomena. The focal point of my argument is to suggest that, the motivating rationale triggering the notion of failed statehood enhancing terrorism hypotheses are empirically flawed and overly simplistic if not entirely inaccurate. Therefore I will argue that, failed states as well as successful states do host/breed terrorism. For instance, the known perpetrators of the  11th September 2001 Attacks in the USA, the 7th July 2005 Attacks in the UK and 11th March 2004 Attacks in Spain were all educated, nurtured and effectively radicalised in the West - which are successful and not failed states.


Threats and dangers embedded in the West Africa / Terrorism Discourses

Following the death of President Muammar Gadhafi and the anarchy that mushroomed Libya, weapons of varying types permeate West Africa, making the tools of extremism readily accessible. Quite recently, Nigerian Authorities seized 1,420 pounds of explosive materials and 445 detonators.


Moreover, as many as 15,000 of Muammar Gadhafi's stock of Man-portable Air-defense systems (MANPADS) are unaccounted for - encouraging critics to conclude that they must have fallen in the hands of terrorist groups in West Africa. Incident Reports reveals that, MANPADS have brought down at least eight passenger planes in Africa, while small arms have led to far more casualties. 


Albeit it is difficult to obtain concrete evidence that the illegal drug trade in West Africa is financing terrorism within the sub-region, terrorist groups are known to use smuggling as a means to fund their organizations. For example, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda have a track record of exploiting West Africa's fragile diamond industry to enrich and militarise themselves.


In 2007, it was plausibly alleged that the diamonds mined in Sierra Leone financed the activities of terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda.


Moreover, in 2008 U.S. Embassy report maintained that Hezbollah is believed to have raised millions of dollars selling diamonds in Europe mined in Sierra Leone.


Furthermore, Hezbollah is believed to have direct ties to the Latin American drug cartel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Just imagine the web of interlocking threats, dangers, vulnerabilities and insecurity in the above facts.


There is a threat of further terrorist activity in West Africa, as Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups have also been known to exploit situations in which there is a power vacuum or high level of poverty. The possible link between crime organizations and terrorist networks appears to be leading to a potential security problem in West Africa, a region already heavily armed due to recent civil wars.


The US government has added the al Qaeda-linked Movement for Tawhid [Unity] and Jihad in West Africa and two of its leaders to the list of global terrorists and entities - whiles Boko Haram in Nigeria persist in radicalising young men and women by the hour. The Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO as it is commonly called, is an al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb offshoot that controls territory in Mali and has been behind several terrorist attacks and kidnappings in West Africa. The group has named one of its units fighting in Mali after Osama bin Laden.


Illicit transfers of money via remittances and cash happens to be a key factor of supporting terrorists.With mobile money transfers, cell phones could also send and receive illicit funds at the detriment of our safety.


West Africa's drug smuggling routes provide opportunities for terrorist organizations to generate revenues as radicalised Sahelians can easily navigate the desert without problems. At least fifty tons of cocaine (worth $2 billion in Europe) travels through West Africa per year and terrorists are believed to get a fair share of such amount for protecting and guiding their route to Europe.


As many observers have traced terrorism to West Africa's poverty and crime, few have examined the role of political instability. The relationship between terrorism and a more common scourge in the region's electoral violence is not well known. However, one can maintain that prolonged election conflicts could create vacuum for terrorist groups to disturb the security of the state. Nigeria's tragic post-election violence of April 2011 provides one possible example.


No state is strong or weak in the fight against terrorism. What is needed is concerted effort at the domestic, sub-regional, regional and international levels. As terrorists operate on a worldwide network guaranteed by the forces of globalization and information technology - therefore, the lame blame game of accusing failed states as incubating grounds for terrorist will not help in curbing their activities.


Similarly, accusing successful states like the US, UK and the like, as nurturing terrorist also tends to be porous. West Africa I will argue is not rife with international fanaticism nor is the region beyond terrorism's grasps. This means several venerable arguments about terrorism in West Africa should to be carefully revisited.

© Copyright by Awareness Times Newspaper in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

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