Assessing the jihadist threat in the Central African Republic

In September 2013, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warned that ensuing lawlessness in the Central African Republic (CAR) could see the country become “the next Somalia” − in other words, a failed state and safe haven for regional and transnational armed groups. Less than two months later, Fabius’ concerns were reiterated by Edmund Mulet, Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations at the UN, who said that Islamist militants were already on the verge of gaining a foothold in the country, though in contrast to Fabius likened the situation to northern Mali.

These comments were initially dismissed by many observers as mere rhetoric aimed at generating greater international attention to the CAR crisis. But they may have recently gained some credence following a statement released by Nigerian-based Islamist militants Boko Haram.

In a purported communiqué from Nigerian Islamist militant group Boko Haram posted online on 14 February, the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, threatened to avenge what he called the massacre of Muslim communities by militias collectively known as the anti-balaka.

On the one hand, this threat is perhaps not all that surprising. The fighting that has been taking place in the CAR since March 2013, when the Séléka rebels toppled the government of President Francois Bozizé, has increasingly been coded in religious terms, pitting Christians and Muslims against one other. And especially since Bozizé’s successor, Michel Djotodia, stepped down in January, it is the minority Muslim population that has been heavily victimised. Amnesty International have even asserted that ethnic cleansing of Muslims may be occurring, although others dispute that this threshold has been reached.

Conforming to the Salafi jihadist interpretation of Islam, groups such as Boko Haram likely consider it their religious duty to avenge the persecution of Muslims around the world. Such reasoning was well expressed during the Bosnian civil war when hundreds of foreign Muslims fought alongside their Bosniak counterparts against a predominantly Christian Orthodox Serbian army. Within the African context, such coordination was also recently witnessed in northern Mali where various Islamist militant groups allegedly engaged in joint combat operations against Malian, Chadian and French forces.

Although the avenging of Muslim persecution wasn’t the driving motivation behind this cooperation, the Malian conflict nevertheless underlined that regional Islamist militants possess both the willing and at least some operational capacity to coordinate on foreign soil.

But could this happen in the CAR?

From the Sahel to the Savannah
To begin with, it is worth noting that any such deployment to the CAR would be subject to significant logistical challenges. In terms of its geographical location, the CAR is far less accessible to Islamist militants than northern Mali.

In Mali, Islamist militants had near unrestricted access from their operational strongholds in neighbouring Algeria and, to a lesser extent, Niger and Mauritania. Moreover, long-established and clandestine smuggling routes across much of Mali’s desert north provided militants with a constant supply of arms and other resources.

In the CAR, access routes for both supplies and personnel are not nearly as readily available. There have been some claims that Sudan’s western Darfur region, which shares a border with the CAR’s northern Vakaga province, could be a platform for Islamist groups to access the country. However, such assertions have largely been based on spurious claims of an existing militant Islamist presence in Darfur.

Another suggestion is that Nigerian Islamist militants such as Boko Haram and its alleged offshoot, Ansaru, could infiltrate the CAR from neighbouring Cameroon. But while there is credible evidence to suggest that these groups possess an operational presence in Cameroon, their operations to date have been limited to areas along the Nigerian border, specifically within the country’s Extrême-Nord region. This is several hundred kilometres away from the Central African border which has been also fortified by the Cameroonian military amid an influx of refugees from the CAR.

Aside from logistical problems, militant infiltration into the CAR will also likely be subject to several operational challenges. For one, the majority of Islamist militant groups operating in Africa do so in the semi-arid Sahel and Maghreb regions. Their familiarity with often harsh and inhospitable desert conditions have given them the edge over regional and/or international forces tasked with uprooting them from such areas. However, these desert plains of North and West Africa differ considerably with the jungle and savannah bushes which comprise much of the CAR. Islamist militants’ unfamiliarity with such conditions may not only see them lose an important tactical advantage but could place them firmly on the back foot against local militias which are accustomed to such environs.

Furthermore, an Islamist infiltration in the CAR would likely occur in the absence of significant on-the-ground support. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, the majority of the CAR’s Muslim population has fled to neighbouring Chad and Cameroon. Those left behind have found refuge in ad hoc refugee camps dotted across the country. As such, local intelligence networks, on which militant groups typically rely, would be minimal to non-existent.

There is a possibility that the Séléka could assist Islamist militants in their operations, but such cooperation is by no means guaranteed either. While it is true that the Séléka is mainly comprised of Muslim fighters, some emanating from Chad and Sudan, the group was never motivated or united by religion. Instead, the majority of rebel combatants coalesced in a motley rebel coalition due to individual motivations which ranged from grievances against the Bozizé regime to the mere economic reward of pillaging civilian populations. With many of these motivations already fulfilled, there is little reason to assume Séléka’s assistance to jihadists groups is assured or even likely.

A warning shot

At first glance, the CAR appears to be a fertile ground for Islamist infiltration. The collapse of security and governance structures in the vast and sparsely populated country makes it look like the ideal environment for militants to hide or even establish an operational presence. In addition, Islamist groups would likely consider it their religious duty to avenge the many Muslims killed. However, on closer inspection, it becomes apparent that sustaining any armed campaign within the CAR would be subject to significant, if not insurmountable, challenges.

It is also worth noting that a recent statement from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) blamed the 2,000-strong French force in the country for attacks on Muslims and vowed to punish France. AQIM’s assertion that the French − rather than Central African Christians − should be targeted in reprisal attacks further suggests a low probability of that Islamist militants are looking to switch tack and get involved in the CAR.

The threats issued by Islamist groups such as Boko Haram should not be dismissed. Instead, they serve to exemplify just how far the CAR conflict has spiralled out of control and how urgent the need is to find a lasting solution to the crisis. With international and regional troops already struggling to contain disorganised bands of militias, the risk of highly-trained and conflict-hardened militant groups gaining a foothold in CAR − however low it seems at the moment − is one that cannot be taken too lightly.

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