As another terrorist kingpin killed in Africa; Boko Haram leader has a lot to thank the US for

Mixed message from Washington gets in the way of ending extremist’s five year reign of terror

LIBYA’s Ansar al-Sharia jihadist group at the weekend confirmed the death of its leader Mohamed al-Zahawi, who was mortally wounded in fighting in October.

“We mourn the death of the Emir of Ansar al-Sharia Sheikh Mohamed al-Zahawi,” the group said in a statement, but did not give further details about his death.

Zahawi’s fate had been a mystery since the October clashes between pro-government forces and Islamist militias in the eastern city of Benghazi in which dozens died.

Ansar al-Sharia is classified by the United States and the United Nations as a terrorist organisation. Washington believes the group is responsible for the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi that killed the ambassador and three other Americans.

It is conceivable that this direct attack on American interests may have hastened Zahawi’s demise. While the US said it did not support the actions of the most visible Libyan anti-Islamist force led by retired general Khalif Haftar, it has not exactly stood in his way. 

Last week, Reuters reported that the country’s internationally-recognised government had recalled Haftar to army duty, effectively cementing its alliance with him in the struggle against a rival administration that controls the capital Tripoli.

Haftar, who served under Gaddafi but later fell out with him, has said he only wants to rid the country of Islamist groups like Ansar al-Sharia, which he declared war on in May.   

Zahawi’s death follows that of another terrorist kingpin, Ahmed Abdi Godane, who was killed in a US airstrike last September. Godane was the leader of the Al-Shabaab, a previously mainly Somali nationalist terror group that shifted its agenda to one of jihad in East Africa and the Horn.

Listed by the US as one of the world’s top terror fugitives, he took over the leadership of the Shabaab in 2008 after its leader Adan Hashi Ayro was killed by another US missile attack. 

Leadership of terrorist groups is by its nature short-lived, but Nigeria’s Abubakar Shekau, among the more long-lasting African terror leaders, will fancy his chances of outlasting his predecessor, despite American involvement in the hunt for him.

In 2009, Shekau, a theology student, took over leadership of the group more popularly known as Boko Haram (but which would prefer to be identified as Jama’at Ahl us- Sunnah li’d-Da’wah wa’l-Jihad) after the death of Mohammed Yusuf, who founded it in 2002. Like Godane, he has been responsible for widening the aims and methods of operation of what was initially a protest movement. 

On the weekend US secretary of state John Kerry arrived in Nigeria, days after he spoke at length about the threat to the world from Islamist extremist groups, including Boko Haram.

Kerry’s play

While Kerry’s focus is understood to be Nigeria’s upcoming general elections, reports have continued to swirl that he would attempt to paper over frosty relations between the two countries. 

Elections are unlikely to be held in areas in the north-east controlled by Boko Haram, with up to a fifth of the country estimated to be under the group’s influence, even as Washington, looking for continued geo-political advantages, has pressed for a full vote.

Last November Nigeria’s ambassador to Washington accused the US of holding back the delivery of a “killer punch” to Boko Haram. The US last year blocked the sale of American-manufactured attack helicopters to Nigeria from Israel, citing the West African country’s military’s much-criticised human rights record after claims that innocent civilians have been deliberately targeted in the war against Boko Haram.

US domestic laws prevent the country from arming militaries with dubious human rights records. The fallout saw Nigeria cancel an American-supported training programme for its soldiers, but it was only keeping with the unhappy relationship between the two countries. 

The US views Nigeria as lacking commitment and retains concerns that its army is infiltrated by terrorist sympathisers, views Abuja hotly rejects, in addition to playing up its sovereignty.

The spat has made it more difficult to marshall additional international support in the fight against Boko Haram, which is now looking to regionalise its insurgency. 

However, it is the interpretation of the human rights issue by Washington that could continue to guarantee Shekau’s longevity. In 2012 the US released its sub-Saharan African strategy, which backed “transparent institutions that protect universal rights”, referring to its solid support against threats to legitimate governments.

Other state actors, especially in the Great Lakes regions, have in recent years gotten off with a slap on the wrist from a Washington more concerned with their role in protecting American interests than in enforcing its own policy.

The American embassy in Kinshasa issued a largely benign statement after up to 42 protestors were reported killed by security forces in protests against plans for a third term by DR Congo president Joseph Kabila.

The US maintains its biggest military base in Africa in Djibouti, where its president is now in his 15th year as president, having scrapped term limits in 2010. This is despite its own  country reports revealing human rights abuses.

Major US defence allies Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia have also gotten soft treatment, even as rights groups call out transgressions. Saudi Arabia’s right record has come for much scrutiny in the wake of the death of its ruler last week, but high-level American delegations were present in Riyadh to mourn King Abdullah and pay respects to the new leader, with President Barack Obama scheduled to drop in to mourn his passing.

It is not by any means a new trend: former UN secretary general Kofi Annan in his Interventions: A life in war and peace book chronicled that a long time there was deliberate UN Security inaction over gross abuses in Sudan’s Darfur, because the main guarantors of the North-South Sudan peace process, led by the US, felt coming down hard on Sudan president Omar al-Bashir would imperil the process.

But the mixed messages sent out by Washington are only likely to aid Boko Haram sustain its murderous campaign that has seen thousands killed, the frequency of deaths that is now threatening to numb many to the horror of its atrocities. 

For all intents and purposes the group’s leader Shekau might as well have sought audience with Kerry. As it was, the group launched new attacks as the US secretary arrived in Nigeria.

—Additional reporting by Agencies

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