Jihadist intervention in the CAR crisis: Could it happen?
In September 2013, French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, warned that ensuing lawlessness within the Central African Republic (CAR) could see the country become the next Somalia; i.e. a failed state, which could serve as a safe haven for both regional and transnational terrorist groups. Less than two months later, Fabius’ concerns were reiterated by Assistant Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations at the United Nations, Edmund Mulet, who claimed that al-Qaeda-aligned militants were on the verge of exploiting growing instability within the CAR to their advantage. However, in contrast to Fabius, Mulet likened the prevailing situation within the CAR to that of northern Mali, where a power vacuum resulting from a military coup had seen the region fall under the control of Islamist extremists. Initially dismissed as mere rhetoric aimed at generating greater international attention to the CAR crisis, Fabius and Mulet’s claims recently gained credence following a statement released by Nigerian-based Islamist extremist group, Boko Haram. In a video message posted online on 14 February, Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, purportedly threatened to avenge what he coined the massacre of Muslim communities in the CAR by Christian militias collectively known as anti-balaka.
Although somewhat unexpected, Boko Haram’s threat to enter the CAR conflict is not all that surprising. Since Seleka rebels toppled the government of Francois Bozize in March 2013, the CAR has experienced widespread and sustained outbreaks of ethno-religious violence, which has seemingly pitted the country’s Muslim and Christian populace against each other. The CAR’s minority Islamic population has been particularly hard hit by the violence, with human rights advocacy group, Amnesty International, recently asserting that the ethnic cleansing of Muslims were occurring within the country. Conforming to the Salafi jihadism interpretation of Islam, extremist groups such as Boko Haram would likely consider it their religious duty to avenge the persecution of Muslims by members of another religion. Such reasoning was perhaps best exemplified during the Bosnian civil war where hundreds of foreign Muslim jihadists fought alongside their Bosniak counterparts against a predominantly orthodox Christian Serbian army. Within the African context, coordinated jihadist intervention was also recently witnessed in northern Mali where various Islamist militant groups, including Boko Haram, allegedly engaged in joint combat operations against Malian, Chadian and French forces. Although the avenging of Muslim persecution was not central to this co-operation, the Malian conflict nevertheless underlined that regional Islamist extremist groups possessed both the intent and operational capacity to coordinate combat operations on foreign soil.
With both motivations and statements of intent for Islamist extremist involvement within the CAR made explicit, what is the actual threat of such a development occurring? Any such undertaking will be subject to significant logistical challenges. In terms of its geographical location, the CAR is far less accessible to Islamist militants than Mali. In terms of the latter, Islamist militants had near-unrestricted access to the region from their operational strongholds in neighbouring Algeria and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Niger and Mauritania. Moreover, long-established and clandestine smuggling routes located across much of Mali’s desert north also provided militants with a constant supply of arms and other resources. As mentioned, access routes for both supplies and personnel deployment is not as readily available for Islamist extremist groups seeking to infiltrate the CAR. There have been claims that Sudan’s Darfur region, which shares a common border with the CAR’s northern Vakanga province, could be used as a platform for Islamist extremist groups to deploy both personnel and arms into the country. However, such assertions have largely been based on spurious claims of an existing jihadist presence within Darfur, in addition to simplifying the motivations of Sudanese militias involved in the Darfur conflict. Another suggestion is that Nigerian Islamist militants, such as Boko Haram and its alleged offshoot, Ansaru, could infiltrate the CAR from neighbouring Cameroon. Although there is significant evidence to suggest that the aforementioned groups possess an operational presence within Cameroon, their operations to date have been limited to areas along the Nigerian border, specifically within the country’s Far-North province. These areas are located several hundred kilometers away from the Cameroon-CAR border, which itself has been fortified by the Cameroonian military amid an influx of CAR refugee populations.
Apart from logistical problems, jihadist infiltration within the CAR will also likely be subject to several operational challenges. The majority of Islamist militant groups operating within Africa have done so within the semi-arid Sahel and Maghreb regions of the continent. 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, the desert plains of North and West Africa differ considerably to the jungle and savannah 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 accustomed to such environments. Further to this, an Islamist infiltration within the CAR will occur in the absence of any significant on-the-ground support. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, the majority of the CAR’s Muslim population has fled to neighboring Chad and Cameroon. Those left behind have found refuge in ad hoc refugee camps dotted across the country. As such, local intelligence networks, upon which militant groups rely on, would be minimal to non-existent within the CAR. Although the possibility exists that Seleka rebels could assist jihadist fighters in their operations, such co-operation is by no means guaranteed. It is true that Seleka is mainly comprised of Muslim fighters, primarily emanating from Chad and Sudan; however, the group was never motivated or united by religion. Instead, the majority of rebel combatants coalesced under the motley Seleka rebel coalition due to individual motivations, which ranged from grievances against the Bozize regime to the mere economic reward of pillaging civilian populations. With the majority of such motivations already fulfilled, there is little evidence to suggest that Seleka’s assistance to jihadists groups is assured or even likely.
At first glance, the CAR appears to have all the conditions desirable for Islamist infiltration. The collapse of security and governance structures in the vast and sparsely populated country could serve as the ideal environment for Islamist extremists to hide or even establish an operational presence. In addition, jihadist groups would likely consider it their religious duty to avenge the hundreds of CAR Muslims killed by their Christian counterparts. However, on closer inspection, it becomes apparent that sustaining any armed campaign within the CAR will be subject to significant, if not insurmountable, challenges. Nonetheless, threats issued by Islamist groups such as Boko Haram should not be dismissed. Instead, they should serve to exemplify just how far the CAR conflict has spiraled 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 machete-wielding militias, the risk of highly-trained and conflict-hardened terrorist groups gaining a foothold in CAR is one that simply cannot be taken.