The AU needs to counter the al-Mourabitoun movement, believed to be behind the Ouagadougou attacks, at its source, writes Peter Fabricius.
The jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar and his al-Mourabitoun movement are a growing menace. It is they who are believed to be the perpetrators of the Friday night attack on two hotels and a café in Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, in which they killed 26 people.
The same outfit, which seems to have some sort of link with the older al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), very likely conducted the similar attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali, last November, also targeting Westerners, where they killed about 20 people.
David Zounmenou, of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), says Belmokhtar, who broke away from AQIM a few years ago to form al-Mourabitoun, is growing in stature and confidence by the day, and seems to have the ability to conduct attacks all round the Sahel at will. He believes another is inevitable.
What’s to be done about Belmokhtar? Though the Sahel countries have been trying to co-ordinate their counter-terror operations, Zounmenou believes the only way to counter al-Mourabitoun is “at source”. And that source is in the southern Libyan desert, where it is based. “Everyone knows where it is,” he says.
Theoretically, the AU is showing an appetite for a co-ordinated military response. In her statement on the Burkina Faso attack, AU Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma reaffirmed the “vital importance of establishing, quickly, an Intervention Force to be deployed in northern Mali, to fight against the criminal and terrorist groups operating from that region towards other countries of the Sahel”.
Maybe the target should be southern Libya and not northern Mali, as Zounmenou suggests. But, in any case, will this African and international intervention force ever come into being?
There are other signs that the AU is growing increasingly belligerent – on paper. Last December, its Peace and Security Council approved the establishment of a military force to intervene in Burundi. Its aim would be to check the violence and bloodshed provoked by President Pierre Nkurunzizas’s decision to cling to power, in defiance of the constitution.
The council’s decision was historic, the first time the AU had resolved to send a military force into a member country against the will of that country’s government. The AU’s leaders are to discuss whether to go ahead with this force anyway, at their summit in Addis Ababa at the end of this month. The AU has been widely praised for its bold decision. But such boldness will be hollow if there is no delivery. Worse, it would undercut the organisation’s credibility.
Both of these decisions to deploy force come at a time when the AU’s ability and will to actually deploy force is rather uncertain. In 2013, it created the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (Acirc) to intervene in crises like the jihadist proliferation in the Sahel and the rapidly deteriorating Burundi stand-off.
It was intended as a stopgap measure because the AU was taking so long to establish the more formal and structured African Standby Force (ASF). Several candidate crises – like the Boko Haram insurgency and the South Sudan civil war – have come and gone since Acirc was established, but it was never deployed.
And then last week, AU defence ministers reportedly decided to dissolve Acirc as they said the ASF’s response capability was now in place.
Yet, it seems the East African battalion of the ASF – the logical one to intervene in Burundi – is either unwilling or unable to do the job. Whether anyone would be willing to go into northern Mali/Libya is also doubtful.
The AU seems to have got the wrong end of the old adage; it is talking loudly and carrying a small stick.