Terrorist Safe Haven? Bloodshed Spikes in Central African Republic

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty

Rising violence in the Central African Republic is stoking fears of a return to intense fighting between Christian and Muslim armed groups not seen since the height of violence in 2013 – a conflict that could prove fertile ground for the so-called Islamic State and Boko Haram.

“We’ve heard that ISIS has tried to engage with some of the local militia groups,” said Peter Yeo, President of the Better World Campaign, who recently traveled to CAR. “They are trying to take advantage of the fact that there are local militia groups…to try to move them towards a broader set of actions.”

The conflict is most intense in the central and eastern parts of the country. American special forces and Ugandan troops withdrew from the east after ending a mission to fight the Lord’s Resistance Army, a militant group led by the notorious Joseph Kony. While their mission was not directed at stabilizing the local government, experts tell The Cipher Brief that having them in the region proved to be a calming force – or at least one that gave regional militant groups pause. U.S. moves to boost training of local forces are in the works but may be too little too late to stop the widening conflict.

Violence in CAR has surged, according to Human Rights Watch. Armed groups have killed at least 256 civilians since May, mostly in the south-central and southeastern regions.

Over the weekend, seven people were killed and around 20 others injured in a grenade attack on a peace concert in the Central African Republic capital Bangui. And one month ago, on Oct. 10, at least 20 Muslims were killed by Christian and animist groups aligned with the anti-balaka militias in southern CAR. In the north, fighters from a Seleka militia – a mostly Muslim group – attacked a displacement camp in Batangafo and the surrounding areas, killing at least 15 people in a July 29 assault.

The National Counterterrorism Center and U.S. Africa Command both told The Cipher Brief there are no indications of ISIS presence in CAR at the moment, but the rising violence has U.S. lawmakers and military leaders sounding the alarms about possible ISIS movement into Africa.

“Small numbers of ISIS leaders are attempting to leverage local insurgencies; and so we see in Africa a number of local insurgencies that rebranded themselves and pledging allegiance to ISIS over the last year,” said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford at a news conference in October, on the heels of the ambush in Niger that killed four U.S. service members.

After a classified briefing on the Niger attack, Senate Armed Services Committee members said ISIS is moving into Africa, and the U.S. must be prepared to deal with this.

“The threat is growing,” said the committee’s chairman, Senator John McCain (R-AZ), about ISIS in Africa.

“The flight of ISIS members from Iraq and Syria to the Maghreb could be a springboard through which foreign fighters infiltrate ISWAP [Islamic State’s West Africa Province] territories in West and Central Africa – especially in the Central African Republic, where recurrent hostilities between Christians and Muslims attract extremist radicalisation, recruitment and terrorism,” Nna-Emeka Okereke, a senior research fellow at the National Defence College of Nigeria, told The Cipher Brief.

Boko Haram, with its ties to ISIS, is another group that also poses a threat to the Central African Republic.

“The government has not yet reported the presence of Boko Haram in the Central African Republic,” a CAR diplomat told The Cipher Brief at a meeting at the CAR embassy in Washington. But there is concern about Boko Haram crossing borders in the future, the diplomat said, speaking anonymously as a condition of discussing the sensitive security matter.

The current violence in CAR dates back to 2012, when a predominantly Muslim coalition of rebels called the Seleka launched an offensive against the CAR government and staged a coup in March 2013. Responding to brutality by Seleka forces, coalitions of Christian fighters called the anti-balaka formed and starting fighting back.

“The early warning signs of genocide are there,” said then-UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien after a visit to CAR in July, a reference to the fight between Muslim Seleka forces and the Christian fighters.

The UN Security Council in April 2014 established a peacekeeping force in CAR called MINUSCA to protect civilians. Violence subsided somewhat, and the election of CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra in the spring of 2016 spurred optimism across the country. The optimism, however, was short lived. Since the beginning of this year, the number of internally displaced people has risen to 600,000, and there are more than 500,000 refugees in neighboring countries. Twelve UN peacekeepers have been killed so far this year.

“If the Central African Republic continues to boil, it can have an impact on the stability of the whole region, and that in turn means it can have an impact on the stability of countries that are our partners,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell, who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The proliferation of extremist groups in Africa and the high levels of instability in many African countries, like CAR, means the U.S. and international community need to work to prevent CAR from “being an incubator for terrorism,” said Lt. Gen. John Castellaw, who was also on the CAR trip with Peter Yeo earlier this year.

The UN peacekeeping force – which numbers around 12,000 people and has seen its share of criticism, with multiple allegations of sexual abuse – is the only real form of protection currently in CAR, as the Central African army is ill-trained and ill-equipped. The UN Security Council unanimously approved a resolution on Wednesday that will add 900 troops to the mission to protect civilians in CAR and that will extend the mission until November 2018.

The U.S. contributed nearly $310 million to MINUSCA in fiscal year 2016. The U.S. is also “focusing on bolstering the security forces – both through equipment and training,” said Zack Baddorf, a journalist and filmmaker based in CAR. The U.S. began the delivery of more than a dozen trucks and communications equipment to CAR in April – the first installment of $8 million worth of nonlethal assistance to the national army, the FACA.

But the chaos may be so pervasive that increasing the military presence now may not stem the threat. CAR is one of the poorest countries in the world, with more than 60 percent of the population living below the poverty line in 2008, the latest year that the World Bank published this data.

“Until they get their economy moving again, there’s always a risk of a fallback into more violence,” said Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary Christopher Lamora, who holds the Security Assistance and Central African Affairs portfolios in the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs. “The lack of economic opportunity, especially for youth, but for everyone frankly, makes them more susceptible to groups that want to recruit or radicalize.”

Kaitlin Lavinder is a reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @KaitLavinder.

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