From remote Mauritania, hacker fights for Islam worldwide

(Reuters) – In Nouakchott, a dusty city wedged between the Atlantic ocean and western dunes of the Sahara, a young hip-hop fan coordinates a diverse group of hackers targeting websites worldwide in the name of Islam.

Logging on to his computer, he greets his Facebook followers with a “good morning all” in English before posting links to 746 websites they have hacked in the last 48 hours along with his digital calling card: a half-skull, half-cyborg Guy Fawkes mask.

He calls himself Mauritania Attacker, after the remote Islamic republic in west Africa from which he leads a youthful group scattered across the Maghreb, southeast Asia and the West.

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Nigeria’s war with Boko Haram gets a new ground zero

Monica Mark is the first western newspaper reporter to reach the village of Baga, a smouldering wreck where the deaths of up to 185 civilians threatens to fuel the conflict

A soldier stands on April 30, 2013 besid

A soldier stands beside a house burnt during the clash between Islamist insurgents and soldiers in Baga. Photograph: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images

Monica Mark in Baga
The Guardian, Thursday 9 May 2013

The road to Baga is littered with burned-out cars, winding through terrain that has proved fertile ground for radical ideologies to take root. On the cusp of the Sahara, it traces a route through the former ancient Islamic kingdom of Bornu, a thriving sultanate that grew rich on trans-desert trade. Now known as Borno state, today it is home to some of Africa‘s most impoverished communities.

Boko Haram, Islamist insurgents whose bombs are responsible for the carcasses of cars on the roadside, have thrived by tapping into a yearning for ancient glory amid crippling poverty.

Now the residents of Baga, a remote fishing settlement on the shores of Lake Chad, have a new reason to be angry. Last month the village was the scene of one of Nigeria‘s most deadly incidents since the Islamist insurgency began in 2009, with locals saying 185 of their kin died, most of them civilians and most of them burned to death. That figure has been disputed by the military, who told the Guardian that only 37 people were killed, most of whom were Boko Haram fighters. The Guardian was the first international newspaper to gain access to Baga since the killings.

The afternoon before it happened, Ali, a white-haired village chief, overheard a conversation that turned his stomach. Just outside his mud-walled home, two men in military uniforms were talking heatedly: one wanted to set fire to Ali’s neighbour’s house; the other was trying to stop him. That morning a Nigerian corporal, known as Kia, had been killed after being ambushed by fighters from Boko Haram.

“One of the men said, ‘we must avenge his death, we must set a house on fire’; the other one said no, he wanted no part of this,” Ali said, sitting on an orange raffia straw mat at a meeting convened by village elders.

“After that,” he continued “I don’t know what happened.” Ali looked nervously at the dozens of men in flowing robes packed under the thatched-roof shelter for the meeting, many of them young and unemployed, a key source of support for Boko Haram.

When the morning of 17 April dawned, much of this fishing village was a smouldering wreck. Black carcasses of houses and skeletal trees stood out starkly against the expanse of fine pale sand. The devastation wrought here highlights how Boko Haram is turning to cross-border raids with deadly consequences.

Members of the violent jihadist movement have infiltrated this town along the dozens of sandy footpaths leading to their hideouts across the Sahara desert. Their attack on the Nigerian corporal, using a sophisticated rocket-propelled grenade (RPG), was so violent that Kia’s head had to be sewn back on before his body could be returned to his family for burial, officials said.

After the decapitation, the insurgents fled deep into the desert, another Baga village elder said, leaving the civilian population to face the wrath of the army. The military denies that, saying the militants were hiding in Baga and were extremely well armed.

“There was a firefight, which lasted four hours after reinforcements were brought in. The terrorists used IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and rocket-propelled grenades, which caused the thatch-roof houses to catch fire,” Brigadier General Austin Edokpaye, head of the Joint Task Force stationed in Baga, told a delegation of senators investigating the incident this week.

Tellingly, the mission stationed in Baga includes soldiers from Niger and Chad, as west African forces increasingly share concerns about growing links between jihadist groups.

Outside the bleak Baga military outpost, Edokpaye showed an array of weapons, including sophisticated machine guns and RPGs, which he said had been captured from the fighters. “When you hear the sound of some of these weapons – these were not any weapons from Nigeria,” he said.

Amid the swirling accusations and counter-accusations, the incident has thrown the spotlight on to the Nigerian military’s often brutal tactics in its fight to root out an enemy that easily dissolves into the civilian population, many of whom support Boko Haram out of fear as much as out of hatred of the security forces.

Bolstered by arms from Libya and Mali, Boko Haram appears to be able to penetrate vulnerable outposts along Nigeria’s porous borders before retreating into the vast Sahara. Officials and residents in both Nigeria and Mali said members of the group had trained in Mali after a coup threw the country into disarray last year.

“The last Boko Haram member we captured here was about two weeks ago. He had boarded a bus to [Mali’s capital] Bamako, he was carrying a lot of cash, a lot of weapons,” a Malian security official in the town of Gao said.

With hundreds of unguarded footpaths leading to neighbouring Chad, Niger and Cameroon, parts of Nigeria’s remote Borno and Yobe states have been all but taken over by the shadowy sect. A French family taken hostage in Cameroon were held undetected for two months in a town less than 20 miles from Baga, Cameroonian and Nigerian security officials said.

On Tuesday, Boko Haram members staged an audacious raid in Borno state, mounting a co-ordinated attack against a prison and army barracks in the town of Bama that left 47 dead and freed more than 100 prisoners. “They used lorries mounted with anti-aircraft guns,” a senior security official said. “These are weapons from Libya.” The attack prompted Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, to cut short a trip to Namibia.

Kashim Shettima, governor of Borno state, said poverty was at the root of the problem. “Unless, and until, we address some of these fundamental issues [of poverty], believe me, the future is very bleak for all of us,” he said.

Mohammed, an unemployed youth languishing on his bike, explained the militants’ appeal. “If a man gives me 20,000 naira [£80] today, then I will work with him for life. That is what I hear Boko Haram are doing. What else is there for us to earn money here?”

Beyond the remains of camels half-sunk into the sandy roadside, turbaned men on horses ride past children sitting under neem trees with chalkboards. Almajiri, or Qur’anic schools, flourish here, in stark contrast to weed-covered signposts marking the entrance to abandoned government schools.

In Baga, every government school has been shut since August 2012, when leaflets appeared on school walls threatening to kill anyone attending, residents said.

But in trying to root out Boko Haram, which means “western education is forbidden”, from a population trapped in the middle, the human cost has been unbearably high to many. In Usman’s mud home, jewel-coloured cloths had been bought and mounds of fish smoked to prepare for his daughter’s wedding.

Instead, on the big day, his household was muted with grief as they mourned the loss of 13 family members killed in the town. “I wonder what we have done wrong in Allah’s eyes for this to happen,” the grandfather said, crying softly.

Senator Abdul Ahmed Ningi, speaking during the government delegation’s visit to the town, said: “Not every soldier is an enemy to the people here. That’s exactly why the person responsible [for the Baga killings] must be bought to book. Unless the Nigerian military can start winning hearts and minds, the situation is going to become even worse.”

Civilians caught in the crossfire can only hope for better days. “Imagine it is night, we are inside our homes, then suddenly our homes were on fire,” said one villager in Baga, standing in front of his charred mud home. Looking over to the bright green grasses on the shores of Lake Chad in the distance, he added: “We are simple fishermen here. We just want peace.”

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U.S. troops arrive in Niger to set up drone base

President Obama announced Friday that about 100 U.S. troops have been deployed to the West African country of Niger, where defense officials said they are setting up a drone base to spy on al-Qaeda fighters in the Sahara.

It was the latest step by the Pentagon to increase its intelligence-gathering across Africa in response to what officials see as a rising threat from militant groups.

Drones and spy planes over Africa

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Drones and spy planes over Africa

In a letter to Congress, Obama said about 40 U.S. service members arrived in Niger on Wednesday, bringing the total number of troops based there to “approximately” 100. He said the troops, which are armed for self-protection, would support a French-led military operation in neighboring Mali, where al-Qaeda fighters and other militants have carved out a refuge in a remote territory the size of Texas.

The base in Niger marks the opening ofanother far-flung U.S. military front against al-Qaeda and its affiliates, adding to drone combat missions in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. The CIA is also conducting drone airstrikes against al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan and Yemen.

Senior U.S. officials have said for months that they would not put U.S. military “boots on the ground” in Mali, an impoverished nation that has been mired in chaos since March, when a U.S.-trained Malian army captain took power in a coup. But U.S. troops are becoming increasingly involved in the conflict from the skies and the rear echelons, where they are supporting French and African forces seeking to stabilize the region.

Obama did not explicitly reveal the drone base in his letter to Congress, but he said the U.S. troops in Niger would “provide support for intelligence collection” and share the intelligence with French forces in Mali.

A U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to provide details about military operations, said that the 40 troops who arrived in Niger on Wednesday were almost all Air Force personnel and that their mission was to support drone flights.

The official said drone flights were “imminent” but declined to say whether unarmed, unmanned Predator aircraft had arrived in Niger or how many would be deployed there.

The drones will be based at first in the capital, Niamey. But military officials would like to eventually move them north to the city of Agadez, which is closer to parts of Mali where al-Qaeda cells have taken root.

“That’s a better location for the mission, but it’s not feasible at this point,” the official said, describing Agadez as a frontier city “with logistical challenges.”

The introduction of Predators to Niger fills a gap in U.S. military capabilities over the Sahara, most of which remains beyond the reach of its drone bases in East Africa and southern Europe.

The Pentagon also operates drones from a permanent base in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, and from a civilian airport in Ethi­o­pia.

The U.S. military has been flying small turboprop surveillance planes over northern Mali and West Africa for years, but the PC-12 spy aircraft have limited range and lack the sophisticated sensors that Predators carry.

The shift was prompted by the realization that rebel gains across the north of the country over the past year were posing no major threat to the regime in Damascus, said Saleh al-Hamwi, who coordinates the activities of rebel units in the province of Hama with others around the country. But the province of Daraa controls a major route to the capital and is far closer.

“Daraa and Damascus are the key fronts on the revolution, and Damascus is where it is going to end,” he said.

Such is the secrecy surrounding the effort, however, that even those receiving the weapons can’t say with certainty who is supplying them, he said, though it is widely assumed that they are being provided by Saudi Arabia, with the support of its Arab, U.S. and European allies.

“All we can say for sure is that there are some new weapons coming across the border in the south, they are coming with high secrecy and they’re only going to groups that they want,” he said.

The Jordanian government denied any role. There has, however, been a rise in the smuggling of small arms, mostly automatic rifles, across Jordan’s border with Syria, and “Jordan is actively trying to prevent this rise in smuggling,” government spokesman Samih Maytah said.

The snowball effect

Despite the secrecy however, the influx was publicized this month by Eliot Higgins, a British blogger who uses the name Brown Moses and who tracks rebel activity by watching videos rebel units post on YouTube.

In a series of blogs, he noted the appearance in rebel hands of new weapons that almost certainly could not have been captured from government arsenals. They include M-79 anti-tank weapons and M-60 recoilless rifles dating back to the existence of Yugoslavia in the 1980s that the Syrian government does not possess.

He also noted that most of the recipients of the arms appear to be secular or moderate Islamist units of the Free Syrian Army. In a sign of how organized the effort is, he said,one of the recent videos shows members of the local Fajr al-Islam brigade teaching other rebels how to use some of the new weapons.

The items appear to have already begun influencing the course of the war, he said. They have contributed to a sharp escalation of fighting in the Daraa area this year in which opposition fighters have overrun government bases, including several checkpoints along the Jordanian border, a key but long-neglected front.

That, in turn, has enabled the rebels armed with the new equipment to seize weapons and ammunition from captured government facilities, giving them clout over other small groups, mimicking the pattern observed in northern Syria, where the ascendancy of Islamist extremists has snowballed into soaring influence as their military victories mount.

“It’s like what happened with the jihadi groups in Aleppo when they started capturing all these bases and getting the best gear,” he said. “You could call it the Aleppo-ization of Daraa.”

The M-79 anti-tank weapons in particular appear to be giving the rebels new confidence to attack government positions and armor, said Jeff White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who says he also noted the unexpected appearance of the weapons in rebel videos several weeks ago.

“This isn’t a silver bullet that’s going to dramatically shift the equation, but it’s allowing them to inflict more damage on regime forces, and it’s allowing them to have more successes,” he said. “They’re the right kind of weapons, and they’re what the rebels have been asking for.”

To what effect?

It seems unlikely, however, that the influx will be enough to decisively influence the outcome of a raging battle that continues to embrace a broad spectrum of tactics and weaponry, from suicide bombs to Scud missiles, experts say.

Though there have been scattered sightings of the new weapons in other parts of the country, including Aleppo as well as Idlib and Deir al-Zour, in those provinces the battle is primarily being fueled by the significant quantities of weapons that the rebels are capturing from government forces, said Joseph Holliday of the Institute for the Study of War.

The rebels have also been asking for anti-aircraft missiles to counter the government’s use of airpower against their strongholds. But there has been no indication that they are acquiring those in significant quantities outside the few they have captured from government bases, White said.

Hamwi said he suspects the real aim of the international effort is to provide the rebels with just enough firepower to pressure Assad into accepting a negotiated settlement but not enough to enable them to overthrow him. “The international community is using us to put pressure on Bashar,” he said.

Although plans for an offensive on Damascus are being readied, the rebels still lack sufficient firepower to take on government forces there, said Mokdad of the Free Syrian Army. “Even if we are getting weapons, it is not enough,” he said.

  

Taylor Luck in Amman contributed to this report.

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