14 March 2016

Liberia: Threat Next Door - As Liberia Consoles I. Coast, Fear Lingers

Monrovia — Expressing deep grief Monday for Sunday's terrorist assault at the Grand Bassam Beach in neighboring Ivory Coast which claimed the lives of 16 people, Liberian president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf stressed that the senseless attack should strengthen the two countries' individual national resolve, sub-regional as well as regional cooperation in combatting forces that threaten the peace and stability of the region.

Sirleaf's shock at Sunday's attack is understandable and clearly illustrate why many fear the rising Al Qaeda presence could trigger a wave of attacks in the sub-region. "This attack has implications for the peace and security of the entire Mano River Basin and generates a sense of foreboding in our sub-region," Sirleaf stated in her message to her Ivorian counterpart, His Excellency Mr. Alansane Ouattara, as she expressed shock that such attack could happen in a neighborly and brotherly country.

Bona fide Al Qaeda Fears

The terrorist organization in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) famous for Osama Bin Laden claimed responsibility for the attack which took place as attackers fired on beach-goers in Grand Bassam, about 40km (25 miles) from the commercial capital Abidjan. The organization published its claim in four languages - a sign that the group was seeking to boost its media profile to match its recently enhanced operational capabilities. According to the BBC, the brief statement in Arabic, English, French and Spanish was published as an image on AQIM's Twitter account and through the messaging app Telegram.

The format resembled the style used by jihadist rivals Islamic State group (IS), indicating that AQIM wants to emulate IS's more advanced media operation. "AQIM has been almost dormant in the past few years. But it stepped up its presence after announcing in December that it had partnered with the more active militant group al-Murabitoun which is known for high-profile hostage taking. This allowed Al-Qaeda to claim credit for al-Murabitoun' s hotel attacks in Mali in November and in Burkina Faso in January," the report noted.

The resort is popular with both locals and foreigners. Four of the dead were Westerners, including a French and a German national, officials say. Both Liberia and Ivory Coast are recovering from civil wars which killed thousands. In Ivory Coast, a civil war broke out in 2002, pitting the mainly Muslim north against the largely Christian south. Since then, peace deals have alternated with renewed violence. In Liberia, an internal conflict in 1989 killed more than 200,000 people and eventually led to the involvement of the Economic Community of West African States and the United Nations.

After Sunday's attack, Sirleaf assured her Ivorian counterpart that during this difficult time of mourning, the Government and people of Liberia stand in solidarity with the Government and people of Côte d'Ivoire. But beyond the diplomatic exchanges, some Liberians are expressing visible fears of a spillover effect from an attack hitting close to home.

Mr. John Stewart, a former Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, posting on his Facebook page Monday said The Bassam Beach resort assault by Al Qaeda should constitute a wake-up call to the Liberian government to pay heed to the cries of the people of Grand Gedeh County who have been complaining incessantly about the presence in their forests, of armed men believed to be Burkinabe nationals.

Says Stewart: "Truth be said, Ivorian President Alassane Outtara has been and is pursuing a dangerous policy trying to create a cordon sanitaire along the Liberian-Ivorian border by stationing troops on Liberian soil in an attempt to ward off what Ivorian officials have persistently dubbed as cross border attacks from armed elements based in Liberia."

Stewart is pointing the blame on the failed policies of national reconciliation pursued by Outarra which has seen many members of deposed President Laurent Gbagbo government including Gbagbo himself facing trial for human rights violations while members of the New Forces who also committed a whole range of atrocities have gone unpunished and with virtually impunity.

"This includes former prime minister and leader of the New Forces (Forces Nouvelles) Soro Guillaume, whose armed group committed a lot of atrocities. During the TRC hearings in River Gee, it was revealed that the same Soro Guillaume was actively involved in the Liberian civil war recruiting men and actively participating in extra judicial killings in River Gee alongside militia forces of former President Charles Taylor."

Porous Liberia-Ivorian Border a Concern

Many see the porosity of the Liberian-Ivorian border as recipe for vulnerability. In February 2014, a gang of men with machetes ambushed two villages in western Ivory Coast. The attack marked the brutal resumption of a campaign of violence blamed on militants crossing from Liberia that has displaced thousands and claimed dozens of lives in the border area.

The London's Daily Mail reported last May that pro -Gbagbo political elites, now mostly in Ghana or elsewhere in west Africa, are funding incursions into western Ivory Coast by Liberian mercenaries and Ivorians recruited in Liberia's refugee camps. The cross-border violence saw a significant spike in 2012 that saw more than 40 people killed. In the worst incident, seven United Nations troops from Niger, 10 civilians and at least one Ivorian soldier were killed while patrolling villages south of the town of Tai.

Thirteen Liberian nationals were jailed for life but critics dismissed the trial as a witch hunt against the Krahn -- the ethnicity of former president Samuel Doe who was assassinated in 1990, sparking 14 years of civil war. For Stewart, President Ouattara's quiet but active armed support to returning Burkinabe migrants to southern Côte d'Ivoire to retake by force properties including farm land as well as oil palm and coconut plantations which they had reportedly owned but whose ownership had been the subject of grievances on the part of local people mainly kwa speaking people, especially Grebos and Krus who are commonly called Krooman in La Côte d'Ivoire.

"When former President Konan Bedie launched his Ivoirite program which targeted mainly ethnic Mossi and Dyula elements from Burkina Faso, many saw it as an attempt by Bedie to deny Alassane Outtara a shot at the presidency on grounds that he hailed from Burkina Faso and held Burkinabe citizenship. Following in his stead was former military leader Guei Robert who ousted Bedie and intensified pursuit of his (Bedie's) Ivorite (Ivorianess) policy.!

The Ivory Coast attack is only the third on West African establishments popular with Westerners since November. In November, the Radisson Blu in Mali's capital Bamako was targeted in an attack which left 20 dead, then in January gunmen entered the Hotel Splendid and nearby Cappuccino Café in Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou, killing 30. The attack mirrors a similar attack by Islamic State in the Levant in June 2015 on the Tunisian beach resort of Sousse, which claimed 38 lives of mainly British tourists.

UNMIL Withdrawal a Concern

In Liberia, a couple of mysterious high-profile deaths is ricocheting fears of uncertainty in the wake of the looming withdrawal of United Nations Mission in Liberia. Last week, a number of political parties under the banner of Joint Action Committee (JAC), made a petition to the Special Representative of the Secretary-General Farid Zarif, appealing to the United Nations to extend the mandate of the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) beyond Liberia's 2017 presidential and legislative elections.

The group cited several reasons why they want the UN to extend UNMIL's mandate in Liberia. "We cannot rely on even the AFL because they are no longer playing that neutrality role they're supposed to play, we all know that the Defense Minister has openly declared his intention for the election of Vice President Joseph Boakai, and we saw him campaigning for the VP in Lofa County," said Mr. Mulbah Morlu, Vice Chairperson for Operations of the Congress for Democratic Change. The UNMIL withdrawal fears was a key reason Ouattara made a pitch in January during a visit by Sirleaf to Abidjan, for the UN to extend its mandate in Liberia beyond 2016. For the foreseeable future, many remain concerned about Liberia's readiness for potential terror assault.

Mr. Stewart points to the recent death of Mr. Harry A. Greaves, former managing director of the Liberia Petroleum Refining Company whose body was found in the God Bless You Community behind the seat of the Liberian presidency, as a failed litmus test for Liberia and West Africa, he describes as strategic interest to the U.S. "It will not be surprising for the Al Qaeda on the Islamic Mahgreb to turn their attention to Liberia. The RLJ Hotel should take particular note since according to management, their surveillance cameras had been damaged long before Harry Greaves disappeared from the grounds of the hotel and was subsequently found dead on the beach near the offices of President Sirleaf."

Without a Trace: Norwegian Slipped Through Cracks

Liberia's vulnerabilities were further exposed in 2012 when Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist who killed 77 Norwegians at a summer-camp in 2011 disclosed during his trial that he spent some time in Monrovia in 2002."I had the privilege of meeting one of the greatest living war heroes of Europe at the time, a Serbian crusader and war hero who had killed many Muslims in battle. Due to EU persecution for alleged crimes against Muslims he was living at one point in Liberia. I visited him in Monrovia once, just before the founding session in London, 2002."

FrontPageAfrica was contacted by Norwegian television to partner in an investigative report to verify Breivik's claims but was unable to get immigration official's cooperation or trace Breivik's claims.

Perplexed by a wave of terror assaults, regional observers agree that the West African sub-region remains a vulnerable haven for the likes of Al Qaeda. In Liberia, a complicate battle over a proposal to amend the constitution in order to reinstate Christianity as the state religion has spurred divisions with Muslims recently protesting the move as an unfair marginalization of minority religious groups. C. Patrick Burrowes, Ph. D., author of yet-to-be published, "Between the Kola Forest and the Salty Sea: A History of the Liberian People Before 1800"; in a recent Op-Ed offered some food for thought about the dangers of a looming Christian v. Muslim debate and the potential for conflict.

'Playing With Fire'

According to Burrowes, the country's first President Joseph Jenkins Roberts and his cohorts were wiser yet more humble and wrote a Constitution that lasted for over a hundred years. "I have no hesitation in adding my voice in opposition to the proposition that Liberia be named a Christian state.

Burrowes says three hundred years of senseless fighting led to two conclusions: First, peace is maintained by having a constitution to guide major decision-making and to curb the powers of rulers. Second, states must have a non-religious character. "Liberia's founders understood those lessons from world history. In addition, their own short experience with self-government in Liberia had led them to the same conclusions. Especially instructive was a confrontation between the powerful Methodist Church and the weak and underfunded colonial government."

The crisis, according to Burrowes, began in January 1840 when the legislature passed a law requiring the American Colonization Society and churches to start paying duty on imported goods, if those items were used in trading. "The head of the Methodist Church, John Seys, refused to pay. A white West Indian from a slaveholding family, Seys immediately sued the government. Then he went on to organize the first political party in Liberia in order to elect Methodist loyalists to the legislature. Tensions only subsided one year later, when Seys was recalled to the United States in "the interest of peace." But the confrontation left many leaders of the Liberian colony saying, "never again." Infusing religion in politics, they decided, was playing with fire. That lesson was fresh on their minds when they declared Liberia independent in 1847."

Amid a wave of recent attacks, the West African sub-region finds itself in a rather complicated predicament that threatens an already fragile environment. Some of those fears appear to be bordering political tensions marred by simmering and lingering dissatisfaction over implementation of reconciliation commission's recommendations. But religious fanatics like Al Qaeda and other terror groups' claiming responsibility for killing innocent bystanders and carefully-timed targets is making it more and more likely that it is only a matter of time before the threat next door comes knocking on another vulnerable and porous shore.

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