Within the previous weeks, the Senegalese government announced that it has arrested several people with links to Boko Haram, including the wife of a Boko Haram fighter, and several imams suspected of being propagators on behalf of the Boko Haram. In one of the arrests, over 500million CFA Francs (over N200million or close to $1million) was supposedly recovered from the home of the suspect. Another noteworthy fact is that a young man was arrested in Dakar whose brother died fighting in the Lake Chad insurgency over 1,000 miles away from Senegal.
The aftermath of these arrests has been a heightening of Senegal’s security alertness, and the panic-triggered suggestion that the niqab be banned. What neither the Senegalese, their French overlords nor their American partners have considered so far is the effect a crackdown on supposed Boko Haram may end up having on their country.
The most likely faction to which the Senegalese suspects belong is the faction run by Khalid Al-Barnawi, rather than the faction run by Abubakar Shekau which has metamorphosed into the current Islamic State West African Province. The most clear indicator lies in the murky past of Khalid Al-Barnawi, who operated for years in the Mali-Senegal-Gambia-Mauritania axis. He is said to own extensive commercial interests in the area, in addition to have on several occasions married local women. On his return from the Sudan in the late 90’s he ran carjacking, smuggling, drug running, arms and people trafficking, hotel and transportation operations in the region. He worked closely with GSPC remnants as they fled southwards to the Sahelian states, and organized kidnapping for ransom operations alongside both Abdul-Malik Drukdel and Mukhtar Bel Mukhtar which raked in millions of dollars for what later became Al-Qaeda In The Islamic West (AQIM). His share of the proceeds from these kidnappings were said to have been invested into expanding his commercial holdings across the region.
Following his return to Nigeria to establish an Al-Qaeda branch here, a project which ultimately merged with Abu Usamah Al-Ansari’s own project to become Ansarul-Muslimiin, he definitely maintained his networks in the Senegal-Gambia-Mali-Mauritania axis, most likely relying on them to aid his operations down here in the Lake Chad region. Definitely also, Khalid Al-Barnawi maintained relations with Mukhtar Bel Mukhtar and his factions considering what has been described as a close friendship and ideological affinity between them, and on several occasion training was passed from Bel Mukhtar’s Al-Murabituun to Khalid’s group which used the name Harakatul-Muhajiriina wal-Mujahidiin to differentiate itself from the rest of what was then known as Ansarul-Muslimiin.
Ansarul-Muslimiin especially the special group at that time led by Khalid Al-Barnawi known as Harakatul-Muhajiriin, maintained strong links with the various factions that ruled over Northern Mali during 2012, with many of Ansarul-Muslimiin’s fighters sent to receive training from their more experienced colleagues in Mali.
However, not only fighters linked to Khalid Al-Barnawi ended up in Mali , fighters from the group led by Abubakar Shekau also made their way at the same time to Northern Mali to be trained, as part of efforts by Al-Qaeda’s local branch to woo Abubakar Shekau and his fighters into the Al-Qaeda family, efforts which ended when Shekau and his group gave the ba’yah to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and Islamic State. Apart from minor links like this, Shekau and his forces have no deep ties to the Sahel region, and even thinner ties to Senegal, as their priority was never on expanding their jihad to such far off areas. Rather their focus has been on their immediate areas, notably Northeast Nigeria and close by areas around the Lake Chad region.
Khalid Al-Barnawi and his network on the other hand has maintained extensive links and ties wth various Al-Qaeda factions operating in the Sahel/Maghrib region, especially the trio of Al-Murabituun, AQIM and Ansarud-Deen. In addition to the extensive commercial interests of the network in Senegal and the Gambia, several Senegalese, Mauritanians and Gambians have fought in its ranks, albeit in negligible numbers. Profits from investments in that Senegal-Gambia area have played a major role in financing the establishment of Khalid’s network in Nigeria, its survival after several cells were wiped out in Zaria and Sokoto, its operations e.g SARS jail break in Abuja, Jos Bombings, UN Hqtrs Bombing in Abuja, its silent expansion into Northern Cameroon, its resurgence after the Multinational Offensive against Boko Haram starting last year, and the formation of its silent economic empire that now spans across Nigeria and Northern Cameroon.
While Senegal is of little strategic importance to ISWAP’s main headquarters under Shekau, and of minor importance to the field units operating in Mali i.e former MUJAO, it is of major strategic importance to the Khalid Al-Barnawi network, as a source for income which plays a critical role in the continued survival of the network. For example, the 2011 UN Headquarters bombing in Abuja was said to have been bankrolled entirely by Khalid Al-Barnawi, while Mamman Nur and Khalid Al-Barnawi provided the technical expertise needed, with the Shekau faction providing logistical support in return for thousands of dollars in fees charged. At this time, Khalid Al-Barnawi and his network had not yet established income generating activities in Nigeria that could have provided them with funds, yet they were clearly viewed as the richest of the various factions, with self funding. These funds were profits from their licit and illicit activities across the Sahel and the Senegambia area, with Dakar most likely the financial hub of their revenue generation empire. During this same period, Shekau was dependent on foreign funding with Al-Qaeda International said to have provided $250,000 (at that time roughly N40million) to him via Yunus Al-Mauritani to help him fund operations to kidnap foreigners and attack American targets. This Al-Qaeda largesse caused tensions within the group to boil over, and was the major factor in the decision by Kabiru Sokoto to leave the group in disaffection shortly before he was first arrested by CP Zakari Biu (this was according to Kabiru Sokot himself in his interrogation statements). Yet Khalid Al-Barnawi was said to have paid Shekau about $100,000 for his resources in Abuja to be made available to support the 2011 UN Hqtrs bombing.
Cutting off Khalid Al-Barnawi’s commercial ecosystem in Senegal and dismantling his network in that country, would deal a great blow to his operations, although he would be able to survive currently without the income from Senegal. But this risk igniting a blaze that Senegal may ultimately be incapable of containing. While neither Khalid’s network nor Shekau’s ISWAP has the capability to mount conventional or even sustained guerrilla operations in Senegal, both Khalid Al-Barnawi and the various Al-Qaeda factions in Mali with whom he has a close relationship, have the ability to strike at Senegal’s soft targets. I believe that as in Northern Cameroon and parts of Northeast Nigeria, in addition to the main financial network/pipeline that raises money through various activities and transports that money down to support the jihad he is waging over here, Khalid Al-Barnawi most likely maintains a secondary intelligence network, existing strictly to gather information, a recruitment/da’wah network that has recruited fighters from Senegal to take part in the fighting here, and maybe establishing local cells for future use in either neighbouring Mali or at home in Senegal(the suspected imams are probably a part of this network), and a clandestine network of special operations cells probably made up of locals who have fought over here or in Mali, mixed with other nationals dispatched from over here i.e the Lake Chad region to be activated as an insurance/deterrent policy if needed. This exact same architecture was templated and deployed in Northern Cameroon, and was activated after the Cameroonian government initiated a crackdown on insurgent factions at the behest of Paris, a situation that ultimate degenerated into the ongoing brutal war in Cameroon’s northern provinces.
Should the recent arrests in Senegal be expanded into a crackdown on his personal and his network’s commercial interests in that country, I expect Khalid Al-Barnawi to either leverage on his assets or contract Al-Qaeda’s factions in neighbouring Mali to carry out a string of minimized mass casualty bomb attacks on Senegal’s soft targets, as a warning shot to the Senegalese to desist from their crackdown or invite destabilization. Should the point that he has the ability to make Senegal bleed not get across, I believe he would not hesitate to let loose suicide and non-suicide bomb attacks on Senegal, in a campaign of sheer terror, the likes of what is currently afflicting Northern Cameroon and Southwest Chad. As the cost of burning down Senegal is less than the cost of allowing his financial networks to be shut down in that country, seeing as destabilization and conflict will aid the illicit arms of his networks there grow faster, I believe the man known as Khalid Al-Barnawi will choose that option if he feels he absolutely has to, not because Senegal is his enemy, but because he feels Senegal is a threat to him and his operations.
With recurrent multiple bomb and suicide attacks an already fragile Senegalese economy may just end up collapsing in on itself, which would make it easier for another template developed and already tried out in Northeast Nigeria to be deployed in Senegal, i.e the looting, kidnap and trafficking in females etc. Senegal’s economy is not resilient enough to absorb the effects of a sustained terror campaign in its cities, and worse is that its critical tourism industry and that of its tiny neighbour, the Gambia, will literarilly disappear the moment such a terror campaign begins. While Senegal will be dealing with a collapsed economy and a very unstable political outlook, the Gambia in such a scenario would probably be seeing the end of the Jammeh regime, and a plunge into anarchy and becoming a failed state.
Ultimately, the Senegalese government would do well to not allow external pressure to push it into starting a war, that would cost it more than it can afford, unless it has concrete guarantees that no matter the damage done to its economy and society, it will receive funds to bolster its economic and political positions in an intensive programme to mitigate the effects such a war on Boko Haram would unleash on its society.