By Paul Rogers
Rising inequality provides ripe pickings for militant Islamist groups plotting insurgencies – and ensures the ‘war on terror’ is far from over.
My most recent column warned of the escalating threat of worsening conflicts driven by al-Qaida, Isis and their offshoots, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. In the weeks since, a horrific example of this has played out in northern Mozambique, finally attracting global media attention to the long ignored four-year insurgency.
The Isis-affiliated group, Al Shabaab, succeeded in taking over the town of Palma in the country’s Cabo Delgado province in the attack that began on 24 March, causing thousands to flee.
Palma is a spread out town of 75,000 people in the north, 20 kilometres from the border with Tanzania. Despite its large geographical area, it was seized by only 100 insurgents, through a series of brutal attacks. The government in Maputo quickly retook the town and claimed victory, although it looked far more likely that the insurgencies had simply melted away after achieving their aim of demonstrating their burgeoning power.
Their bloody victory belies the claim that the ‘war on terror’ is in the latter stages and, interestingly, has remarkable parallels with events nearly four years ago in the southern Philippines city of Marawi. Then, paramilitaries linked to Isis took over the city for four months, at the same time as the organisation in Iraq and Syria was being crippled by an all-out, US-led air war.
Isis came to prominence in early 2014, emerging from the remains of al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), and immediately demonstrated huge force. By July of that year, it had taken over territory almost as large as the UK, stretching across much of northern Syria and Iraq, and home to around six million people.
Its methods were often violent in the extreme, especially against the Yazidis in northern Iraq, and fearing a threat to Baghdad itself, the US started an intense air war in response. By the end of that year, a substantial air power coalition had formed that also involved France, the UK, Australia, and some regional powers, and there were hundreds of air raids each month involving thousands of missiles and precision-guided bombs.
In the four-year war, the number of Isis fighters killed was massive, exceeding 60,000, but most of the fighting was over by mid-2017. At that time, the extraordinary events around Marawi in the Philippines, close to 8,000 kilometres to the east, were beginning to unfold, belying the claim that Isis was finished.
The Marawi uprising stemmed from an Islamist paramilitary movement demanding autonomy for the island of Mindanao, failing to achieve it and then taking a harder line, partly inspired by the earlier rise of Isis. The government in Manila didn’t take the threat of violence seriously until the militant group, Abu Sayyaf, took control of part of the city in May 2017 in an insurgency that was to last four months.
As my openDemocracy column that September reported, their attack “might have been more of a gesture intended to last just a few weeks. In the event, the paramilitaries found it easier than expected to hold onto much of the city, as the Filipino army – more used to rural counter-insurgency – proved incapable in urban warfare against determined rebels prepared to die for their cause.”
The United States sent in special forces and surveillance planes, but early predictions that liberating the city could be possible proved wrong and the army relied heavily on air attacks and artillery. But the early confidence that the Islamists would soon flee or be killed proved unfounded. As my openDemocracy column reported that September: “Only now, four months after the conflict started, are there signs that those rebels who have not been killed may be leaving Marawi.
“The costs are immense. In a city of 200,000 residents that has been transformed into a moonscape by almost daily bombardments by government forces, scores of civilians have been killed, many more wounded, and 400,000 people displaced.”
The latest attack on Cabo Delgado was smaller in scale and duration than Marawi but has come at a time when Isis’s increasing impact across substantial parts of Sub-Saharan Africa is causing widespread concern, not least in UN circles. Indeed, a UN assessment published in August last year pointed to an ISIS ‘war chest’ of $100m, and there are many indications that the movement, while far weaker in Iraq and Syria, sees the escalation of activity across Africa, from the Sahel and Mozambique to the Democratic Republic of Congo, as a cause for celebration.
Taking an even wider view, Isis and similar extreme Islamist paramilitary movements have clearly not gone away and there is also ample evidence that their ability to recruit is enhanced by the widespread marginalisation of many millions of young people across the Global South whose circumstances leave them ripe pickings for violent, cultish movements.
Cabo Delgado, a neglected and economically marginalised province, is largely Muslim but Islam is a minority religion in the country. The area has become the focus for potential wealth from the new gas reserves and recent findings of some of the world’s richest deposits of rubies, but it is all too easy for Isis propagandists to insist that, with past experience in Mozambique, Nigeria and elsewhere, few of the benefits will ever trickle down to the wider population, and certainly not to the most marginalised.
Cabo Delgado’s gas wealth is a specific example but the overriding issue seen across much of the Global South, is the pernicious global trend of the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating existing socio-economic differences. A year into the pandemic, Forbes has reported a worldwide surge in the number of billionaires, increasing in the last year by 660 to 2,755. Its annual rich list, released this week, shows the top billionaires’ wealth rose from $8trn to $13.1trn in the past year. As Forbes’s chief content officer, Randall Lane, put it, “the very, very rich got very, very richer”.
Over the same period, the number of people in extreme poverty rose by 150 million, the first increase in 20 years. As The Guardian put it: “The ranks of the super-wealthy swelled as the coronavirus threatened the lives of millions across the planet, while stock markets kept hitting new highs.”
This surge in wealth for the wealthiest is excellent news for any self-respecting propagandist supporting a paramilitary insurgency. That may presently apply mainly to Islamist movements – but there is no guarantee that it will be limited to them. The threat remains high of us entering an age of insurgencies rooted in revolts from the margins, and exacerbated by the effects of pandemics.
Paul Rogers is a Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article reflect the author’s opinion and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.