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U.S. Must Strike Difficult Balance on West Africa’s Terrorist Threat

Monday, June 17, 2013

Since Mali’s current crisis began in 2012, West Africa’s terrorist movements have generated sustained and intense international concern. On June 3, the U.S. State Department’s Rewards for Justice Program announced its “first reward offers for terrorists in West Africa.” Bounties ranged from $3 million to $5 million for commanders in al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), and $7 million for Abubakar Shekau, the formal leader of the Nigerian Muslim sect Boko Haram. Rewards for Justice, its website explains, exists to incentivize the release of information that helps prevent “international terrorist acts” or punish their perpetrators.   

The men named are undoubtedly dangerous—but are they international threats? The State Department has moved cautiously on issues of terrorism in West Africa, for example by designating several individuals in Boko Haram as international terrorists but refraining, for the time being, from so designating the entire movement. Yet from other quarters, there is a danger of unfounded alarmism regarding radicalization in West Africa and the globalization of its violent movements. The media has frequently peddled the image of an “arc of instability” stretching across the Sahel, or even more simplistic images of a Muslim Africa at war with a Christian Africa. In this atmosphere, groups like AQIM, MUJWA and Boko Haram merit serious attention, but real questions remain concerning their capacities, ranges and limitations. ...

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