The killing of three Russian journalists in the Central African Republic at the suspected hands of Arabic-speaking turbaned rebels suggests that the country is at risk of repeating the Malian scenario of 2012 when Islamic terrorists hijacked a local insurgency in their bid to build a proto-Daesh caliphate.
Details are still streaming in about the killing of three Russian journalists in the Central African Republic (CAR) earlier this week but the reputable publicly financed Russian international media outlet TASS quoted a local radio station that claimed that “They were captured by nearly 10 bandits wearing turbans, who spoke only Arabic”. This was interpreted to suggest that members of the majority-Muslim Seleka rebel coalition were responsible for their murder, but the situation might not be as seemingly clear-cut as that because of the many complexities related to the country’s civil war. When comprehensively analyzed, the troubling conclusion that begins to form is that foreign fighters might be active in CAR and trying to repeat the Malian scenario of 2012 when Islamic terrorists hijacked a local insurgency in their bid to build a proto-Daesh caliphate.
The “Mercenary” Magnet
CAR’s civil war hasn’t attracted much international attention and that’s why many observers haven’t yet put the pieces together, but the author has been following events there very closely for over the past 6 months ever since Russia’s low-level and UN-approved intervention there and is very familiar with the conflict’s dynamics. For those who are interested in being brought up to speed on what’s been happening there lately, the author’s following five pieces of work should help them immensely:
15 December, 2017: “Why Does Russia Want To Sell Arms To The Central African Republic?”
18 January, 2018: “Russia Might ‘Pivot To Africa’ With ‘Mercenaries’”
9 June, 2018: “Russia’s Making Some Smart Moves In The Central African Republic”
21 July, 2018: “BRICS Summit: Russia’s Return to Africa”
The analysis will return to Russia’s recent role in the country and its visionary conflict resolution model for Africa that it’s experimenting with there later on, but for now the it’s enough to know that Moscow publicly deployed five military advisors and around 170 “civilian instructors” (officially employed by “private military companies” but colloquially known as “mercenaries”) to CAR as part of its UN-approved operation to restore stability to the war-torn landlocked state. The murdered journalists were apparently investigating the PMC component of this conflict when they were ambushed.
Both Russian “mercenaries” and the investigative journalists alike were drawn to CAR because of its apparently intractable civil war that began in late-2012 after the majority-Muslim Seleka rebel coalition from the mineral-rich eastern part of the country swept across the state and successfully overthrew President François Bozizé in early 2013. Curiously, the US deployed special forces to that part of CAR and neighboring South Sudan in early 2012 as part of the “Kony 2012” psy–op, and speculation abounds whether these units played a role in catalyzing the civil wars that broke out in both countries a year later and ultimately turned them into what the author previously described as Africa’s “Failed State Belt”.
The end result of this regime change was that the local Christian population in the western half of the country formed so-called “anti-Balaka” vigilante mobs in order to, as they claimed, defend themselves from wanton abuses by the Muslim-majority Seleka that invaded their home turf, though clashes between the two parties (each of which only share a religion but are otherwise extremely heterogeneous) quickly escalated to genocidal levels as they started killing their counterparts because of the other’s religion (though importantly not because of anything inherent to their own self-professed faith). The resultant bloodshed disturbingly carried with it shades of a “Clash of Civilizations” that would have made Huntington proud.
The Malian Mirror
After a few years of conflict, some of the Seleka coalition declared the “Republic of Logone” in the northeastern part of CAR that they controlled, arguing that this part of the state needed to be recognized by the national authorities in Bangui as an autonomous republic prior to deciding whether or not it should outright secede from the state. The supposed basis for this political entity was that it would be the only sustainable way to keep the peace in the country and prevent the continuation of Christian-Muslim clashes between Seleka and the anti-Balaka. The Republic of Logone has yet to be recognized by any government but also hasn’t been denounced by the group or its founders, thus remaining an unresolved issue.
For those who are familiar with what happened in the Sahel, then the CAR is somewhat of a mirror of the Malian conflict. To explain, just like the US is suspected by some of indirectly being responsible for the war in the landlocked Central African state, so too is it thought to have played a part in sparking the one in its landlocked West African counterpart almost a year beforehand. The 2011 NATO War on Libya destroyed the Jamahiriya and sent untold numbers of highly trained and heavily armed Tuareg back to Mali where they revived their separatist struggle to carve out the self-proclaimed “State of Azawad” all throughout 2012, which they claimed was the only solution to their country’s long-running identity tensions.
There are still many differences between CAR and Malian conflicts, but the former might frighteningly be at risk of following in the latter’s footsteps when it comes to becoming a battleground for foreign fighters. The Azawad campaign was hijacked by the Al Qaeda-connected Ansar Dine early on and eventually became their vehicle for constructing a proto-Daesh caliphate in the region, a threat that startled the international community so much that France later intervened in early 2013 as part of a military mission that continues to this day. Something very similar might presently be occurring in CAR when one reflects on the crucial detail that was revealed about the journalists’ killing.
Returning to TASS’ report at the beginning of this analysis, the suspected culprits apparently only spoke Arabic, which CAR media suggests was confirmed by the journalists’ local driver who survived the attack. That language isn’t indigenous to the country, and even in the event that some of the northern Muslim population speaks its Chadian variant, the town in which the killing took place is located in the central part of CAR and outside their home territory. There’s always the chance that those militants moved south to participate in operations closer some of the informal lines of control, but the possibility also exists that it was foreign fighters who were responsible.
From The Great Lakes On Up
It wouldn’t be all that surprising if this was the case either, since earlier reports have claimed that some of the Mozambican terrorists responsible for the latest spree of violence in the northern LNG-rich Cabo Delgado Province received their training in the Great Lakes Region of Africa, which only applicably refers to the never-ending low-intensity conflict in the cobalt-rich eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) that’s currently undergoing a renewed round of Hybrid War unrest. Also present there are the Islamist “Allied Democratic Forces” (ADF) who have used the DRC’s territory as a rear base from which to attack their native Uganda.
The author warned in early 2017 in an article about how “Central Africa’s Terrorist Threat Could Spark Another Continental War” that some of these militants – both Islamist and otherwise – might eventually cooperate with one another and/or recruit foreign fighters to their cause, which might be what’s happening in CAR right now if the Arabic-speaking Seleka-linked murderers came from outside the country. After all, if it’s already occurring in the eastern DRC where there’s a comparatively more stable government in place and a greater international media presence, then it shouldn’t be discounted that it could also be occurring in the central and eastern CAR where there’s no governmental authority and zero journalists.
Catalyzing A Regional Collapse
That’s not all that CAR might have in common with Mali either, since the growing internationalism of its conflict might also catalyze a regional collapse in Central Africa just like its counterpart’s threatened to do in West Africa. Mali’s Burkinabe and Nigerien neighbors have been most affected by the terrorist spillover since then, with the latter’s stability also directly influencing Nigeria’s as well. The regional giant and Niger are battling Boko Haram terrorists together with Cameroon and Chad, the second of which is one of the continent’s military “superpowers” that’s part of the French-led G5 Sahel coalition presently fighting in Mali. It also has a history of intervening in CAR, too.
The regional security relevance that a foreign-backed caliphate project in or around northeastern CAR’s Republic of Logone would have is that it might not only spread into the ADF-controlled corners of the Congo where the Mozambican terrorists are presumably training, but could also produce an anti-government militant reaction from Chad’s already restive Christian minority population in the south. The convergence of so many conflicts in the transregional West-Central African space due to Mali and CAR’s destabilizations of their neighbors could generate a continent-wide migrant crisis in the worst-case scenario that swamps Europe with millions of civilizationally dissimilar newcomers and leaves a decades-long legacy of state failure in its wake.
Russia To The Rescue
It’s now time to return to the earlier reference to Russia’s low-level and UN-approved military intervention in CAR, which is designed to be as cost-effective as possible in restoring stability to this troubled state. The conflict resolution model that Russia is experimenting with in this country envisions having PMCs train the national armed forces to use their newly received Russian weaponry to liberate the 80% of the country still under the control of armed groups, after which Moscow could theoretically broker a political solution to the civil war between all parties before receiving preferential mining or other economic contracts in return in order to make it an enduring stakeholder in CAR’s success.
If there’s credible reason to believe that CAR is turning into an international terrorist hotspot like the author argues it might be, then Russia could double down on its PMC-led military intervention there just like France commenced its conventional one in Mali over five years ago, though Moscow and its “mercenaries” would have to be very careful not to fall for the tantalizing trap of “mission creep” like Paris and its partners have. Another option that could be pursued in coordination with this possible course of action or independently thereof is to provide CAR’s Cameroonian, Chadian, Congolese, and South Sudanese neighbors with PMC training and advisory support in order to contain this threat.
The tragic killing of three Russian journalists in CAR brought this largely forgotten “Third World” conflict to the forefront of global attention and raised serious concerns about whether the suspected Arabic-speaking perpetrators are international jihadis who are trying to hijack the country’s Muslim insurgency just like Al Qaeda did with the Tuareg one in Mali back in 2012. Russia’s low-level and UN-approved military intervention there, mostly led as it is by cost-effective but highly trained PMCs, makes Moscow the most important Great Power stakeholder in what happens and opens up the possibility for its increased involvement in the conflict, whether directly or indirectly.
Given the enormity of the threat that could be transpiring if CAR is indeed turning into an international terrorist hotspot, then it might fall on Russia to “Lead From Behind” in dealing with this continental challenge, which might actually end up leading to valuable opportunities for it pertaining to the country’s quiet “Pivot to Africa” and its complementary efforts to become a globally renowned security provider for its partners. If Russia is successful in its mission to bring peace to the CAR just like it’s on the verge of doing in Syria, then it might eventually emerge as the supreme “balancing” force in African affairs just like it’s slated to be for Mideast ones.
DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.