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Jihadist groups in Africa may pose new threat

A Binghamton University scholar recently testified before Congress regarding Muslim extremist groups in northern Africa.

Ricardo René Larémont, a professor of political science and sociology, discussed the potential threat posed by groups called Boko Haram, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Al Shabab.

“What I told the committee is that military options are not necessarily the most important,” Larémont said. “When you look at northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram is trying to grow, you have a society in which about 20-25 percent of the women are educated. You have high levels of fertility among women. And when you combine high fertility with low literacy, you have a recipe for social, economic and political disaster. Also, you do not have a U.S. diplomatic or developmental presence on the ground whatsoever, so you do not have any idea about what is going on.”

When Larémont was invited to testify, he was on his way to a conference in Malta organized by the European Union. He had about a week to prepare his Nov. 30 remarks for the House Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence. The subcommittee works to ascertain present and future trends that may affect the security of the United States.

“Frankly, I was like a child in a candy store,” said Larémont, who had never testified before Congress. “I was simply amazed by the grandeur of the place. … It’s just physically impressive.”

Larémont, a Carnegie Corporation Scholar on Islam who travels the world for his research, said he found the members of the subcommittee quite knowledgeable. “They were prepared,” he said. “The chair of the committee is a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Congressman Patrick Meehan. The ranking Democratic member is Congresswoman Jackie Speier from California. They were both very well informed.”

He was given just five minutes to read his remarks before members of the subcommittee posed questions.

Essentially, he said, the U.S. concern is that Islamist extremists are gathering strength in the Sahel, a region between the Sahara and tropical Africa. The committee wanted to understand the degree to which these groups are “aspirational” vs. “operational” in nature.

Larémont, who has written extensively about Islam, conflict resolution and democratization in Africa, offered a brief history of three jihadist groups and his views on their possible plans in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings. He expects that Boko Haram, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Al Shabab will attempt to expand their operations now that Muammar Qaddafi’s regime no longer exists. Larémont said that even though Qaddafi was unpredictable in many ways, he played an important role in stabilizing the countries of the Sahel. The security vacuum created by Qaddafi’s ouster may offer an opportunity for jihadist groups to work together to destabilize several states in West Africa, Larémont told the subcommittee.

“The U.S. budget is essentially broken, so we obviously have to take care of this home front,” he said afterward. “But even while we focus on this home front, we have to realize that there are things happening overseas that may affect our security. The urgent task is to remain focused on threats developing overseas while at the same time finding a way to jump start this economy. Until that’s done, we won’t get security here or security overseas.”

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