Religion Unplugged

West African Christians Face Islamic Terror as US Weighs Troop Withdrawals

Adjunct Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom
A Malian solider stands with U.S. military personnel.
A Malian solider stands with U.S. military personnel.

Sometimes international news reports bring to mind an apocryphal Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” And yes, we do. In fact, today’s cyber-connected world is faced with more than a few “interesting” conundrums, some of which grow more terrifying and dangerous every day. West Africa is a prime example. West Africans are facing increasingly dire circumstances, many of which comprise issues of life and death.

For those of us who focus on religious freedom, and more specifically, Christian persecution, too much of today’s world seems to be cursed by an evil deluge of anti-Christian abuse, violence and carnage. And as my colleague Nina Shea recently reported, Africa serves as a prime example of “interesting times.”

Thanks to horrifying reports over the holidays and in early 2020, it is all too clear that West Africa’s Christians are suffering extraordinary levels of violence at the hands of radical Islamist killers. In fact, their misery has been going on for years, while their jihadi attackers are nearly unopposed as they sweep through several West African countries. They leave in their wake torched villages, murdered, raped and mutilated victims and bloodstained soil. This is particularly notable in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and—of course—Nigeria.

The increasingly worrisome reason that the African lives are so much at risk is because no one—and not even most notably the U.S. government—seems to have a clear strategy for overcoming recurring Islamist invasions. And to make matters worse, now the American government seems to be making plans to leave the region altogether.

There are many arguments about waning U.S. interest in protecting innocents abroad, or more succinctly, “being the policemen of the world.” But in the face of genocidal activity, who will step in? Who will defend unarmed and defenseless Africans? They are experiencing unspeakable violence.

France seems to be the only other nation demonstrating interest and willingness to defend West Africans. But with local terrorist organizations being embraced by seasoned ISIS and al-Qaeda fighters, what will stem the tide? Will France face this burgeoning challenge without U.S. cooperation?

And if the West defaults, will Russia and China step in?

The stories of anti-Christian abuse in Nigeria have drastically accelerated for well over a decade. And the killers are better equipped and more emboldened than ever. Three prominent radical Islamist groups are primarily responsible for many thousands of deaths, kidnappings and mutilations in West Africa: Boko Haram, Fulani Tribesmen, and ISWAP—Islamic State West Africa Province.

Just a year ago I reported eye-witness testimony from Baroness Cox, a life member of Britain’s House of Lords, upon her return from a horrifying investigative visit to Nigeria. In late November 2018, the Baroness’ organization HART released a report on what she learned during her visit, including recording survivors’ testimonies. A few examples:

“They shot Sarah’s husband and children and so she begged them to kill her too, but they refused, saying that they wanted her to cry and bear the pain.” – Deaconess Susan Essam, Jos.

“My sister was raped and her wrists cut off before she was shot through the heart. They took my brother, his wife and all their six children, tied and slaughtered them like animals.” – Margaret, Ngar village.

“They were hacking and killing people, making sure that those that were shot were finished off… They wore red to conceal blood splashes on their clothes as they butchered their victims.” – Lydia, Ningon village.

Those recollections were based on Fulani attacks in 2018.

More recently, on Christmas Day 2019, 11 Nigerian Christians were beheaded during the recent Christmas holidays. ISIS celebrated this “conquest” by releasing a gruesome video of their deaths.

The next day, a young Catholic bride, Martha Bulus , was also beheaded in the Nigerian state of Borno along with her bridesmaids. This took place just five days before Martha’s wedding.

In early January, Pastor Lawan Andimi , a local leader of the Christian Association of Nigeria, was beheaded by Boko Haram after he refused to deny his faith and instead praised God on a video, which his captors produced to announce his abduction and seek ransom money.

Ropvil Daciya Dalep , a Christian biology student, was also executed by Boko Haram in another horrific video. He was shot in the head and the back by a young child—perhaps 8 or 10 years old some observers estimated—trained to kill by the Islamic extremists who recorded the execution.

Meanwhile, Nigeria isn’t the only killing field.

Just weeks ago, the National Catholic Register reported the death of more than a dozen Christians in a church shooting.” Bishop Justin Kientega told Aid to the Church in Need, after describing the terrible carnage, “Nobody is listening.”

Christians are certainly a primary target for radicals in West Africa, but U.S. military advisors and the local soldiers they train are also at risk. A few stories have been reported, and more than a few are classified, but the following deserve mention.

In October 2017, four U.S. Special Forces operators were killed in Niger , where they were training local fighters. “Green Berets, Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, 29, and Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, 35, and an Army support enabler, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, 39, were killed fighting in one location near the remote village of Tongo Tongo, after they were surrounded while attempting to withdraw from the fight. Sgt. La David Johnson, 25, was killed later at a second location…”

In May 2019, citing local and security sources, it was reported that , “a patrol of 52 Niger soldiers encountered a group of heavily-armed men at Baley Beri, near Tongo Tongo, leading to heavy fighting, which lasted more than two hours. According to the report, [only] 22 soldiers in three vehicles returned to their base at Ouallam, around 85 km south of Tongo Tongo.”

In January 2020 , Al Qaeda’s “Group for Support of Islam and Muslims” (JNIM) in Mali boasted about a string of attacks across the Sahel in recent weeks. In one account, “According to local officials, at least 20 soldiers were killed in that raid, with at least five others wounded. Local residents reported that there were ‘ more than 100 attackers ’ and that the jihadists were able to capture several vehicles and other equipment at the base before withdrawing.”

Against this discouraging backdrop, On Dec. 24, the New York Times published a startling headline and subhead— "Pentagon Eyes Africa Drawdown as First Step in Global Troop Shift : The deliberations stem from a push to reduce missions battling distant terrorist groups, and to instead refocus on confronting so-called Great Powers like Russia and China.”

For reasons that, at least in part, reflect political disapproval of U.S. President Donald Trump and his worldview, the Washington Post , CNN and several other news outlets have responded with displeasure at the likelihood of U.S. military pullouts from Africa. CNN’s headline declared, “A Trump West Africa pullback would give terrorists free rein.”

Those prominent news sources may or may not be particularly concerned about the plight of Christian communities in vulnerable West African locales. However, their political push-back against President Trump’s plans may, by the grace of God, manage to help the Christians’ cause.

Interesting times, indeed.

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