Senegal: banning the burqa and its influence over possible terror attacks

Senegal: banning the burqa and its influence over possible terror attacks

Though Senegal has an intelligence sharing agreement with the US signed last winter, in October this year, the United States notified the Senegalese government that the port of Dakar no longer met U.S. Coast Guard security standards.

This coupled with regional incidents across it borders such as the rise of Boko Haram and volatility in Mali, where Senegal is a key force in the UN MINUSMA mission, and working with U.S. authorities to strengthen its counterterrorism and intelligence capabilities, has exposed Senegal to the risk of violent extremism and terrorist activity.

Terrorists were crossing its porous borders to escape fighting in neighboring countries. Senegal even has a special department at its intelligence agency dedicated to counterterror.

In fact, this made Senegal so concerned about cross border or transnational terrorism it sent a delegation to United States to learn best border security practices recommended by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Before the arrest of at least 7 people on terrorist related and terror financing charges last month, last year, the West African nation’s authorities took major security action against terrorists and terror groups.

With the help of US intelligence, El Hadji Malick Mbengue was arrested in Dakar by security forces for alleged links to terrorists in Algeria who were planning to carry out attacks on American and French interests in Senegal, according to the US State Department.

Most African nations faced with terrorism such as Chad have banned the burqa. The burqa is a garment worn by Muslim females, which covers the entire face, therefore making identification problematic. This measure was introduced to prevent and curb suicide bombings, but it has not stopped the increase in suicide missions carried out by female bombers in the Lake Chad region or Nigeria’s northeast.

Counterterrorism and preventing attacks rely not necessarily on identifying an individual but rather on the gathering of intelligence and identifying targets by knowing the characteristics of terrorist groups or potential attackers. Attacks carried out by ISIS are very different in characteristics with attacks carried out by Al-Qaeda.

While ISIS, such as its Nigerian affiliate Boko Haram targets markets and social gatherings, Al-Qaeda looks to attack significant national structures such as embassies, monuments, airports and landmarks with deep Western democratic values.

Whilst it is easy to identify leaders of terrorist groups, anyone who has never appeared on an intelligence report can carry out a suicide mission as seen in Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon even after banning the Burqa.

Attackers, especially suicide bombers, male or female do not necessarily have to have their face covered. The mere use of a bombing vest is sufficient to carry out such acts.  Contrarily to what many believe, the majority of terrorists and suicide bombers dress like any one of us, and blend with the rest of society in order to have a greater impact when carrying out such missions.

The mere assumption that terrorists are required to wear specific clothing can be said to be a strategic advantage to such groups.  This can be justified by the fact that more focus is placed on identification by security forces rather than behavioral characteristics. For example security forces are likely to be more skeptical of a person wearing the burqa rather than identifying a person by their body language.

It is important to note that group members such as ISIS and Al Qaeda are dispersed throughout the world therefore a uniform per se would go against their aim of being unidentifiable.

It is evident that such assumptions  do not only result to  stigma being attached to Muslims, particularly the minority of  women of whom wear such garments but also results  to the violation of the right to religious freedom, the right to equality and non-discrimination.

In 2010, France successfully banned the burqa with the permission of the European Court of Human Rights. A case was brought before the court by a young woman who stated that the ban infringed many of her rights granted by the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights. The court upheld its decision in favor of France stating that the ban does not in fact violate ones right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion nor does it violate the prohibition of discrimination.

According to the court, the ban of the burqa is justified in the interest of social cohesion. Whilst the right to manifest ones religion is enshrined in the European Convention, it is important to note that such rights are subject to limitations in order to reconcile the interests of the various groups.

Unlike the African Charter on Human Rights, the European Convention grants member states a wide margin of appreciation, which allows individual states to make decisions best suited to their society. The court identified the fact that the question of whether the wearing of the burqa in public places should be permitted constitutes a ‘social decision.’

The fact that France is a secular state can be said to be one of the reasons the ban was accessible. The wearing of all religious symbols is prohibited, not just the burqa. It is evident that France set precedence as Belgium followed suit not soon after.

Whilst the Court sided in favor of France, it is important to note that it dismissed its public safety argument, stating that banning the burqa would not be required to achieve that aim.

Even though the United States continues to provide capacity building and training to Senegalese personnel and that it took part in the France Action Plan Against Terrorism, Senegal’s gendarmerie, national police, and judicial police have insufficient capacity and resources to detect, deter, and prevent acts of terrorism with or without the Burqa being banned.

With so much poverty in Senegal, especially in its southern region of Cassamance, where separatist rebels were found using Iranian weapons, terrorist groups have an edge to lure unemployed youths to fuel domestic terrorism and counter intelligence efforts because of corruption and lack of infrastructure. These remain obstacles to having a more effective law enforcement and border security in Senegal.

The National Counter Terrorism Center identified the chronic lack of equipment, insufficient training, the inability of authorities to maintain their current stock, and the lack of interagency cooperation and coordination across several of the government’s entities that deal with terrorism.

Programs such as the US Department of State’s Antiterrorism Assistance program, which focused on strengthening regional border security and enhancing counterterrorism investigative capacity must be remodeled in its scope to help nations like Senegal, Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Mali face the emerging challenges of terrorism within the context of its geography and cultural mindsets.

Strong cultural and religious traditions make Senegalese society resistant to extremist ideologies. Islam in Senegal is organized around several influential brotherhoods such as the Tijaniyaa, Qadirriya, Ahmadiya and Mbaye Fall, which are generally tolerant and do not preach violent extremist ideology.

These sects are also fairly resistant to external influences.

Senegalese authorities should reach out to the brotherhoods to build partnerships and offer support in resisting violent extremist messaging and recruitment, but banning the Burqa has seemed to partly jeopardize that effort as religious leaders, mostly from the brotherhood decried it.

Through multilateral efforts like the international interdiction training in McAllen, Texas led by the US Department of Homeland Security, Senegal has worked to improve its law enforcement capacity and identified a lack of border resources and regional cooperation as a major security and counterterrorism challenge.

However, since 2007, Senegal’s criminal code has included criminal offenses for terrorist acts allowing the state to prosecute an individual or group that “intentionally undertakes an act to disturb public order, or the normal functioning of national and international institutions, through intimidation or terror” with a maximum penalty being life in prison.

Sam Phatey is an intelligence and conflict analyst who studied at the American Military University and the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, DC and currently doing a graduate certificate in Counter Terrorism and Homeland Security at AMU; Saffie Touray is a law and international relations graduate from the University of Portsmouth currently doing an LLM in Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at the University of Essex

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