Colombia Faces Mixed Futures in Negotiations with FARC and ELN
In 2016, Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) concluded a peace deal that has led to a reduction of violence in the last five years. However, one FARC faction consisting of approximately 2,500 members has not accepted the peace deal. Based in the country’s northern Caribbean region and specifically the Montes de María (Maria’s Mountains), this faction is headed by a militant named Miguel Botache Santillana, known as Gentil Duarte, and was responsible for setting fire to a UN vehicle in October 2020. It further recruits child soldiers and engages in drug trafficking and illicit gold mining (semana.com, March 12).
Colombia is upping the pressure on Duarte’s faction and on March 1, the air force struck his faction’s base in Calamar with a missile (eltiempo.com, March 2). The strike generated some controversy, however, because among the 10 FARC ‘dissidents’ who were killed were several youths. One of those youths was a teenage girl who had gone to the countryside to visit her grandparents, but, according to her parents, was forcibly recruited into Duarte’s organization and then killed in the airstrike. Her parents further stated there was little that could be done to prevent her recruitment because FARC dominates Calamar’s rural areas and, in this case, it appears the girl’s boyfriend was involved with FARC and recruited her into Duarte’s group. Two other FARC teenagers who survived the airstrike with injuries were brought to register with the Unit of Victims (la Unidad de Víctimas) to explain their recruitment and become rehabilitated (eltiempo.com, March 11).
Duarte is joined in opposing peace with the Colombian government by the National Liberation Army (ELN)’s Jesus Santrich, who called upon Duarte and the ELN to join forces in March, despite both of their differences (pulzo.com, March 9). Unlike FARC, which originated as a rural movement, the ELN grew out of Communist university students in urban areas. Thus, although they have similar ideologies, they have historically contested each other, and the ELN avoided peace talks with the Colombian government after 2016. Nevertheless, since 2016, signs of a thaw in the ELN’s relations with the government have emerged, such as when the ELN released Colombian soldiers who it had held as hostages in a humanitarian gesture in 2018 (Bogota Post, September 5). Moreover, in April 2020, the ELN called for a ceasefire as a result of the coronavirus, but canceled it once Colombian military offensives continued against ELN formations (colombiareports.com, April 30, 2020). Despite this, the ELN released a total of eight police officers and civilians it kidnapped again as a goodwill gesture in 2020 (nationalpost.com, June 14, 2020).
The ELN, for its part, is increasing the territory under its control. However, civilians also increasingly view it as a predatory and occupying force, and ELN recruitment has been dwindling (indepaz.org, January 2021). Furthermore, the ELN has experienced internal conflict among its leaders (eltiempo.com, February 7). These may be among the factors driving ELN’s leaders to consider some form of peace talks with the Colombian government even while Santrich urges its fighters to persist in combating the government. Bogota seemingly perceives it can continue to wait until the ELN is further weakened and sow the seeds of its own destruction. At that point, the government can negotiate on more favorable terms some time further down the road. What is also clear is that the FARC and ELN are both factionalizing under pressure from combat and the enticement of peace talks.
Massacres in Mozambique Demonstrate Continuing Resilience of Islamic State in Greater Sahara
On March 15, Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) massacred 58 civilians in a village in Niger near the border with Mali, stole large amounts of grain, and destroyed some vehicles and seized several others (France24, March 16). On the same day, in Mali, ISGS also attacked Malian soldiers and killed 33 of them (lemonde.fr, March 17). Both of these attacks were among the largest respective killings in Niger and Mali this year and point to the continued lethality of ISGS, despite its ongoing clashes with al-Qaeda’s Sahelian affiliate, the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), and pressure from French and national militaries.
ISGS has not claimed the massacre, which distinguishes the group from its Nigerian-based counterpart, Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP). ISWAP, in contrast, has claimed massacres of civilians on grounds that those civilians have supported anti-ISWAP militias (aljazeera.net, June 14, 2020). Although ISGS is considered part of ISWAP in Islamic State (IS)’s organizational structure, the two groups rarely, if ever, communicate or coordinate and the Nigerian-based ISWAP more frequently claims and carries out attacks. In fact, between January 1 and March 17, 2021, ISWAP claimed more attacks than any other IS province, including IS in Syria. Only IS in Iraq has more attack claims (162) than ISWAP in Nigeria (112) (Twitter.com/Mister_Q, March 19). ISGS may not have claimed this massacre in Niger because its communications with IS have been severed or the group’s violence, especially in the massacre in Niger, would be a liability in the terms of the group’s attempts to win local support.
The ISGS massacre non-claim resembles that of Islamic State in Central Province (ISCAP)’s branch in Mozambique, which continues its terrorist campaign and reportedly decapitated civilians in a recent attack (Diário de Notícias, March 17). While ISCAP’s branch in Mozambique remains active, it has not claimed any attacks since October 2020. It is possible that the jihadists in Mozambique are aware of the increasing level of international attention on them and therefore are keeping a lower profile by not releasing any new videos or photosets, unlike in 2020 when it frequently did so. The United States has recently designated the ISCAP leaders in Congo and Mozambique, respectively, Seka Musa Baluku and Abu Yasir Hassan, as terrorists. U.S. special forces Green Berets are reportedly already training local forces in Mozambique to combat ISCAP (state.gov, March 10; Dailymaverick.co.za, March 17).
The United States, for its part, designated ISGS leader Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi as a terrorist in 2018 (rewardsforjustice.org, May 16, 2018). Despite ISGS’ rise to become even more lethal than JNIM by the beginning of 2020, the intensity of French, JNIM, and national armies’ pressure has caused ISGS to be on the decline, especially relative to JNIM by 2021. Had ISGS not publicized its various attacks and massacres throughout 2020, it is possible that France would not have labeled ISGS as the number one security threat in the Sahel in January 2021, which preceded the prioritization of combatting ISGS compared to JNIM and contributed to the IS province’s relative decline (France24, January 15, 2021). It is, therefore, also possible that ISCAP in Mozambique’s silence on attack claims reflects its interest in avoiding the type of fate that ISGS faced in 2020 and that ISGS’s own recent muteness on its massacre reflects its own interest in maintaining a lower, or less brutal, profile. In contrast, with little regional or international support coming to Nigeria’s aid, it is clear ISWAP has few qualms in releasing attack claims, photos, and videos of its ongoing attacks and occasional massacres throughout northeastern Nigeria.