Africa & Beyond

Revisiting the Ahmad Al-Assir Saga

Today’s piece re-examines the wider security implications of the arrest of radical Muslim Cleric, Ahmad al-Assir, by Lebanese authorities at the Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport, Lebanon as he attempted to board a plane from Lebanon to Nigeria, via Cairo with a fake Palestinian passport and a valid Nigerian Visa in the early hours of August 15, 2015. This incident, which was widely covered by both local and international media, exposed the       weak and porous underbelly of Nigeria’s much vilified national security apparatus; a dangerous anomaly the country’s security establishment has consistently refused to accept and address.

Image: bykst via Pixabay.com
Image: bykst via Pixabay.com

Nigeria’s security arrowheads must satisfactorily convince Nigerians and the rest of the watching world of how it was possible that such a very dangerous man known for his bloody antecedents was able to beat all existing protocols at the country’s embassy in Lebanon and obtain a valid entry Visa to Nigeria, a country currently battling an extremist insurgent group with known links to affiliate groups that this same man is said to have sympathies for. If Nigeria must be taken as a serious country by the international community, especially its allies in the ongoing war on terror, the multiple loopholes exposed by this saga must be comprehensively plugged.

According to the brief profile of the dramatis personae on BBC Online (August 15, 2015), prior to his arrest at Beirut Airport, Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir had been on the run since clashes with the Lebanese army in 2013, which left at least 17 soldiers dead. The cleric organized followers to fight alongside rebels in Syria in response to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia group which backs President Bashar al-Assad. Sheikh Assir is wanted over an incident in June 2013 in which one of his men was caught with unauthorized weapons in his car at a military checkpoint in Sidon, 40km (28 miles) south of the capital, Beirut. Sheikh Assir’s supporters blocked a road in Sidon to protest at his arrest. Witnesses at the time said machine guns and rockets were used – and when the army went to Mr Assir’s compound, it found heavy weapons and military-style uniforms. Lebanese officials said he was arrested trying to fly to Egypt using a false passport, having “changed his appearance”. Unconfirmed reports said he had shaved off his beard and undergone facial surgery. The media-savvy sheikh has been one of the fieriest voices in Lebanon, stoking up sectarian tensions as the Syrian war has raged next door. Sheikh Assir built his reputation on television talk-shows as a self-proclaimed defender of Sunni rights against the Shia movement, Hezbollah, and its backing of Syria’s President Assad, our analyst says. Despite being on the run for two years, he had continued to issue video and audio messages.

From all indications, the embarrassing incident of August 15th had all the trappings of a grand conspiracy by mischievous fifth columnists – the conflict instigators & entrepreneurs – responsible for the bloody specter of violence in Nigeria’s North-East, and their external collaborators to further the state of insecurity in that part of the country. This appears to be the most logical binoculars through which this embarrassing security breach should be perused. It could be conjectured that the radical cleric, known for his belief in violent Jihad as the best form of agitation was travelling to Nigeria to aid the cause of the BH insurgents, his allies in the supposed Jihad against Western civilization.

For Nigeria’s establishment, this should be a red flag indicating the extent the country’s security system has been penetrated and compromised by external actors who have helped fuel the state of insecurity in the country. BH is said to have links with Al-Qaeda, ISIS and other extremist groups operating in some of the world’s conflict theatres. In fact, the group publicly declared its alliance to the ISIS in the early days of it sweeping victories over Nigeria’s security forces. One can only conjecture on the number of terrorists and rogue elements that have sneaked in and out of Nigeria unnoticed over the years under the nose of the security services. This could explain the upward spiral in the country’s war on terror, despite all the efforts, time and resources that have been expended towards defeating this scourge.

Shockingly, despite the hullabaloo this saga has elicited across the globe, coupled with its undeniable security implications, the country’s security establishment has done nothing concrete to plaster the porosities in its security system as embarrassingly exposed by the incident of August 15, 2015. Even the Nigerian government, despite setting up a Commission of Enquiry to look into the issue, has, failed to come up with cogent explanations of its own. As has become the norm in these parts, the matter seems to have been swept under the carpet – consigned to the trashcans of history: a re-occurring practice that poses, perhaps, the greatest threat to the collective security of Nigerians.

The excuse by the Permanent secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bulus Lolo that the terrorist might have operated under a pseudo name is unacceptable, though he promised to personally launch an investigation into the matter. Again, the theory that the man had undergone plastic surgery before applying for a visa, hence his ability to go through the visa screening process undetected does not hold water at all. If that was the case, what about the fake Lebanese passport on which the visa was issued? What it means is that the Nigerian Embassy lacks the capacity to fully authenticate the genuineness of visa applications it receives from prospective travelers to Nigeria. The incident simply smacks of a well orchestrated design by some mischief-makers to undermine the country’s security and gross dereliction of duty by the country’s embassy staff under whose watch this ugly incident reared its head. Pure and simple!

This column is demanding for an immediate and comprehensive reexamination of the remote and immediate causes of this security breach. The entire workforce of Nigeria’s embassy in Lebanon – from the Ambassador to the lowest cadre – should be subjected to polygraph tests, prosecution in courts of competent jurisdiction and those found guilty relieved of their duties as most of them might have been compromised in their loyalties to the Nigerian State consequent to this saga. There should be no exceptions this time as this is the only way of restoring public (both local and global) confidence in Nigeria’s security system.

Henceforth, Nigerian consular officers must embark on adequate background checks on all visa requests. Applicant must appear for oral interviews and visa should no longer be issued in absentia. The practice of applying for visas through third parties must also stop as it makes it impossible for Nigerian embassies to verify the addresses and telephone numbers of persons applying for visas. Again, the federal government should take steps to abolish the policy of the issuance of visa within 48 hours and give room for efficiency through technology. To this end, Nigeria should immediately adopt the biometrics system of capturing the data of visa applicants. Biometrics cover a variety of unique identifiable attributes of people including fingerprint, iris print, hand, face, voice, gait or signatures, and are used for identification and authentication. With the surge of security breaches and religious fundamentalism, biometric capturing has become a norm yet, Nigeria, currently battling Boko Haram insurgency, has failed to utilize the technology. The time has come for Nigeria to join the league of countries adopting this technology

Again, a comprehensive Terror Watch List should be immediately drawn up to aid the Nigeria’s war on terror. A TWL is a dossier of individuals who are either actual terrorists or suspected of having links with terrorists groups; a compendium containing profiles of terror suspects. A TWL helps in keeping track on the activities of these individuals in order to either deter them from committing acts of terror, or for investigating acts of terror after they have been committed, speeding up the apprehension and prosecution of suspects. It is disappointing to note that Nigeria, a country ranked fifth on the global terrorism index is yet to generate a comprehensive TWL, eight years since the commencement of an insurgency that threatens the inhabitants of its North-Eastern axis. It is standard practice the world over that countries fighting terrorism have watch lists. The prevailing spate of insecurity in the globe which has gone beyond just the antiquated stop list Nigerian embassies rely not – which are not even backed with photographs or fingerprints – makes the possession of a more comprehensive data bank imperative. Nigeria must develop a data bank of its own which should be distributed to all its embassies. It will give the country’s security operatives a strategic advantage that will make it easier to proactively formulate and launch preventive/counter measures to checkmate terrorist acts. That Nigeria, a major stakeholder in the global war on terror, needs to generate its own TWL is long overdue.

In all, the daily activities at all the country’s foreign missions should henceforth be monitored on a daily basis to ensure that potential troublemakers are prevented from obtaining entry visas to Nigeria. The United States of America (the global policeman) Russia (the global power balancer) China, Israel and other countries battling violent extremism conduct routine checks on individuals entering and leaving their countries to sniff out potential mischief makers and keep them in check. There is no reason why Nigeria should be an exception. According to the popular maxim, “a stitch in time saves everything” (emphasis added).

GOD SAVE NIGERIA!

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