SAHEL: Real Dangers, Repeated Threats Print
Written by El Haiba ould CheikhSidati / Managing Director specializes in sahel sahara security issues   
Wednesday, 11 January 2012 07:32

 SAHEL: Real Dangers, Repeated Threats

After serving as the rear base for radical movements born in Algeria, the region of Sahel-Sahara is turning into a field of confrontation for terrorist groups.



Today, those groups are involved in kidnapping as well as in attacking armies of the States of the region or the foreign interests that are represented there. Since the fall of the regime of Gaddafi, the proliferation of sophisticated arms and the massive return of former Tuareg combatants have added another threat to a space that was already difficult to control. As a consequence, Northern Mali could –soon- fall into a period of unprecedented violence and insecurity, with numerous unpredictable implications for the whole region of Sahel-Sahara. 

"These people are not like the terrorists we used to see, recognizable by their large turbans, their bushy beards and their deafening Allah Akbar. Those who attacked us are quite different. They are more violent, more diverse and carry more sophisticated weapons. They are the Tuareg who were fighting in the region during the 1990s. They returned after having disappeared for a long period from this area ".

Thus spoke a merchant of Digueni (South of Mauritania) who was part of a convoy attacked by bandits, last November, in the Northern part of Mali. The story of the attack and the attackers clearly confirms that the region is under a new threat since the shock wave of the influx of veterans from Libya, bringing back heavy weapons and equipment with upon their return. It is a part of the hard legacy of Gaddafi to this area.

Old and New Fears

One can say that the region has been accustomed to disorders - at least to some tensions - since remote times. The era of tranquility and stability for its people goes back to the time of the empire of Ghana * (300-1240) before it disappeared at the dawn of the second Millennium after Jesus Christ. This empire succeeded in imposing its domination, for centuries, over vast areas in the region of Sahel and the fringes of Sahara, securing pathways which were and remain vital for the inhabitants.

The complexity of the ethnic structure and the nested populations of Sahel, the harsh climatic conditions and their profound consequences on the dominant way of life, the nature of the productive activity and the impact of the Nation State model’s failure after the ruins left by the colonial period are some of the main factors for permanent instability. In most cases, in order to impose a given situation or express political claims, tensions lead to tribal or ethnic-based armed conflicts. This trend is even more obvious with the inclusion of the Sahel-Sahara region into strategies and scenarios adopted by regional and international powers in search of increased influence or new shelter areas.

In recent years, the threats related to insecurity in the region have become so dangerous that this space was transformed into an arena of confrontation for terrorist groups born in Algeria, and whose action has extended to the Sahara. When these groups were subject to a stronger pressure on the national Algerian territory, they started to use the Sahara as a refuge. From a rear base for radical movements, the region was transformed into a vast area to conduct their clandestine operations: those relating to the formation of terrorist structures as well as the kidnapping of Western hostages, attacks on the armies of neighboring countries or foreign interests established on their territory.

The presence of this type of armed movements, their clashes with national armies, at a pace that has increased lately, as well as their permanent contact with indigenous peoples, played a role in the resurgence of the rebellion. After two decades of a fragile peace process, punctuated by periods of tension and confrontation, the enthusiasm to take up arms against the government of Mali is a sign. The circumstances of the situation in Libya brought fears of the birth of a new movement in the Tuareg community. This is all more worrying, that several reports referred to the mass return in North Mali of many citizens from this community. Large quantities of sophisticated weapons, more efficient in any case than those used by the security forces in the Sahel, reinforced these fears.

The resulting problem is not so much the unprecedented unrest of the populations in the Northern part of Mali or the emergence of separatist claims, especially when considering information relating to the entry into the rebellion of tribal chiefs or army deserters who already participated in the conflict twenty years ago. But the new situation caused by the proliferation of sophisticated weapons and the influx of well trained veterans, all coming back from Libya, in a space already outside of control, and where if any, it will revert to the mightiest.  This may well push local or regional actors to venture in order to "move" the situation, get benefits on the ground, settle accounts, or simply obfuscate the cards.

Strong Threats to the Future

The present situation looks like, more and more, as an omen "for a worrying future". Indeed, all indicate that Northern Mali may –soon- know a period of unprecedented violence and insecurity with consequences that could affect the entire region. The North African branch of Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has raised significant financial resources. It contributed to the birth of a type of criminal economy, ranging from the protection of the traffic to the abduction of hostages. By now, its field of action is overtaking the ideological commitment, proclaimed by some of his followers, in order to maintain extensive networks of support and support elements that take advantage of its various activities. It has, moreover, built alliances and "purchased" local loyalties to afford maximum coverage, support and help.

In addition, the terrorist organization profited from the collapse of the Libyan regime to increase its weapons’ arsenal. It has probably enjoyed the complicity of some Libyan fighters that are, by now, publicly known. The appeal launched by Abu Yahya al-Libi, considered as the number 2 of Al-Qaeda, to the Libyan revolutionaries in order for them to keep their weapons, may explain why, as alleged, it is switching its focus from Asia to the Sahel region.

At the operational level, the organization has maintained, almost intact, its capacity of nuisance. Recently, its operations have developed, both in pace and form: AQIM led successfully two successive operations in Mali, November 24 and 25, performed by fighters of the organization and not through intermediaries, according to its Press Release. Today, AQIM holds nine Western hostages; among them two-thirds are French. Others are Dutch, Swedish and South African, as well as two Spaniards and an Italian kidnapped, apparently, by a dissenting group of AQIM called Jamat Tawhid Wal Jihad Fi Garbi - Afriqqiya movement for unity and jihad in West Africa. This is a record in the list of kidnappings since the vast operation carried out by the GSPC in 2003.

Most dramatic in the case of AQIM is that, even if its points of force constitute a ground for concern, its weak points are not necessarily reassuring. Take, for example, the narrowing of the basis of recruitment for the elements acquired to its speech, the little understanding and cohesion between its leaders and the lack of discipline in its brigades. The first case adds additional difficulties to track AQIM officers.  It makes more difficult the prevention of operations in preparation because of the lack of precise data on the type of men, their way of thinking and the nature of their military doctrine.

The second, illustrated by the competition between the leaders of the organization, has been accentuated with growing differences such as those announced at the abduction of hostages in Tindouf, last October 23rd. It is likely to cause a competition between the factions, each wanting to prove that it is more violent and more extremist than the other. The birth of Jamat Tawhid Wal Jihad Fi Garbi Afriqqiya is also there to confirm this hypothesis..

On another level, the attitude of some Tuareg leaders in the region is no matter for rejoicing, especially after the failure in the discussions with the State of Mali that brings a new threat for war.  Due to the electoral season in Mali – the presidential elections is due next April - the minds of politicians in Bamako will be full of calculations; and therefore the position of the other side will be without concessions or moderation

More generally, the positioning of the Tuareg seems confusing, disturbing and difficult to grasp because they remain divided into fractions, tribes, and private militias. To this, one may want to add the confusion and lack of cohesion between the visions of the different fractions and the absence of definite form of the priorities of each group.  This is particularly true for those who are returning from Libya. And when it comes to tip the balance to the local actors, traditionally in conflict with the community leadership, they may have the last word.

The risk of clashes between the Tuareg themselves remains a plausible option. Whether it is caused by internal calculations or encouraged by regional forces who find their account by preventing them to unite in a single word order or of a common vision.

It is also quite possible that the friction between the Tuareg armed elements and Salafi groups for the control of areas of influence cause confrontations that could turn into a broader conflict. Whatever the case, the current situation brings no hope for stability and security in the region.

A new approach to welcome!

To date, the efforts to address the multiple threats to the area appear both insufficient and ineffective. However, the same errors are made each time in order to find a solution to the problem, whereas is not insoluble. With a real political will and appropriate actions, a definitive settlement could be obtained easily.

The error often repeated in the Sahel is to copy practices experienced in other regions of the world. But the difference of environment requires to diversify the approaches and to adapt them to the local situations. The tools in the fight against insecurity and violence in Afghanistan or Iraq, for example, may not be effective in the Sahel precisely because of this zone-specific condition.

Another example of errors to fight against the violence in Sahel-Sahara is to adopt partial solutions. To illustrate this phenomenon, one may point out the tendency to opt only for armed solutions or to politicize the treatment of the challenges that the region is undertake, or to include them in the game of regional influence, thus reducing the opportunities for coordination and the complementarily between the various stakeholders.

There is also the error consisting to entrust political regimes or specific sectors from military and security elites with the mission of fighting against this scourge; and believe that one is protected by shadowing the danger, or by closing the eyes on skids that may be committed, as long as they are conform to the security agenda assigned to them.

One of the most serious faults committed in the region is to barter democracy against security. Without real democracy, which protects the dignity of the citizen and spares him from fear and hunger, there will be no opportunities to eradicate the violence and extremism; they are fed by the lack of freedom, poverty and the spread of corruption and oppression.

So, without the risk to be wrong, one can say that the fight against threats in the Sahel region requires, firstly, the analysis of the causes of tension and the factors of violence. It alos requires more means to eradicate them on objective bases, from tribal prejudice or others.

Given the nature of the challenge, it is necessary to support the armies of the region, to improve their means and their operational capabilities. Good coordination between the countries of the front to harmonize their strategies and their approaches to relations with interested partners remains essential.

It is not realistic to rely only on force to eradicate terrorism. Violence feeds violence, and weapons, regardless of their sophistication, cannot alone secure the region and ensure its stability. Starting from this observation, the armed action must be accompanied by efforts to achieve a vast development in the States of the region. A development centered on the human person in order to gather the elements necessary to the achievement of its dignity, freedom, equality and social justice, remains indispensable.

This will be possible only with the construction of open political regimes, capable of guaranteeing the fundamental rights and public freedoms for citizens and manage their resources in a transparent and effective manner.

Finally, if the proper structures for education and health, as well as the appropriate infrastructure and policies for production or employment are not being built, so they can improve the daily lives of the populations and bring hope and future to the young people, the Sahel Sahara region will be condemned to fall into a spiral of violence. Each time it will succeed in overcoming an obstacle, it may fall into another one.


* Ghana (300 à 1200) was one of the greatest West Africa Empires. At the time it stretched from Senegal, to Timbuktu in present Mali, through parts of Mauritania. Its most known export was gold.


Last Updated ( Friday, 03 February 2012 08:34 )