Sahel-Saharan turmoil poses global threat
By Mawassi Lahcen for Magharebia in Marrakech – 01/02/13
In just a few years, the Sahel-Saharan's vast desert terrain has become home to crime lords, international jihadists and local groups with scores to settle. Add border issues, weapons and a war to the mix, and the eyes of the world turn to the region.
The January 25th-26th Marrakech Security Forum took a look at the root causes of the upheaval in the Sahel. Two-hundred military and security leaders from 67 countries took part in the conference.
The forum concluded that the failure of the Malian state to respond to the aspirations of large groups of the population, its inability to impose control over the entire national territory, and the spread of poverty were the main reasons behind the current crisis.
[Mawassi Lahcen] Panellists at the Marrakech Security Forum say the Sahel is becoming a focal point for international jihadists.
[AFP/Kambou Sia] Nigerien troops patrol the northern Mali town of Ansongo as part of an African-led military intervention.
[AFP/Eric Feferberg] Poverty and marginalisation are at the heart of Sahel conflicts, according to analysts.
The weakness of state control has led to the emergence of large lawless areas. These ungoverned spaces are a safe haven for criminal gangs and terrorist groups that found fertile ground for expansion among locals disgruntled with marginalisation and poverty. The terrorist groups fleeing Algeria found refuge in the Sahel region, especially in the north of Mali.
International criminal networks are also taking advantage of the lawlessness, smuggling drugs from South America to Europe.
"Drugs that cross the Sahel and the Sahara do not come only from South America across the Atlantic Ocean, but come also from Afghanistan," noted international security expert John Godonou Dossou.
"The estimated value of these drugs is hundreds of millions of dollars. Part of the proceeds serve to buy the complicity and silence of the local population and to protect armed groups and terrorist organisations such as AQIM, which in turn uses these funds to finance its activities and attract new militants," he said.
Godonou Dossou added, "The illegal trade in this region is not only about drugs." He noted that the Sahel-Sahara region is also witnessing a booming trade of radioactive waste, weapons, cigarettes, humans, vehicles, and medicines.
The mastermind of the In Amenas terror attack, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, is among those profiting from the criminal activity. Locals have reportedly dubbed him "Mr Marlboro" for his smuggling operation.
According to Godonou Dossou, the "criminal gangs take advantage of the misery of the population, especially in the north of Mali".
The north-south divide and marginalisation at the root of the Mali crisis dates back to the colonial period, explained former Mauritanian Foreign Minister Mohamed Vall Ould Bilal.
"This sense of unfairness served as a ground upon which the rebel movements tried to establish themselves with legitimacy, either ethnic, economic or religious. However, these movements did not reach the level of a reasonable and credible political project," he added.
Vall Ould Bilal noted that the Touareg problem was not new, and northern Mali has known several Touareg armed uprisings since the early sixties.
What made the 2012 conflict unique was how it began: the return of 4,000 heavily armed Touareg fighters from Libya after the collapse of the Kadhafi regime.
The widespread availability of Libyan weapons took an already volatile situation and turned it into an explosive threat.
According to Vall Ould Bilal, the Touareg problem does not only concern Mali, but other countries with large Touareg communities, including Algeria, Libya, Niger and Burkina Faso.
This situation is not limited to the Touareg of Mali either, according to the former Mauritanian minister. The same can be said for the Toubou of southern Libya, the Zaghawa in Chad and Sudan, as well as the Fulani and other marginalised ethnic minorities in the region.
"Lines are shifting in the Sahel," Vall Ould Bilal said. "What was yesterday a problem of governance and development is transformed today into strategic risks threatening regional and global security."
Local rebel movements stemming from state failure have converged with international jihadists in the Sahel, drawing the attention of experts at the Marrakech Security Forum.
French Admiral Jean Dufourcq noted that many cases "have taught us that the state's inability to meet the needs of the population opens doors wide for criminal gangs and terrorist groups to fill this vacuum".
Dufourcq said that this phenomenon could take unexpected dimensions, pointing out that Hamas and Hezbollah were operating originally in the field of social work before becoming political movements.
Participants at the Marrakech conference highlighted for the need to provide international support to help Sahel states with democratisation, respect for human rights, as well as social and economic development so they can meet the needs of the population.
Three of the countries hardest hit by al-Qaeda's North African affiliate are among the poorest on Earth. Mauritania is ranked 159th on the UN's Human Development Index while Mali is 175th and Niger comes in at 186th.
For his part, French Brigadier General Jean Maurin expressed serious concern about the growing activities of al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations in the region. He pointed to the growing threats that these groups pose, and the high risk that terrorism could beyond the Sahel.
"The recent announcement by al-Shabab in Somalia of its intention to acquire the title of al-Qaeda in East Africa will push it to proceed with operations of international dimensions in order to respond to the expectations of the parent al-Qaeda organisation. The latter is suffering from decline and collapse and is looking for external support," the general said.
The Sahel provides a space for militants to link up, be they from AQIM, Ansar al-Din or the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad (MUJAO), Maurin said. The region could also allow terrorists from Boko Haram or al-Shabab to share fighters with al-Qaeda's North African affiliate.
That would give the collapsing al-Qaeda a breath of fresh air and enable it to re-deploy and launch cross-border terrorist operations.
"The Sahel has become a focal point that attracts jihadists from around the world, and provides centres and training camps," Maurin said.
He noted the lure of "funds obtained from hostage-taking, drug trafficking and other criminal acts, and the increased availability of weapons".
"These are more of a concern than at any time in the past," he added.
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