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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Africa > West Africa > Islamist Terrorism in the Sahel: Fact or Fiction?

Islamist Terrorism in the Sahel: Fact or Fiction?

Africa Report N°92 31 Mar 2005


The Sahel, a vast region bordering the Sahara Desert and including the countries of Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania, is increasingly referred to by the U.S. military as "the new front in the war on terrorism". There are enough indications, from a security perspective, to justify caution and greater Western involvement. However, the Sahel is not a hotbed of terrorist activity. A misconceived and heavy handed approach could tip the scale the wrong way; serious, balanced, and long-term engagement with the four countries should keep the region peaceful. An effective counter-terrorism policy there needs to address the threat in the broadest terms, with more development than military aid and greater U.S.-European collaboration.

There are disparate strands of information out of which a number of observers, including the U.S. military, have read the potential threat of violent Islamist activity in the four Sahelian countries covered by the Americans' Pan-Sahel Initiative (PSI). There is some danger in this, but in this region, few things are exactly what they seem at first glance. Mauritania, which calls itself an Islamic republic, harshly suppresses Islamist activities of any kind, while Mali, a star pupil of 1990s neo-liberal democratisation, runs the greatest risk of any West African country other than Nigeria of violent Islamist activity. Those who believe poverty breeds religious fanaticism will be disappointed in Niger, the world's second poorest country, whose government has maintained its tradition of tolerant Sufi Islam by holding to an unambiguous line on separation of religion and the state.

The prospects for growth in Islamist activity in the region - up to and including terrorism - are delicately balanced. Muslim populations in West Africa, as elsewhere, express increasing opposition to Western, especially U.S., policy in the Middle East, and there has been a parallel increase in fundamentalist proselytisation. However, these developments should not be overestimated. Fundamentalist Islam has been present in the Sahel for over 60 years without being linked to anti-Western violence. The Algerian Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which lost 43 militants in a battle with Chad's army in 2004 after being chased across borders by PSI-trained troops, has been seriously weakened in Algeria and Mali by the combined efforts of Algerian and Sahelian armed forces.

The U.S. military is a new factor in this delicate balance. Its operations in the four countries are orchestrated by the European Command (EUCOM) headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. In the absence of Congressional willingness to fund a serious engagement by other parts of the government, the Pentagon has become a major player by emphasising the prospect of terrorism, though military planners themselves recognise the inherent dangers in a purely military counter-terrorism program.

With the U.S. heavily committed in other parts of the world, however, Washington is unlikely to devote substantial non-military resources to the Sahel soon, even though Africa is slowly gaining recognition - not least due to West Africa's oil - as an area of strategic interest to the West. The resultant equation is laden with risks, including turning the small number of arrested clerics and militants into martyrs, thus giving ammunition to local anti-American or anti-Western figures who claim the PSI (and the proposed, expanded Trans-Saharan Counter Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI) still under consideration in the U.S. government) is part of a larger plan to render Muslim populations servile; and cutting off smuggling networks that have become the economic lifeblood of Saharan peoples whose livestock was devastated by the droughts of the 1970s and 1980s, without offering economic alternatives. To avoid creating the kinds of problems the PSI is meant to solve, it needs to be folded into a more balanced approach to the region, one also in which Europeans and Americans work more closely together.


To the U.S. Government:

1.  Establish a healthier balance between military and civilian programs in the Sahel, including by:

(a)  opening USAID offices in the capitals of Mauritania, Niger and Chad;

(b)  tailoring significant development programs to nomadic populations in northern Mali, with emphasis on roads and livestock infrastructure (wells and regional slaughterhouses); and

(c)  promoting tourist infrastructure in such historic places of interest as Timbuktu, and Agadez, helping to diminish smuggling by offering Tuareg populations viable economic alternatives.

2.  Continue to provide training and equipment to improve customs and immigration surveillance at all airports in the region, both national and international.

3.  Seek cooperative diplomatic and developmental assistance relationships with the Europeans in order to take advantage of their experience in the Sahelian region.

4.  Coordinate its own military capacity-building training with NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue and France's RECAMP program, in order to multiply effectiveness and diminish perceptions of an American-only venture.

To Donors:

5.  Treat development and counter-terrorism as interlinked issues in the Sahelian region, rewarding governments for showing courage on religious policy (as in Niger) and making up the difference if already extremely limited social services are further reduced by cuts in Islamic NGO funding.



6.  Consider making military capacity-building more multilateral by extending the Mediterranean Dialogue beyond Mauritania to Mali, Niger, and Chad.

To the EU:

7.  Share regional expertise more actively with the U.S. and coordinate both military capacity-building and development assistance programs with it.

To the Government of Mali:

8.  Begin negotiations with Tuareg communities where military posts were closed in order to reinstate government presence, possibly using a majority of Tuareg troops to do so.

9.  Focus development aid in the north on two sectors, - livestock and tourism - both of which need significant investments in infrastructure, beginning with roads, to become viable.

Dakar/Brussels, 31 March 2005

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