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Terrorism and Counter-terrorism: New Challenges for the European Union
Terrorism and Counter-terrorism: New Challenges for the European Union
Report 227 / Africa

The Central Sahel: A Perfect Sandstorm

The Sahel’s trajectory is worrying; poverty and population growth, combined with growing jihadi extremism, contraband and human trafficking constitute the perfect storm of actual and potential instability. Without holistic, sustained efforts against entrenched criminal networks, misrule and underdevelopment, radicalisation and migration are likely to spread and exacerbate.

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Executive Summary

The huge, sparsely populated, impoverished Sahel is affected by growing numbers of jihadi extremists and illicit activities, including arms, drugs and human trafficking, estimated to generate $3.8 billion annually. Borders are porous, government reach limited. Populations and unemployment are soaring. Within this perfect storm of actual and potential instability, criminal networks increasingly overrun Central Sahel – the Fezzan in Libya’s south, Niger and the Lake Chad Basin. State authority is weak in relatively stable Niger. To the south, the radical Islamist, primarily Nigerian, Boko Haram insurgency is responsible for thousands of civilian deaths and more than a million displaced. Western and regional counter-terrorism efforts are insufficient, but neither have more integrated approaches proposed by the EU and UN borne fruit. Without holistic, sustained action against entrenched criminal networks, misrule and underdevelopment, instability is likely to spread and exacerbate radicalisation and migration.

The Sahel, a vast region stretching from Mauritania to Sudan bordering the Sahara Desert, has always had porous borders and thinly populated areas only loosely controlled by national governments. (For example, Niger is bigger than Nigeria, but its seventeen million population is a tenth the size and concentrated in its southern quarter). But as Libya imploded and Boko Haram expanded across borders in the Lake Chad Basin, criminal networks trafficking illicit goods and humans grew by corrupting officials, forming alliances with local communities and sometimes working with jihadi groups. The region has become a key source of, and transit point for, migrants from sub-Saharan Africa trying to reach Europe. By mid-June 2015, more than 106,000 were estimated to have arrived in Europe by sea since the start of the year, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Nearly 57,ooo had reached Italy, almost exclusively from Libya and after transiting countries to its south. UN officials project that between 80,000 and 120,000 migrants will pass through Niger during the year.

Western governments have primarily taken a security-oriented approach to the criminal and jihadi threats, upping their military presence and counter-terrorism operations and increasing efforts to secure Europe’s southern borders. Initiatives such as the Rabat (2006) and Khartoum (2014) processes to curb illegal immigration, as well as the latest European Union (EU) plan – including refugee resettlement, but also a military operation to disrupt smugglers’ networks and destroy their boats – tackle only symptoms of the Sahel’s problems.

There is little prospect of stabilising the region without recognising that current policies do not address the deep sources of its instability: entrenched poverty; underdevelopment, particularly in the peripheries; and a booming youth population with little access to education or jobs and no real loyalty to the state. Many youths see migration – illegal if necessary – as their only future. Others lash out at their corrupt “secular” and “Westernised” states in hope of imposing a more morally pure, Islamist government. A huge proportion of the men, women and children crossing the Mediterranean are not coming to Europe simply to escape poverty, but also to flee deadly conflicts and repressive governments.

Heavy-handed military action and closure of political space by co-option or criminalisation of the opposition aggravate tensions. Labelling non-violent Islamists potential jihadis can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Government neglect of the peripheries, unwillingness to address local conflicts and tendency to rely on personal, at times criminal, clientelistic alliances rather than develop democratic institutions feed a growing sense of marginalisation, particularly in rural areas.

Remote, weak or even repressive central governments across the region have been supplanted by alternative forms of organisation, including traditional authorities; community-based structures; Islamist movements; and criminal networks. Outside forces, both criminal and jihadi, have particular success exploiting these ad hoc governance systems, aligning with the concerns of local powerbrokers to gain a foothold. Meanwhile, battles, sometimes very violent, for control of the lucrative smuggling routes are becoming more numerous and visible.

To counter the growing jihadi threat, international actors have deployed troops and aircraft and supported national security forces that pursue a militarised approach. Local populations, however, often view the Western military presence as driven by a desire to protect interests in the area’s hydrocarbon and mineral deposits. Prioritisation of counter-terrorism and conflation of violent jihadism with other forms of political Islam are creating a backlash against regional and Western governments alike.

To reverse the Sahel’s deepening instability – in particular deterioration in already precarious Niger – national governments and external actors need not only to manage the short term, but also to take a long view. This would involve committing to sustained efforts to shore-up fragile states by consistently and transparently promoting good governance and durable development, as well as to resolve existing conflicts and address their humanitarian consequences. To do so:

  • Western policies should be reoriented to concentrate on building more inclusive and accountable governments and countering structural factors that drive marginalisation and alienation, and thus criminalisation and radicalisation.
     
  • While Western governments and the EU are likely to continue their security-first approach, efforts to tackle radicalisation and criminalisation should focus on promoting accountable public administration, particularly in Niger and Nigeria. These could include encouraging creation of civilian oversight mechanisms for public institutions and supporting construction of robust, inclusive coalitions against corruption and mismanagement.
     
  • Development aid should be tied not to military counter-terrorism efforts, but to measures that improve governance, limit state corruption and strengthen democratic institutions.
     
  • Addressing youth unemployment through training and labour intensive infrastructure projects to link the peripheries to markets and services could significantly contribute to tackling migration.

Finally, efforts to deter migration need to be accompanied by longer-term strategies to curb unsustainable population growth, particularly in Niger, through support for women’s rights to education and reproductive health.

Dakar/Brussels, 25 June 2015

Terrorism and Counter-terrorism: New Challenges for the European Union

Despite suffering significant blows in Syria and Iraq, jihadist movements across the Middle East, North Africa and Lake Chad regions continue to pose significant challenges. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – First Update early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to prioritise conflict prevention at the heart of their counter-terrorism policy and continue investment in vulnerable states.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2017 – First Update.

Over the past few months, military operations have eaten deep into the Iraqi and Syrian heartlands of the Islamic State (ISIS). Much of Mosul, the group’s last urban stronghold in Iraq, has been recaptured; Raqqa, its capital in Syria, is encircled. Its Libyan branch, with closest ties to the Iraqi leadership, has been ousted from the Mediterranean coastal strip it once held. Boko Haram, whose leaders pledged allegiance to ISIS, menaces the African states around Lake Chad but has split and lost much of the territory it held a year ago. Though smaller branches exist from the Sinai to Yemen and Somalia, the movement has struggled to make major inroads or hold territory elsewhere.

ISIS’s decisive defeat remains a remote prospect while the Syrian war rages and Sunnis’ place in Iraqi politics is uncertain. It will adapt and the threat it poses will evolve. But it is on the backfoot, its brand diminished. For many adherents, its allure was its self-proclaimed caliphate and territorial expansion. With those in decline, its leaders are struggling to redefine success. Fewer local groups are signing up. Fewer foreigners are travelling to join; the main danger they represent now is their return to countries of origin or escape elsewhere.

Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, is increasingly potent. It, too, has evolved. Its affiliates, particularly its Sahel, Somalia, Syria and Yemen branches, are more influential than the leadership in South Asia. Osama bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, inspires loyalty and offers guidance but has little say in daily operations. Al-Qaeda’s strategy – embedding within popular uprisings, allying with other armed groups and displaying pragmatism and sensitivity to local norms – may make it a more durable threat than ISIS. Its strategy also means that affiliates’ identities are more local than transnational, a shift that has sparked debate among jihadists. Although Western intelligence officials assert that cells within affiliates plot against the West, for the most part they fight locally and have recruited large numbers of fighters motivated by diverse local concerns.

U.S. national security policy looks set to change too. Much about new President Donald Trump’s approach remains uncertain, but aggressive counter-terrorism operations for now dominate his administration’s policy across the Muslim world. Protecting U.S. citizens from groups that want to kill them must, of course, be an imperative for American leaders. But since the 9/11 attacks a decade and a half ago, too narrow a focus on counter-terrorism has often distorted U.S. policy and at times made the problem worse.

The roots of ISIS’s rise and al-Qaeda’s resurgence are complex and varied. Patterns of radicalisation vary from country to country ... though war and state collapse are huge boons for both movements.

Some early signs are troubling. Past months have seen a spike in civilian casualties resulting from U.S. drone and other airstrikes. The degree to which the administration will factor in the potential geopolitical fallout of operations against ISIS and al-Qaeda is unclear. U.S. allies could misuse counter-terrorism support against rivals and deepen chaos in the region. Nor it is clear that the U.S. will invest in diplomacy to either end the wars from which jihadists profit or nudge regional leaders toward reforms that can avert further crises. The new administration may also escalate against Iran while fighting jihadists, creating an unnecessary and dangerous distraction.

Though the influence of European leaders and the European Union (EU) on Arab politics and U.S. counter-terrorism policy has limits, they are likely to be asked to bankroll reconstruction efforts across affected regions. They could use this leverage to:

  1. Promote a judicious and legal use of force: Campaigns against jihadists hinge on winning over the population in which they operate. “Targeted” strikes that kill civilians and alienate communities are counterproductive, regardless of immediate yield. Indiscriminate military action can play into extremists’ hands or leave communities caught between their harsh rule and brutal operations against them. European leaders should press for tactical restraint and respect for international humanitarian law, which conflict parties of all stripes increasingly have abandoned.
     
  2. Promote plans for the day after military operations: Offensives against Mosul, Raqqa or elsewhere need plans to preserve military gains, prevent reprisals and stabilise liberated cities. As yet, no such plan for Raqqa seems to exist – it would need to involve local Sunni forces providing security, at least inside the city. As operations against ISIS and al-Qaeda linked groups escalate, the EU could seek clarity on what comes next and how operations fit into a wider political strategy.
     
  3. Identify counter-terrorism’s geopolitical side effects: The fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda intersects a tinderbox of wars and regional rivalries. Frank discussion of the potential consequences of military operations could reduce risks that they provoke a wider escalation. The Raqqa campaign, for example, should seek to avoid stimulating fighting elsewhere among Turkish and Kurdish forces and their respective allies. Success in Mosul hinges on preventing the forces involved battling for territory after they have ousted ISIS. European powers’ own counter-terrorism support should not result in allies being more resistant to compromise.
     
  4. Reinforce diplomatic efforts to end crises: From Libya to Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan, no country where ISIS or al-Qaeda branches hold territory has a single force strong enough to secure the whole country. Unless the main non-jihadist armed factions in each country can arrive at some form of political accommodation among each other, there is a risk they either ally with jihadists against rivals or misuse counter-terrorism support for other ends. European powers should step up support for UN-led diplomacy if the U.S. neglects such efforts.
     
  5. Protect space for political engagement: Over recent years, as jihadists have gathered force on today’s battlefields, Western powers have tended to draw a line between groups they see as beyond the pale and those whom they envisage as part of settlements. The EU should keep the door open to engagement with all conflict parties – whether to secure humanitarian access or reduce violence. It should be made clear to groups on the wrong side of the line how they eventually can cross it. Al-Qaeda affiliates’ increasingly local focus makes this all the more vital.

  6. Warn against confronting Iran: Such a confrontation would be perilous. Militarily battling Tehran in Iraq, Yemen or Syria, questioning the nuclear deal’s validity or imposing sanctions that flout its spirit could provoke asymmetric responses via non-state allies. Iran’s behaviour across the region is often destabilising and reinforces the sectarian currents that buoy jihadists. But the answer lies in dampening the rivalry between Iran and the Gulf monarchies, not stimulating it, with the attendant risk of escalating proxy wars. This will mean resuming a tough but professional senior-level U.S.-Iranian channel of communication, something the U.S. administration seems reluctant to do but that Europe could encourage. And, for the EU and its members states (notably France, Germany and the UK), it means clearly signalling to the U.S. administration that any step to undermine the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – in the absence of an Iranian violation of the deal – will leave Washington isolated and unable to recreate an international consensus to sanction Iran.

The roots of ISIS’s rise and al-Qaeda’s resurgence are complex and varied. Patterns of radicalisation vary from country to country, village to village and individual to individual. Clearly, though, war and state collapse are huge boons for both movements. Both groups have grown less because their ideology inspires wide appeal than by offering protection or firepower against enemies, or rough law and order where no one else can; or by occupying a power vacuum and forcing communities to acquiesce. Rarely can either group recruit large numbers or seize territory outside a war zone. The EU’s investment in peacebuilding and shoring up vulnerable states is, therefore, among its most valuable contributions against jihadists. European leaders must do everything within their power to disrupt attacks, but they should also put conflict prevention at the centre of their counter-terrorism policy.