The UN, EU, and individual western countries have all gone on the record in recent weeks admitting that terrorism is growing in the Sahel region, as Islamic States (IS)-affiliates take advantage of Covid lockdowns causing more people to spend time indoors and online. But is there an initiative to combat it? And who should take it on?
In mid-September, a Moroccan police chief went on the record and said in quite blunt terms that a number of terror cells, which police in Rabat had busted, were linked to Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL) in Sahel countries, namely Mali. Morocco, being probably the most westernized MENA country, is obviously a target for such groups.
He is reported to have said that an IS-affiliated group was plotting suicide attacks targeting “public personalities, military figures, and the headquarters of security services” in the North African kingdom, according to AFP. “Three kilos [6.5 pounds] of ammonium nitrate, the chemical behind the August 4 cataclysmic Beirut blast, was also netted,” the French agency claimed, before adding that “pledges of allegiance to the IS were discovered” with “two of the suspects [who] put up fierce resistance” when arrested.
The senior policeman spoke of the Sahel region as a “ticking time bomb,” referring to the recent rise of drug and arms trafficking in lawless countries like Mali, but also referring to Libya.
The European Union is also troubled by the Sahel and how it is becoming a hotbed of Daesh (Arabic acronym of ISIL) terrorists who have fled the Levant region. Earlier in the year, its chief terror expert told journalists that while he was worried about Iraq being the new ground for Daesh re-organizing itself, Sahel countries were also the new focus of the EU.
Islamic State and groups linked to it are seeking to recoup ground in Iraq, Syria, and the Sahel, exploiting the crisis those governments are facing with combating the coronavirus.
Islamic State and groups linked to it are seeking to recoup ground in Iraq, Syria, and the Sahel, exploiting the crisis those governments are facing with combating the coronavirus while having to cope with the impact of collapsed oil prices.
“The virus has an impact on fragile states and gives Daesh new room to breathe,” the EU expert said in a telephone interview with Reuters. “There are serious causes for concern.”
Yet although the Sahel is mentioned often, individual counties, with the exception of Mali, are usually not named, probably through fear of giving the terrorists an advantage to prepare for an attack against them. But ISIL is believed to be expanding its bases in parts of Mauritania, Chad, Niger, Central African Republic, Nigeria, and even Algeria.
Recently at a UN conference a number of these countries openly admitted that they needed help to combat the growth of terrorism cells and appealed to the UN for international assistance – music to the ears of UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, who wants to set up a UN force in the region modeled on the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
One such leader, the President of Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou, openly called for more help from the UN, both in terms of financing current intelligence-sharing programs and also a new UN mandate.
“The creation of the coalition to fight terrorism in the Sahel, the establishment of a joint command for all the participating military forces, including those French [Barkhane] and European [Takuba]. . . [and] the upcoming deployment by the AU [African Union] of a contingent of 3,000 men are all elements that raise the hope of a victory over our common enemy: terrorism and organized crime ,” he told the UN assembly, which met on September 24.
But many regional leaders like Issoufou believe that the heart of the beast lies in Mali, a country experiencing huge internal problems and currently the epicenter of terrorism for North Africa. The troubled country is in turmoil, not helped by its recent coup d’état in August, which has kept it under the control of the army, led by Colonel Assimi Goita. (This author has learned Goita might struggle to keep his hold on the military though. One of his senior officers – also a colonel – is believed to be trying to escape to Morocco, with a suitcase stuffed full of dollars and the assistance of his son, who recently arrived in Rabat on September 16 through the help of corrupt Malian embassy officials.)
At the end of September, a “transition” president was sworn in who made bold statements about corruption, while the country faces crippling poverty in the face of sanctions imposed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). ECOWAS had insisted on a civilian government being the only condition to break the stand-off and asked for guarantees about the Vice President not coming back. On October 6, ECOWAS lifted the sanctions based on the announcement of a civilian government forming.
Yet it’s early days before any assumptions can be made about Mali. Terrorism, of course, is linked to poverty, which is linked to Mali’s failure to get its politics in order. But is France’s anti-terrorism program in both Mali and Burkina Faso helping or hindering this process? Much is written about the 5,000 strong French presence in Mali whose track record on curtailing terror groups is marred by civilians getting in the way of the crossfire. Some have gone as far as to call the operation a “fiasco” and that the premise of French troops being there – to restore democracy and combat terrorism – is a farce as, in reality, France has put its soldiers there to protect the interests of French multinationals.
Terrorism, of course, is linked to poverty, which is linked to Mali’s failure to get its politics in order.
Still, many acknowledge that France and Mali need one another.
“French politicians will say it’s about the stability of the Sahel, it’s the southern flank of Europe,” said Arthur Boutellis, Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute, quoted by the Financial Times (FT). “Some will make the migration argument that the Germans are also making, [and] in France there’s also the terrorism argument,” he continued, adding that there has never been a terrorist attack on French soil directed from Mali.
“We have been reassured [by the fact] that these [French] troops are soldiers, great intellectuals. Mali, across the entire spectrum, is in a drive to bring everyone together,” Issa Kaou Djim, a protest movement leader, recently told reporters, according to the FT.
However, Boutellis contradicts this by claiming that “the political class is divided in Mali over [France’s] presence but some still do recognize that if the French force wasn’t there, the whole country would collapse even more. . . . The counter argument is that eight years of French military counter-terrorism have not really improved the situation.”
Perhaps the time has come for the international community to step in, in Mali and other Sahel countries. But one has to question the judgement of the UN Secretary General when he uses the AU peace keeping mission in Somalia as a benchmark. Mali is the ticking nail bomb we can no longer ignore.