In the 20 November edition of Newsweek, Scott Johnson presents an unfortunate account of terrorism in the Sahel. Johnson sees fit to present readers with an article that brings little enlightenment. The central thesis of “The Terrorist Myth in North Africa,” is to debunk the notion that al-Qaeda “affiliates are growing stronger in other parts of the world, including across the Sahel.” Johnson does not prove this, merely arguing that it is unlikely that a group like AQIM would grow to pose a threat to the international interest in the Sahel.
Like the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Sahel is remote and inhospitable. For centuries, both areas have offered safe routes for drug smugglers, criminals, and brigands. Yet the Sahel offers little of what Pakistan’s border does in the way of hideouts, training camps, or networks of madrassas full of potential recruits. Unlike Tora Bora or South Waziristan, with their caves and hilly enclaves, much of the Sahel is vast, empty, trackless desert. Northern Mali, just one of the Sahel areas that American security officials are expressing concern about, is about 700,000 square kilometers—roughly the size of Texas—but has fewer than 1 million people.
The notion that the Sahel does not offer rogues “hideouts, training camps,” or a “network of madrassas full of potential recruits” is dispensed with by the fact that it in fact offers all of these things, though in shorter supply. For instance, as has been shown on this blog and in numerous government and non-governmental reports, AQIM operatives arrested in Mali (and Algeria, too) have spoken about AQIM training camps in northern Mali, and Mauritanians and other north-west Africans made those camps their first stop on the way to Iraq (if they indeed did end up going there). The young man who carried out the suicide bombing in Nouakchott (which is not mentioned in Johnson’s report) in August was one of many Mauritanians who had passed through the Mali camps. In recent months, AQIM has shifted its emphasis out of the interior and more directly inside Mauritania. But AQIM is not the only set to have used the Sahel’s vast expanse to organize armed rebellion: the Tuareg wars of the 1990’s and early part of this decade were waged from camps and hideouts in the desert and the rough mountains rising from the desert in Niger. If the Sahel did not offer militants these things, why on earth was the Algerian GSPC (now AQIM) making its quick retreat there after its failure in the north?
None of this is to say that AQIM is as dangerous as the Taliban or al-Qaeda in the Afghanistan/Pakistan borderlands. It is, though, to say that one loses perspective if he compares apples and oranges. The Sahel and Af/Pak are two entirely separate regions with separate geographies and historical contexts. To evaluate the Sahel in terms of Af/Pak yields a moment of relief, but when the region is looked at on its own terms — those of an Algeria not far out of a massive and savage Civil War, restive nomadic populations in Niger, wide and practically all-encompassing poverty, the encroachment on traditional religious customs by the cosmopolitan Islamist ideologies via satellite and eastern missionaries and the emergence of progressively more despotic governments amid popular dissatisfaction — the picture is more clear and the region is more justly prioritized.
Today, the Sahel, as has been written here and by others, is going through rapid culture change. This has been brought on by urbanization, caused by draught and other natural phenomena, and the rise of television stations like al-Jazeera, al-Arabyia and so forth. This has added a new level of conscious to an area of the Arab and Muslim world that was previously relative isolated from the Islamist trends in the Arab east. Johnson, though, doesn’t consider this.
[. . . ] the region has never proved to be a fertile ground for the kind of extremist ideology that drives Al Qaeda’s expansion in other parts of the world. Unlike the hinterlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan, where sympathy for hardline Islamist ideology runs broad and deep, in the Sahel jihadist ideology has never taken root. Instead, moderate strains of Sufi Islam have governed the lives of the region’s inhabitants for centuries. Leonardo Villalon, director of the Center for African Studies at the University of Florida, observes that despite the poverty in the region—often the kind of conditions that can spur resentment against the West and interest in jihadist movements—terrorist groups have gained virtually no traction there. Surprisingly, he says, there is instead “widespread social condemnation” of the kind of brutal violence witnessed in the Sahel over the past few years.
Simply because the region has yet to be broadly receptive to extremist ideology does not mean that it cannot be. Johnson ignores the vast gap in historical experience between the two regions. On the one hand in the tribal regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan experienced the deliberate and forceful introduction of such ideology by Arab and Pakistani fighters and government funds during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Sahel has had no such conflict. The massive differences in population between the Sahel and either Afghanistan or Pakistan also contribute to the Sahel’s lack of heavy Islamist presence ideologically. The border regions in Afghanistan and Pakistan are densely and heavily populated. In such an environment, ideologies spread easily. The Sahel has been predominantly rural and semi-nomadic until the misfortunes of late, and the social dislocation one sees in such a context might very well prove to offer up a constituency for militant ideology. That jihadist groups have not made deep inroads into the area is mainly because tradition remains strong and the area isolated from the fashions in the east. The “widespread social condemnation” of terrorist tactics Johnson notes is real; but younger generations have shown less of it, under the influence of new ideas and new political priorities, but not by much. He draws a comparison that is, put directly, unreasonable on multiple fronts.
The ability of AQIM militants to break out of prison in 2008, to carry out a suicide bombing not far from the presidential palace this year, and to carry on with recruiting young men even now speaks to the fact that the radicalizing mechanism does exist. The Salafist presence in the Sahel is growing, its social and political views are shaped more by the internationalizing trends in Islamism elsewhere than in local traditions. One can observe this in both Mauritania and Mali. Fifteen years ago, the influence of Salafism or politicized religious people either country was not readily apparent. Changes are happening, quickly. “My Friend Who Disappeared,” a film in which a young Mauritanian explores the fate of a childhood friend who disappeared after joining AQIM, won first place at the Nouakchott Film Festival this year. Clearly, the Mauritanians see the group as a threat, both at the official level where it is a political tool and at the popular level where it is a genuine cause of concern for public stability.
The bigger point is that it does not take broad social approval to launch a destabilizing campaign in a place like the Sahel. What Johnson leaves out, curiously, is the fragility of local governments and the importance of tribalism in the area. In no fewer than three Sahel countries, Mauritania, Niger and Guinea, there have been important and disappointing disruptions of constitutional government in the last ten years. Mauritania has seen two coups, the second resulting in a political process of dubious legitimacy tolerated by international actors and many in the political establishment, causing growing popular disillusionment with western wisecracks about supporting democratic government in the region. In Niger, President Tandja shoved through an extension of his presidential term, amid widespread opposition. In Guinea a military coup, led by an artless and shameless captain, recently mowed down protesters, deeply impacting the way many in the region see the fate of resistance. Recent floods have shown that the national infrastructure in the region is especially vulnerable in urban areas. As the political processes in the region turns sour, closing off peaceful outlets for political expression, closing off peaceful outlets for political expression, the likelihood that political order may be put in jeopardy increases.
The attacks Johnson mentions do not involve any of those involving local targets. The Mauritanian soldiers killed in the north of that country in 2005 and 2008 are mentioned only in passing. The gunfight in Tavregh Zeina, also in 2008, warrants no attention. The suicide attack by the French embassy in August is also unmentioned. He further omits fighting over the last year between Malian forces and AQIM militants. Johnson writes the story without ever mentioning or examining where it takes place, beyond the vagary of “that broad expanse of remote desert stretching from Africa’s north Atlantic coast inland to the border of Darfur.” A “broad expanse of remote desert,” it remains throughout the rest of Johnson’s report, its population passive and nameless and their troubles too petty to be taken seriously by powerful men. The ability of the United States to affect the situation in the Sahel is limited, and it is curious that Johnson leaves out any analysis of France’s role in the area, which was, with the sole exception of the Western Sahara, its colonial domain exclusively. The message, in all, seems to be that AQIM has not done enough harm to westerners and Americans to be considered a genuine “threat” to international stability. The social malaise goading on its rise and the group’s attrocities against locals are of special concern.
There are places where Johnson is less problematic.
There is also little evidence that the groups carrying out the violence in the Sahel subscribe to the same world views as Qaeda militants along the AfPak border. The clearly stated objective of the militants in Waziristan, for instance, is the toppling of the nuclear-armed regime in Pakistan. The Sahel gangs, by contrast, have failed to outline a clear rationale for their attacks, and their operations are more like those of small-time criminals than purveyors of ideological hatred bent on regional or global domination, even if their rhetoric includes references to jihad and the “detritus of Afghanistan,” says Vijay Prashad, an expert on the Sahel at Trinity College in Connecticut. The Sahel group, known as Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, is “not a threat on the world stage,” says Prashad. “It has no global ambitions. It doesn’t even seem to have local ambitions. They’ve devolved into a gang.”
That AQIM has no agenda is incorrect. It was, and Johnson would have done well to mention this, a group that broke off from other militant factions in the Algerian Civil War. Its original goal was the overthrow of the Algerian state and its replacement with an Islamic government. Upon adopting the al-Qaeda moniker, it extended this goal to other governments in the region. Its new recruits, mainly from Mauritania but also from other countries in the area, are very often “reformed” criminals, crooks and other riffraff. But it is known that these men are “converted,” as it were, to the group’s interpretation of religion, that they put their skills to go use, either using the group to make money, find something to do or to vent their violent frustrations. Because there is little fighting to do, they mostly end up in the first role, smuggling cigarettes, drugs or stolen car parts and sending the money to the groups central command and pocketing a bit for themselves. Its ambitions are very local, restricted mostly to north-west Africa, the emphasis being on Mauritania and Algeria, though they have some interest in Morocco but little access.
This beggs more steady clarification: AQIM’s interests are local out of circumstance, more than ambition. The border between Algeria and Morocco is locked shut, and the vicinity of the Western Sahara is made largely impenetrable as a result of landmines and heavy policing. The rest of the region is lightly populated, allowing for easy movement and concealment. GSPC’s old strongholds in Algeria are weakening, and smuggling has proved to be a lucrative means of income in the desert for a cash starved movement. It operates very much like a gang, but that is not all it is or all it can be. As of now, it is primarily a region problem and a marginal one at that. Its communiques indicate that it has rather direct goals: to overthrow governments that are not sufficiently Islamic. And in a place where ideology is unimportant at the mass level, this is an unpopular goal. But one does not need a mass following to destabilize or bring down order, he only only needs the right weapons, a good understanding of routines and where power is weakest.
The experts Johnson references (it is hard to call Prashad a Sahel expert, based on his work, but this is Newsweek, after all) support the view that the Sahel is not Af/Pak, and that there are few precedents to the sort of horror one sees there. All this is stated without ever acknowledging that there is practically no one in the US government or military advocating for the increase of US involvement in the region to anything similar to what it is in Af/Pak. His expert quotations take the place of actual illustration of why extremist ideology is unpopular in the region — or why that historic resilience is potentially quite vulnerable. The real issues associated with radicalization in the Sahel (particularly Mauritania) are not so much tribal as urban. The recruits to AQIM have hailed from the cities, not the nomadic regions. So when Johnson quotes the deputy assistant secretary of state for Africa as saying “local tribes ‘do not believe in their ideology,'” this is rather beside the point — even if some AQIM leaders have intermarried into regional tribes, their targets for recruitment are urban people, not those in the countryside. Even if the tribes are not won over to ideology, the logic of tribalism puts them in a place where if a member is convinced and brings conflict to the tribe, the tribe acts as a unit for its own protection — regardless of ideology. From the start, though, AQIM is more interested in dislocated city boys, not tribal-minded youths, as those most removed from the traditional context are the most vulnerable to extremist ideology.
The most important quote in Johnson’s piece comes from Algerian political scientist Yahia Zoubir. Zoubir “[i]f you treat it from a solely security perspective, you’re producing more jihadists,” he says. This is quite true. Johnson however gives us nothing of a means of thinking about the problem in relation to the area’s own context or politics. Rather than treating AQIM as one part of a wider nexus of political and cultural challenges facing the region, Johnson appears to be cautioning against holding terrorism in any regard when looking at the region, a view Prashad has put forth before — arguing that one must examine the dynamism of the region as opposed to being blinded by al-Qaeda. This is fair enough, and is not a wrongheaded view to take.
Newsweek offers readers an article that offers little understanding of the region’s challenges, its relevance in the international order, the real impact of AQIM’s activities or anything else related to the region. It is, however, quite an exaggeration to say that “the policies coming out of Washington suggest that the administration believes the next big threat of terrorist activity comes not from Pakistan or Afghanistan, but from a barren desert in northern Africa populated by a relatively small group of thugs who go by the name of Al Qaeda.” One can find no such policy in place, and the Congressional discourse is not at all indicative of such an approach or worldview. Johson’s piece reads more like a hysterical condemnation of overreach and aggressiveness that would have been more worthwhile in 2003 than today. It cautions against actions neither taken nor in the cards. Johnson should be asking how those with agency can strengthen local institutions against radicalization, in the civil, cultural and economic fields before military ones. Newsweek is disinterested in useful reportage, it would seem.
If Johnson were of the opinion that the Sahel was unimportant internationally, his piece ought to have said this straightforwardly early in the piece and illustrated it for readers. Instead, what he has done is to make a spurious comparison to Af/Pak, make shortsighted blanket statements about the region — without bothering to mention any country’s case specifically — and then to state the obvious but all the while obscuring an accurate picture of the region or the serious troubles facing it.