France24 has made available a video tape showing the daily routine of AQIM fighters at an undisclosed location by an unnamed “defector” from the terrorist group. The summary is as follows:
A video cassette obtained by FRANCE 24 contains rare images of Islamist militants in the remote Sahel desert. The exclusive footage shows a gathering of allied insurgent groups, training sessions for young recruits and, perhaps most interestingly, scenes of daily life and leisure of fugitive fighters.
The cassette was found on a defector of one of the insurgent groups active in northern Africa under the banner of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM. The defector was stopped by security personnel for a control of personal documents.
[. . .]
The images are not dated, nor do they offer clues about what country they were taken in. What they do offer is a rare, unscripted glimpse of the lives of Islamist militants; in their daily chores, during moments of playfulness and boredom.
Much of the video consists of Algerians and Mauritanians (as well as some Moroccans and other Arabs; they are practically all Arabic speakers) horsing around, rolling the mud and playing commando. Like previous videos of the group’s after hours activities, the new tape makes AQIM look less terrifying than their reputation portends. It underscores previous knowledge: that it draws mostly urban, Moorish Mauritanians and that Algerians appear to be heavily entrenched in leadership positions.
At the moment it is more interesting to think about the tape while at the same time considering much of the ideas put out in the very engaging and interesting ACAS Bulletin, “US militarization of the Sahara-Sahel: Security, Space & Imperialism,” which includes an excellent article on democracy promotion in the region under Bush and Obama by fellow blogger Alex Thurston of the great Sahel Blog. Most interesting is Jacob Mundy’s introduction which, as introductions do, synthesizes the over arching ideas about American involvement in the Sahara-Sahel region, particularly by way of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), energy interests and the rest. The whole issue asks important questions about the value, risks and motivations around American policy in the region and the “threat” that AQIM and “terrorism” poses to the region. Many North Americans take terrorism as first order threat to American interests in the region. Others have it somewhat differently: terrorism is a symptom (like smuggling and ethnic violence) of broader, systemic problems such as environmental, social, cultural and economic change and parasitic elites. Mundy and other authors in the Bulletin note that terrorism has been used to legitimize other, perhaps darker, motives. It is likely that the threat terrorism poses to vital American interests in North and west Africa has been exaggerated over the last decade.
The primary American interests in Africa are related to energy security and rising powers. Energy in that the United States receives more oil from Africa than it does the Middle East (as Mundy reminds us) and that the continent contains other major mineral deposits. North-west Africa in particular has oil, uranium, iron-ore and other valuable resources. This is ultimately why Africa receives attention in American policy. Political instability in places where these resources make Americans nervous for obvious reasons, and African states have plenty of this. The root causes of that instability — careless borders, ethnic and elite rivalry, economic and environmental troubles — are of little interest to outside actors, the United States included. The chief concern is results: what, how many and how quickly natural resources reach the market is what great powers are concerned with. How is frequently less interesting. For a number of reasons, Americans (and other peoples) find strictly economic rationales for involvement in foreign lands less compelling than emotive and ideational ones. Terrorism has been a great policy priority of the last ten years, of great utility for domestic leaders as well as Americans excited about AFRICOM. Political instability in the continent’s large oil-producing states also works in that direction but less so. In coming years, it is not unlikely that African borders will change to better (or worse) reflect cultural, political and economic priorities locally and internationally. This will involve violence and outside actors because it will drive and disrupt efforts at resource extraction and create refugees. This is especially probable in resource-rich countries.
“Rising powers” have grown increasingly assertive in world politics and have sought to expand into the global periphery economically and politically over the last decade and a half. China, Brazil, India, Turkey, Russia and others are increasingly relevant in Africa at the economic and political levels. Of these powers China causes the greatest anxiety for Americans. Russia, too, has proven frustrating for the United States, though less so than China. The Chinese have strictly secular and direct relationships with the continent’s elites. Their civil engineering projects come not just with bridges and dams and railways, but also with Chinese workers and residents. Their motives are clear and their presence often causes understandable resentment among Africans. The American intellectual class finds China’s rude resource gobbling appalling. African leaders feel differently. Economic influence is related to political influence and it follows that China is developing reliable allies on the continent (and has been for decades); it can count on many African states for votes at the United Nations and over problems like Taiwan, Tibet and Xingjaing. Other powers like Brazil have set out into the continent building and expanding embassies and seeking support for economic expansion and long-term goals like Security Council reform. The United States and other western powers (France and Spain) thus view themselves in competition for influence and resources in Africa. The Sahel has a little for everyone: on the coast there is fish (for the Spanish, the Japanese, the Chinese and others) and oil (for the US, Russia, Brazil and China), in the interior there is uranium (for France and Japan) and timber and iron and the list goes on. For all of these hungry powers “root causes” of instability matter less than short-term ones that secure the flow of resources in satisfactory or optimal volume over reasonable intervals. Again, the How is often less important than whether or not China, the United States, France or whomever else gets what they want.
These powers, particularly those already with significant clout — France, the United States, China and Britain — have invested in existing regimes to stave off disruptions. This means, particularly in the Sahel and Maghreb, standing behind Bonapartist regimes that do little to address the causes of instability. Environmental catastrophes, agricultural failures, urbanization and the rest demand solutions rooted in economic and social development. The assumption that a problem like AQIM or smuggling or ethnic uprisings has only political solutions or only economic or only military solutions; military solutions are political solutions as are economic ones. What degree of force is necessary to deal with those problems is debatable,
Based on AQIM’s conduct, reach and quality it can be said that the group itself it poses little direct threat to American interests. Indirectly, it could rank moderately high on a list of perhaps ten other threats to local security in states of reasonably high value to the United States or its allies. It is not an existential threat as such. Environmental and agricultural degradation are, though, and so are irresponsible regional elites. From a strictly great power perspective, China, Russia and Brazil are more problematic for the United States in west Africa. China and Brazil bring developmental, military and economic assistance with few strings attached and without colonial or Cold War baggage (at least for now). The quality of Chinese assistance is sometimes dubious and Brazil is still nibbling at the edges but over the medium term they represent potential challenges to American and European influence. Brazil is far less dangerous (and can perhaps be co-opted eventually) but nevertheless deliberate in its actions. The Russians, whose main interest is setting up control over Europe by way of gas supplies, would like to diminish Africa’s (or Europe’s) ability to present an energy alternative supply line to western and central Europe. These are all potential threats, except for the Chinese one (certainly from the North American perspective), and require political and economic savvy more than military capacity.
In more than one country in the region, the military is the strongest, most durable state institution. Military relationships, then, make sense for outside players who can afford them. This is less in the sense of basing rights than building political alliances with the most durable elite segments. Again, this does less to improve long-term prospects and much to continue current trends. Politicized military factions are often most powerful because the civilian ranks — the opposition, the business community, organized labor, etc. — are weak or poorly organized and the population too poor to “matter”. The center of group feeling is the military and so strength in other sectors often relies on support or initiative from the military. Priorities among local elites put survival first and their relations with outsiders reflect this, in no small part because outsiders carry similar motivations in the region. Increased foreign competition empowers local elites and dissident segments of the population. It has the potential to polarize local divisions and draw large powers into intrigues and conflicts they have no business (and no serious interest in) being a part of, regardless of what resources might be at stake.