There has been a flurry of commentary and analysis in recent weeks and days focusing on the implications of weapons scattered about the Sahel in the wake of the collapse of the Qadhafi regime in Libya. It ranges from the alarmist to the sensible. There highly technical pieces and more general ones; some have also focused on the out-migration of Nigerien, Malian and Libya Tuareg out of Libya since the conquest of Tripoli and the socio-politics this may lead to in the wider Sahel. These tend to focus on the Tuaregs as (foreign) mercenaries, infrequently mentioning the many Libyan Tuareg who fought on either side of the conflict or who have been and are being drastically impacted by the conflict’s course. Given the very little attention Tuaregs receive from English speakers in general, one notices many problems in these articles, especially in the middle-brow magazines and newspapers that have recently discovered the Sahel. A more systematic attack on some of the assumptions and assertions guiding these would probably be done by some one like Tommy Miles, with the expertise to give a really strong break down. For sure, the return and/or migration of large numbers of Tuareg former fighters, refugees and others into countries like Niger and Mali, coupled with the political troubles that might to places like Burkina Faso and Chad as a result of the loss of Libya as a strong backer and/or patron will shake things up in the region. Sophisticated weapons in the hands of smugglers, “bandits,” rebel factions, terrorists (read: AQIM) and other criminal elements is a serious threat to everyone in the region; the Mauritanians have favored areal assaults in recent engagements with AQIM. Imagine if the group had surface to air misiles. The recent summit in Algiers was noted for its focus on the conflict in Libya, leaving the conventional conversations about AQIM in its shadow. It was also notable for the criticism offered up by the Nigeriens over the lack of “concrete” action in Algerian-led efforts. Tensions between the new government in Tripoli and Algiers could slow down any effort at successfully managing these problems.
For several years, analysts have looked at the Sahel as a potential “hot spot” for terrorism and other symptoms of weak states and poor/low capacity governance. A recent Time magazine piece reiterated this theme this week. A Twitterized version of this general debate took place this evening between Christopher Boucek and Clint Watts (of Selected Wisdom).
Later posts will look at the Sahel as a “hot spot”; having followed the region for a little while this blogger believes there are two things to consider: (1) that many assumptions and predictions are easily challenged and overturned, quickly; and (2) the traditional areas AQIM has targeted (northern Algeria and Mauritania) and AQIM (as an organization) have evolved in the last two years especially, in governmental approaches and AQIM’s composition and locality. Not having much time, one can argue that the Libyan episode has significantly changed the balance of power and the function of space in the region (though not necessarily fundamentally or in the long term). The region is different this summer than last summer; and last summer AQIM did not look especially threatening in macro-perspective for all sorts of reasons even if it was awash with ransom money and snatching up Europeans. The weapons factor is important and the solvency and levels of political risk facing some countries is higher. AQIM is not a strategic threat to global security. It remains a basically technical threat as opposed to a political one. The Mauritanian government’s approach to AQIM, if imperfect, looks more sensible in 2011 than it did in 2009-2010. The Malians and Nigeriens are somewhat more engaged though the Algerians’ posture seems to have remained constant throughout (which may or may not be in itself productive so far as the Sahel states are concerned; one sees the Algerians’ rigid commitment to principles like national sovereignty and non-intervention playing out in the Sahel as in Libya — such ideas have serious weight among Algerian military and diplomatic officials, more than many outsiders often give them credit, and their reluctance to bring western powers deeper into regional security arrangements are not necessarily evidence of a tangled conspiracy). In any case, the region is likely to get more interesting in coming months.