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Crisis in the Sahel: Bitter Fruit of the “Arab Spring”

Though terrorist activity has threatened the Sahel region since the rise of Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) in 2002, the Arab Spring of 2011 and the instability caused by the overthrow of longtime dictatorships has increased the possibility of violence and insurgency. At the recent Heritage Foundation event, Crisis in the Sahel: Bitter Fruit of the “Arab Spring,” academics, analysts, and civil servants discussed the evolving situation in Africa’s Sahel region and the implications the crisis may have on U.S. foreign policy.

The panel defined the Sahel as one of Africa’s “least governed spaces,” focusing specifically on the arid regions of Algeria, Libya, Mali, Niger, and Chad. This region, the traditional home of the Tuaregs, has become a haven for criminal and terrorist groups. The nearly ungoverned region allows these groups to move largely unchecked by states’ security forces.

The situation in the Sahel has not yet gotten to the point where it directly threatens the U.S or its interests outside of the region. In fact, Don Yamamoto, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, recently testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee that “the security situation in West Africa has evolved during the past year but the ability of other extremist organizations to threaten U.S. interests outside of North Africa remains limited.” However, he went on to say “the countries in the region do not currently have the individual military capabilities to attack AQIM’s established safe-havens in remote mountain areas or to effectively monitor and control thousands of miles of open borders.”

There is no question that the Sahel has become a safe haven for crime and terrorism and is beginning to resemble Afghanistan in the 1990s. AQIM has a number of training camps in the Sahel and has directly assisted other regional Islamic separatist/extremist groups such as Ansar Dine and Boko Haram. Last year, security forces in Niger discovered cash, weapons and 600kg of plastic explosives from Libya intended for AQIM in the Sahel. Other shipments of weapons and explosives are likely increasing as attacks have expanded over the past year.  This expansion and threat is specifically true in northern Mali where dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the Tuareg insurgency (in collaboration with AQIM-tied Ansar Dine) led to a military coup. Additionally, a new Al-Qaeda franchise attempting to make its presence known in Libya is suspected of the June 5 attack against the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi.

Though governments in the region have the desire to prevent and suppress the groups that have blossomed in the region, they do not have the resources to do so and seem to hope that the West will intervene. Al-Qaeda may be weakened in central Asia but the group’s franchise in west and north Africa is growing stronger. The question is not if there is a crisis brewing in the Sahel but how long before the instability spills out of the desert and requires action.


Digital Diplomacy: Engaging in a Warzone

The U.S. State Department has focused increasingly on moving beyond traditional government-to-government diplomacy to improve its communication and direct engagement with international publics.  This communication focus is particularly evident with populations living in areas where U.S. military operations are taking place.

The logic is simple:  The more international audiences understand the rationale and challenges of U.S. missions, the easier it may be for those local populations to support American goals and objectives.

In our second in a series of posts on the methods and effects of U.S. digital diplomacy, Strategic Social examines two Twitter accounts in countries where local perceptions of U.S. diplomatic efforts could not matter more: Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, these two countries also suffer from low literacy and internet penetration rates making the reach of digital diplomacy not as great as it may be in other countries where social media has become the norm.

As several recent incidents strained relations between the U.S. and Afghanistan, the embassy’s tweets, which are generally precautionary, demonstrate a concerted effort to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. After the burning of Korans at a U.S. base, the embassy immediately tweeted dozens of apologies from Gen. John R. Allen, commander of the International Security Assistance Force, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the White House.

Although the U.S. is now preparing for the withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan, the embassy’s tweets continue to emphasize the U.S. commitment to a long-term partnership with the Afghan people beyond 2014.  For example, one Afghan journalist tweeted “#Ryan Crocker, ‪#US ambassador in ‪#Kabul: US & its allies are tired but not the ‪#Taliban & ‪#Al-Qaeda members.” The embassy replied “@Mohsin_Jam — Misquote of ‪#AmbCrocker. He was saying now is NOT the time to pull out. ‘If we get tired of this, Al-Q&Taliban won’t.’”  The embassy then posted a series of tweets confirming the U.S. commitment to the future of Afghans.

 While the Twitter account is aimed almost exclusively at Afghans, few people tweet at the embassy. It is important to note no U.S. embassy tweets are written in Dari or Pashto, potentially making its efforts appear as half-hearted attempts to reach Afghans  We have found diplomacy, and especially Twitter diplomacy, is often most successful when there are efforts to engage listeners (even if they are not English speaking) in a conversation.

The U.S. embassy in Islamabad also tweets primarily in English. However, English is an official language of Pakistan and the Twitter feed is intended to reach citizens in the host country and Americans abroad. In this case, Twitter is used to broadcast visa tips and news related to counterterrorism cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistani governments.  Most importantly, the embassy maximizes Twitter’s potential by treating it as a conversation. The embassy regularly replies to questions regarding USAID initiatives and counterterrorism efforts, encouraging a productive relationship between the citizens of Pakistan and the U.S. even though government ties have been strained by recent events.

For instance, one Pakistani TV host inquired about the State Department’s reward of $10 million for information leading to the arrest of Pakistani terrorist Hafiz Saeed. The embassy was quick to dispel disinformation regarding the Rewards for Justice program, retweeting embassy spokesman Mark Stroh’s clarification that the bounty is only for evidence that can withstand judicial scrutiny.






As the U.S.’s military commitments to Afghanistan decrease and Pakistan becomes an increasingly strategic partner/neighbor in the fight against violent extremism, the U.S.’s image (whether positive or negative) in the eyes of Afghans and Pakistanis impacts the effectiveness of U.S. operations in the region. Specifically, U.S. diplomatic, economic and humanitarian efforts will only be as successful as the local population allows. Given heightened tensions between the U.S. and these two nations’ governments, local engagement with Afghans and Pakistanis is vital to success.


Soccer: Battleground Against Authoritarianism

The Arab Spring of 2011 resonated across the Middle East and North African societies in unexpected ways. Despite the propensity of the news media and blogosphere to jump on social media as the enabler of the region’s revolutions, many researchers have begun to examine other factors that played a significant role in the uprisings.

In his recent lecture, “Soccer as an Engine of Change and Assertion of Identity,” James Dorsey examined the role of soccer in the Egyptian revolution, concluding that the violent and anarchist nature of Egyptians’ soccer habits make the sport an engine of change.

This view may be due in part to a lack of civil society in Mubarak’s Egypt: “soccer is like the mosque.” The sport is too popular for the government to shut down so autocrats must control it.  The fans, called “ultras” (التراس), are extremely committed. However, these crowds can tend toward anarchism as the soccer stadium dissolves into a battleground for street gangs and autocrats. Significantly, Dorsey argues that the organization and violent culture of the “ultras” enabled the protests in Egypt during the Arab Spring.

While Dorsey’s hypothesis applies specifically to Egypt, Strategic Social analyzed the role of soccer in Tunisia, Morocco, Bahrain and Syria to determine if the sport has played a similar role in these countries’ own uprisings. Though Morocco and Tunisia differ in the degree of political upheaval produced by the Arab Spring, the two nations’ soccer fans appear to fit the Egyptian “ultra” example, as soccer matches became excuses for indiscriminate violence and anarchist behavior, as opposed to political activism against authoritarianism.

In Bahrain, where dissent has mostly been contained to the Shi’a majority, two Shi’a soccer players, Alaa Hubail, the best player on Bahrain’s national team, and his brother Mohammad, spoke out at an athletes’ rally against the royal family.  They found soccer was not untouchable in the island kingdom. When the government crackdown began, the head of the Bahraini Olympic committee made an example of athlete-protesters to cow the population: Security forces arrested Alaa and Mohammad during training and denounced the two as “traitors and spies” on state-run television, demonstrating that the stadium was not a safe haven for dissenters. They were imprisoned, tortured, banned from playing, and Alaa was exiled to Oman. Unlike Dorsey’s Egyptian example where fans use the soccer stadium as a venue for anti-regime activity, it was Bahraini athletes themselves who used their popularity to affect change. Syria presents a similar case, as the regime attempts to silence soccer personality Abdelbasset Sarout and has imprisoned Mosab Balhouse, the national team’s goalie. Like the Bahraini case, soccer players in Syria have become national symbols of the opposition.

Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia seem to fit into their own category of “soccer activism,” where fan groups act as a catalyst for change as the stadium is (was) one of the only arenas of expression outside state control. Alternatively, Bahrain and Syria have taken the increasingly common approach of using immensely popular (soccer) celebrities to advance already-developed movements for social change.

Though soccer plays different roles in each of these countries, the sport maintains potential for social upheaval in societies that value it for both the game and its communal nature. Therefore, it is precisely this societal importance of soccer that makes it an opportunity for change and simultaneously a threat to the status quo.