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.