Islamist Militancy In The Sahel: Frequently Asked Questions

In recent years, there have been indications that the Sahel region of Africa is emerging as a safe haven for Islamist militants. France’s intervention in Mali and the subsequent hostage crisis at the In Amenas gas plant in eastern Algeria last week appear to confirm this trend.

There are several reasons why the Sahel is suitable for terrorist bases. Firstly, the countries of the region are predominantly Muslim, meaning that militants can blend in more easily and draw recruits. Secondly, the sheer size of the Sahel region and the lack of effective border controls mean that militants have vast areas in which to hide and train, and they can cross relatively easily between countries. Thirdly, the collapse of the Qadhafi regime in Libya in late 2011 and the subsequent chaos in that country have allowed weapons and militants to flow into neighbouring or nearby states such as Algeria and Mali.

We have been covering these events in Business Monitor Online, and present a list of frequently asked questions (FAQs) below. More detailed analysis is available to subscribers in our online service.

Who was responsible for the attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria?

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a one-eyed Algerian fundamentalist who recently broke from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and set up his own group, ‘The Brigade of those that sign in Blood’.

What is al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)?

A primarily Algerian terrorist group that rebranded itself with the name ‘al-Qaeda’ in 2007 to gain prestige. It is mostly active outside Algeria because of Algiers’ heavy-handed (but largely successful) counter-terrorism policies. Its links to al-Qaeda ‘global’ seem largely nominal.

What are AQIM’s goals?

AQIM’s precursor (the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, GSPC) was active in the Algerian civil war in the 1990s, when it fought for an Islamic state in that country. It still aims to depose local secular governments, but also opposes Western influence in the region, which it believes supports the current regimes and keeps the region poor.

Does AQIM pose a real threat to the region?

Yes. Along with several allied groups, AQIM conquered northern Mali in April 2012, expelling government troops and forcing 460,000 people to flee. The militants are well-armed, well-financed, and have a history of attacking Western interests (mining, etc). They are much more dangerous now that they control part of a country. While attacks in Europe are not necessarily imminent, reports that the militants have begun recruiting operatives within the African diaspora in Europe are worrying.

Will the French-led intervention in Mali defeat the militants?

Probably not, although it is likely to keep them occupied in Mali over the next few months, making attacks outside that country less likely (the In Amenas crisis notwithstanding). Eventually, France is likely to re-take northern Mali, but this will not destroy the militants. An Afghanistan-like stalemate is a reasonable example of what could happen.

Can regional states deal with this threat?

No. Apart from Algeria, the region has some of the poorest and worst-governed countries on earth. The borders between them exist largely on paper, and are completely undefended. Regional militaries are poorly equipped, badly trained, and do not cooperate with one another.

Is British Premier David Cameron right to talk about a ‘multi-decade struggle’?

Yes and no. If the goal is ending instability in the Sahel and transforming countries like Niger into functioning states, then he is correct that this will take decades (if it ever happens). If the goal is preventing instability in the Sahel from harming Europe, then this is more achievable, and will take less time. Overall, the West has lived with a dangerous Sahel for years; European governments are more likely to tolerate the occasional hostage-taking in the region than make an Afghanistan-style commitment to rebuilding a region the size of India.