February 21, 2007 | World Defense Review

Violence, Islamism, and Terror in the Sahel

Earlier this month, by coincidence, as President George W. Bush made the announcement in Washington that the United States Department of Defense would be establishing a unified combatant command for Africa (see my column last week on the new structure, to be known by the acronym AFRICOM), the deputy commander of the U.S. European Command (EUCOM), Army General William E. “Kip” Ward, was sitting down in Dakar, Senegal, with the military chiefs of nine African countries who have been key partners in the effort to prevent the efforts of Islamist militants from turning the their subregion into the next front in their wider war against international society in general and America in particular.

The Sahel – the name is derived from the Arabic sahil, “shore” or “border” (of the Sahara Desert) – is the critical boundary region where increasingly significant Sub-Saharan Africa meets North Africa, also known as the Maghreb (from the Arabic maghrib, “place of sunset” or “western”). Since 9/11, a number of experts have voiced concern that the Sahel, with its vast empty spaces and highly permeable borders, could serve local and international terrorists both as a base for recruitment and training and as a conduit for the movement of personnel and material – much as Afghanistan had been for al-Qaeda in the late 1990s. With these concerns in mind, in one of its less heralded but nevertheless highly significant diplomatic successes, the Bush administration has worked to develop closer military, political, and economic ties with the states in the region.

At the end of 2002, the Pan Sahel Initiative (PSI), a modest program with an initial budget of less than $10 million, was launched. PSI sent U.S. Army Special Forces from EUCOM to train counterterrorism units from the militaries of Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. The program, which wrapped up in 2004, was a remarkable success, with PSI-trained personnel from Chad and Niger sweeping up members of the Algerian Islamist terrorist group Salafist Group for Call and Combat (usually known by its French acronym GSPC) who had taken refuge in their respective countries.

Following up on this success, the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative (TSCTI) was inaugurated the following year with an approximate annual budget of $80 million. The TSCTI currently includes Algeria, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia, and, operationally, is centered on the deployment of about 200 members of the 10th U.S. Army Special Forces Group to train military units of partner countries and improve their strategic and tactical coordination with American military and intelligence operations. As U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Counterterrorism Henry A. Crumpton noted at a conference last year in Algiers:

We envision a multi-faceted, multi-year strategy aimed at defeating terrorist organizations by helping to strengthen regional counterterrorism capabilities, by enhancing and institutionalizing cooperation between your security forces and ours and most importantly, by promoting economic development, good governance, education, liberal institutions, and democracy. Through broad policy success we discredit terrorist ideology and deny them the recruits they need, while providing these erstwhile recruits opportunity and hope.

In addition to the Pentagon-led efforts, the Sahel countries have also received support from State Department programs – especially the Anti-Terrorism Assistance (ATA) program and the Terrorist Interdiction Program (TIP) – and other U.S. government agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Department of the Treasury. These efforts have already borne fruit. For example, Amari Saifi, a former Algerian army officer-turned-GSPC leader better known by his nom de guerre Abderrazak al-Para (“the paratrooper”) who was responsible for the daring 2003 kidnapping of thirty-two European tourists, was captured after an unprecedented U.S.-coordinated pursuit involving U.S. Navy P-3C Orion long range surveillance aircraft across the open deserts of Mali, Niger, and Chad; he now serves a life sentence in far-less-open confines of an Algerian prison.

Despite successes like the capture of al-Para, discussions concerning Africa's place in the global war on terrorism, including those in this column, have largely focused on al-Qaeda-liked groups in the Horn of Africa and Islamist penetration of local militant groups in places like Nigeria. Meanwhile the Sahel has witnessed an increase in terrorist activities as militant Islamists groups under pressure from TSCTI partners in the Maghreb – including Algeria's GSPC, the Moroccan Islamic Combat Group (known as GICM from its French acronym) implicated in the simultaneous bombings in Casablanca (2003) and Madrid (2004), and the Tunisian Islamic Front (FIT) – have shifted their operations to the remoteness of the Sahara. General Ward himself noted at the Dakar meeting: “There is a demonstrated history of activities occurring in one area so they can be exported and conducted and carried out in another.”

Of these challenges, the most significant may be that presented by the GSPC whose “emir,” Abu Musab Abdul Wadud, it should be recalled, formally pledged allegiance last year to “Sheikh Osama” and al-Qaeda; since then, the GSPC has begun to identify itself in communiqués as “Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb.” This link was confirmed by Osama bin Laden's deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri who, in the “commemorative video” issued on the fifth anniversary of the attacks on the American homeland, declared: “Our mujahid Sheikh and the Lion of Islam, Osama bin Laden,…has instructed me to give the good news to Muslims in general and my mujahidin brothers everywhere that the Salafist Group for Call and Combat has joined al-Qaeda of Jihad Organization.” The Egyptian terrorist hailed the “blessed union” between the GSPC and al-Qaeda, pledging that it would “be a source of chagrin, frustration and sadness for the apostates [of the regime in Algeria], the treacherous sons of [former colonial power] France,” and urging the group to become “a bone in the throat of the American and French crusaders” in the region and beyond.

While declarations of support for al-Qaeda are one thing, evidence has emerged within the past year of actual operational collaboration between the GSPC and global Islamist extremist movements. While many former members of the GSPC availed themselves of a general amnesty program that expired last summer, the leader of the group's southern command, Khaled Abu al-Abbas, also known as Mukhtar Bilmukhtar, has led a group of Algerians, Malians, and Mauritanians in sophisticated hit-and-run attacks on isolated military outposts. In various web postings, Bilmukhtar has acknowledged both his debt to al-Qaeda and his desire to “punish” the governments of Mali, Mauritania, and Niger for their cooperation with U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

I reported last month, a prominent Islamic cleric in northern Nigeria, Mohammed Bello Ilyas Damagun, has been formally charged with receiving $300,000 from al-Qaeda accounts in Sudan to use in sending seventeen young men to receive terrorism and other combat terrorism at the GSPC's Ummul Qurah camp in Mauritania. Even more disconcerting is, as Olivier Guitta reported last week in the online edition of The Weekly Standard, the GSPC-cum-al-Qaeda branch has as its objective “to make the Maghreb a springboard to Europe with the help of the Algerian Islamist Khalid Abou Bassir, believed to be one of al-Qaeda's leaders in Europe.” Guitta's concern is well-founded: just last week the Spanish daily El País reported that one Mbar El Jaafari, a Moroccan militant, had been arrested in the port city of Tarragona, south of Barcelona, for sending some thirty-five young recruits from Spain for weapons training, including the use of ground-to-air missiles and explosives, at GSPC-run camps in the Sahel with the aim of establishing al-Qaeda “sleeper cells” upon their return.

Furthermore, incursions by Sudanese Janjaweed fighters as well as Chadian rebels backed by the Islamist regime in Khartoum into eastern Chad, to say nothing of the imminent “success” of the genocide in Darfur, as my colleague Professor Michael I. Krauss and I have reported, threaten to inject yet another complicating factor into the geopolitical dynamics of the Sahel. Quite aside from its genocide in Darfur and its on-again-off-again war with South Sudan, the longstanding and never disavowed violent Islamist ideological underpinnings of the Sudanese regime should not be discounted.

All that said, it should be noted that fortunately to date radical Islamism has not attracted widespread support among the 100 million or so inhabitants of the Sahel. Yet the extreme poverty of and simmering ethnic tensions within the region, when compounded on the general weakness of its governments, render the terrain especially fertile for extremist penetration. As I noted in a Voice of America report last week on the rising violence in the region: “Groups that have what I would call purely local grievances some of which I might add are also legitimate but in their desperation, in an asymmetric combat, will take help from anywhere they can receive it and these groups have received input from outside groups that do not necessarily share their immediate concerns but have an interest in creating havoc and chaos in whatever region.”

In this context, and given the strategic importance of Africa to U.S. national interests as reaffirmed by the creation of AFRICOM, it would behoove American policymakers to follow the situation closely and to continue engaging the countries of the Sahel and Maghreb – “bring[ing] 'value added' to the good work that's being done by the U.S. European Command in Africa,” in General Ward's terms – cultivating their cooperation in security matters and, just as importantly, developing their governance and socio-economic capacities as the surest bulwark against violence, Islamism, and terrorism.

– J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs and a Research Fellow of the Institute for Infrastructure and Information Assurance at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.