Emerging Security Challenges in North and West Africa

The security situation in the northern and western regions of Africa, stretching from Morocco to Libya and from Mauritania to Chad across the sub-Saharan region, has been increasingly challenged by two major dilemmas: threats from proliferating jihadist groups, and human trafficking resulting from migration toward European shores. Recent studies show that Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Mali are “the countries most victimized.” The International Crisis Group considers the region to be among the most alarming conflict zones in 2017.

In the last four weeks alone, disturbing developments have illustrated the seriousness of extremism and violence in the region and beyond. Two soldiers of the Libyan National Army were gunned down by members of a local Islamic State (IS)-affiliated radical group in Ajdabiya, eastern Libya. The Tunisian government is still struggling with sleeper cells, terrorist plots (after the 2015 massacre of 38 people—most of whom were British—in Sousse), and the return of many of the 6,000 young and radicalized Tunisians from the battlefield, where they fought alongside IS. They represent “the highest per capita rate in the world” among IS foreign recruits. In neighboring Algeria, authorities killed two suspected terrorists in Laaouana, 380 kilometers east of the capital Algiers. In the Moroccan cities of Fez and Rabat, authorities dismantled two extremist cells and seized chemicals, firearms, suicide vests, and other devices. The seashores of these countries remain a springboard for illegal immigration on frail “death boats.” Recent German government studies leaked to the media stated that “as many as 6.6 million people were waiting in North African countries to cross into Europe.”

To the south of the Sahara, the French 4,000-man-strong counterterrorist Operation Barkhane killed 15 members of Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen, an affiliate of the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) group in northern Mali. This was retaliation against an attack launched by the militant group that resulted in the death of two local soldiers in an army base in Soumpi, Mali. On October 4, the United States lost four of its special forces soldiers in Agadez, Niger on a patrol mission to track down transnational extremist groups. Apparently, these killings were connected to a US plan to build “a $50 million drone base in Agadez, which will allow surveillance drones to monitor the movements of AQIM and ISIS insurgents….” By early November, the new multinational counterterrorism force established by the United Nations, known as the G5 Sahel, initiated its operations in the field with the “HAW BI” mission, including soldiers from Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. The objective is to set up “an area of control in this region of three borders to fight against armed groups and trafficking, in order to allow the return of a level of security favorable to the tranquility of the populations.”

To an outsider, these threats are overshadowed by an illusion of stability and development when compared to the explosive situations in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Still, it is important to formulate a nuanced assessment of this instability, the deep-rooted causes of radicalization, and regional policy implications, given the divergent US and EU priorities of counterterrorism versus containing migration. It is also imperative now to address whether the current reformulation of Washington’s counterterrorism policy in Africa is enough to avoid further destabilization of the region, and what can be recommended to help shape a well-rounded US strategy in conjunction with the new UN initiative.

The Arc of Instability

Despite the increasing security measures of the governments in northern and western Africa, the border areas remain an open field of jihad across the Sahara along ethnic, sectarian, tribal, nationalistic, and ideological lines. The past two years have been a breeding season for various extremist groups that splintered from AQIM, which maintains a wide span of field operations in southern Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya as well as in northern Niger and Mali. Similarly, al-Mourabitoun (the Sentinels) remains a powerhouse of jihadism in Algeria, Libya, Mali, and Niger. Its members are mainly veteran North African men who fought in Afghanistan in the 1990s under the leadership of the Algerian Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who is notorious for orchestrating the death of 50 individuals during a suicide attack on a military camp in Gao, northern Mali, last January. Nicknamed “the Uncatchable,” Belmokhtar has escaped several attempts on his life, including a US airstrike in Libya in 2015.

The internal dynamics of these two mega groups have led to the desertion of several of their senior leaders who declared allegiance to IS. As a result, more than 20 groups now have ties with IS in the continent. In his recent Eighth Annual Report, terrorism analyst Yonah Alexander highlights that “the number of radical political and social actors is both proliferating and becoming increasingly linked, formally and informally, in a ‘holy alliance’ of ‘like-minded’ movements, as well as ‘strange bedfellows,’ intent on trafficking, kidnapping, and violent extremism.”

For instance, the Islamic State of the Sahel (ISS) has increased its activities across the Mali-Niger border. Its armed men gunned down the four US soldiers in Niger in October, and have entered in negotiations with the Nigerien authorities for the release of Jeffrey Woodke, an American aid worker, who was abducted a year ago while providing humanitarian assistance in Niger. The militant group is led by Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, former senior spokesman for al-Mourabitoun’s Belmokhtar. ISS is headquartered in Mali whos government recently decreed a one-year extension of its imposed state of emergency in the country.

Other emerging jihadist groups include the Islamic State in Greater Sahara, which surfaced in August 2013 as a consolidation of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and the Masked Men Brigade; Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), led by Malian Iyad al-Ghaly and was very active in the 2012 insurgency in northern Mali; and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. In his October 23 news conference at the Pentagon, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford captured the enormity of the growing threats: “From Libya to Egypt’s Sinai, to East Africa and West Africa the jihadists have already posed a threat.”

Still, the complexity of the region goes beyond a linear dimension of the common interpretation of jihadism. Militant movements have exploited structural shortcomings, common feelings of despair, and the promise of religiosity. They also showcase flexibility in transforming their ideological identities while simply acting as common law breakers and smugglers.

Driving Forces behind Radicalization

There are several deep-rooted structural, demographic, and economic factors behind the emerging waves of violence in the region. The recent attacks and recurring terror plots remain indicators of growing extremism as a response to underdevelopment, poverty, and unemployment. Shrinking resources and political volatility have overlapped in several fragile states there. In the backdrop, governments in North and West Africa share a common denominator, with varying proportions, of accumulated public policy failures, poverty, climate change, widespread corruption, and high population growth. What makes this most problematic is the revelation by a 2013 UNESCO study that 70 percent of sub-Saharan countries are under 30 years of age.

Recent statistics from the World Bank indicate an alarming scale of unemployment in North Africa, currently at 25 percent—the highest regional rate in the world. Nearly one third of the jobless youth are university graduates, including those with advanced degrees. Two years ago, UN envoy Hiroute Guebre Sellassie cautioned against the rise of extremism and migration as two direct outcomes of the spread of hopelessness among 41 million young Africans in the region. Furthermore, North and West African countries have ranked low or very low in the 2016 UN worldwide ranking of countries in the Human Development Index. Of 188 countries, Mauritania ranked 155, Morocco, 123, Algeria 83, Tunisia 94, Libya 96, Chad 186, Mali 175, and Niger 187. The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates a significant shortage in food supplies in the sub-Saharan region in 2017. It projects that about “30 million people will not have enough to eat, of which almost 12 million will require emergency food assistance.”

Several nongovernmental organizations working in the field have warned about the continued political disarray in the region. The International Crisis Group asserts that “the absence or slow return of government administration to ‘liberated’ areas and other neglected hinterlands, and the weak and slow response to the fallout from these conflicts, such as displacement and social tensions, may allow militants to regroup.” US Central Africa Command Chairman Thomas Waldhauser acknowledges the correlation between poverty and extremism, stating recently: “In Africa with all the challenges of the youth bulge, poverty, the lack of governance, wide open spaces, these are areas where violent extremist organizations, like ISIS or like al Qaeda, thrive.”

With the deepening socioeconomic decline and shrinking opportunities for these northwest Africans to embrace the European dream, the region has become a fertile landscape for persistent jihadism, rebellion, and vengeance as normative calls for resistance. The widespread social malaise and lack of opportunity have pushed sizable numbers of the youth to be inspired by religiosity as a mechanism of defense and survival. Africa analysts like Grant Harris, former White House Senior Director for African Affairs (2011-2015), have pointed out that “the United States is essentially ignoring an entire continent replete with far-reaching challenges as well as economic opportunities. This neglect exposes Americans to greater risks from terrorism and other transnational threats, reduces U.S. economic competitiveness and diminishes U.S. global influence.”

Some local business leaders have given up hope on foreign aid programs and investments; instead, they advocate for African solutions to those African challenge, reasoning that non-Africans will not invest in the continent if its own people do not make the effort themselves.

The Tunnel Vision of Counterterrorism

Political volatility in the region has hindered the ability of local governments to meet the needs of their growing populations, instead emphasizing counterterrorism as a de facto top priority due to domestic, regional, and international considerations. Furthermore, despite the frequent meetings of Arab and African interior ministers for consultation and collaboration, intelligence and other tools of counterterrorism are reluctantly shared since they are considered among the classified files of the state within the protection of sovereignty. Human development and youth empowerment are still lagging while increasing poverty leads to crime, migration, or radicalization.

And then there is the American angle. Several observers in Washington argue that the Trump Administration lacks a coherent Africa policy as it espouses an over-militarized approach. J. Stephen Morrison, vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, asserts that the current lacks an Africa policy and is only clear about its military and special operations missions. President Trump’s drive for isolationism and a transactional approach have limited the United States’ role in addressing socioeconomic conditions. The outlook of US investments in Africa looks bleak despite rosy announcements. While meeting with a number of African presidents in New York in September, Trump made a rather broad statement, saying that “the United States is proud to work with you to eradicate terrorist safe havens, to cut off their finances, and to discredit their depraved ideology.” He also felt enthusiastic about the prospects of investment in the continent where “so many” of his friends were “going to your countries trying to get rich.”

Still, political critics assert that the neglect of Africa “constitutes nothing less than foreign policy malpractice.” Harris, the former White House official, argues that “the Trump administration’s primary response has been to sell more weapons to Nigeria and increase military engagement in Somalia. This approach misses the bigger picture: that the conditions in Africa’s many weak and failed states make it easier for risks like terrorism and criminal activity to spread.” The International Crisis Group also asserts that the muscular militarized approach “can neither fully contain the threat nor address its underlying causes.” Consequently, there have been 46 armed attacks on the Mali-Niger border since early 2016.

The Transatlantic-Mediterranean-Maghreb Divergence

The paradox of recognizing and addressing the threats of extremism in the region does not translate into serious collaboration with international alliances. The current dynamics of counterterrorism showcase several political paradoxes.

First, disagreement over strategic priorities is significant across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic vis-à-vis policies toward North and West Africa. Europe has toughened its anti-migration policy and aims at stimulating some stability as a precursor for curbing the flow of African migration. During her recent visit to Mali, the European Union’s foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, stated that “the stability and development of the Sahel region are crucial not only for Africa, but also for Europe.” However, the United States focuses on eradicating extremist groups in Libya, Niger, and Mali. During her recent tour in Ethiopia, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said that “Africa’s violence could become U.S. security threat.” On October 30, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced the allocation of up to $60 million dollars, awaiting congressional approval,to support the G5 Sahel Joint Force’s counterterrorism efforts. This money will bolster our regional partners in their fight to ensure security and stability in the face of ISIS and affiliated groups and other terrorist networks.”

Second, the US position toward the UN-initiated counterterrorism Africa force showcases two preferences:

1) The Trump Administration maintains its option of bilateral projects with specific governments. As the AFRICOM commander, General Thomas Waldhauser, said, “the United States currently makes a total of $51 million in bilateral defense contributions to the G5 countries.” In fact, Washington had hosted a defense conference with the G5 countries in May in Germany. Waldhauser clearly stated that “this is exactly what we want to have happen, we want partner nations who share the same overall strategic objectives that we do. We want to try to foster that type of behavior.”

2) Washington favors the implementation of its own strategies of counterterrorism and does not embrace the international enthusiasm for a UN-African Union counterterrorism force. Instead, it adopts a piecemeal approach of funding internationally shaped formulas to combat extremism.

Third, the Security Council’s decision to support the African force, the G5 Sahel, has energized the rivalry between neighboring Morocco and Algeria. Both countries consider the sub-Saharan region as a backyard area for their respective influence and strategic alliances. While France introduced the draft resolution last June to establish the G5 Sahel force with a formal UN mandate, Algiers and Rabat feel they were left out of an important international initiative to address terrorism. Each of them positions itself as a seasoned partner in the global campaign against terrorism. Some European countries like France have a skeptical view for the following reasons: “…Algeria for its ambiguous dealings with terrorist groups in the region, and Morocco for its connections to the drug trafficking and migrant routes to the Sahel and West Africa.”

The Way Forward

Recent violent incidents in North and West Africa show the tip of an iceberg of a number of security and underdevelopment dilemmas that could worsen over time. The silver lining now is the new and increased awareness of the threats of growing jihadism and extremist groups. The current debate among the White House, Congress, and the media has highlighted the need for a coherent and effective US policy in a turbulent region:

  1. Instead of bilateral agreements with African governments, Washington can benefit from a four-way formula of collaboration with the United Nations, the European Union, and the African Union in designing coherent and well-informed strategies of counterterrorism and containment of radical groups in the region.
  2. The Trump Administration can adopt a hybrid strategy of both outside-in and inside-out assessments of the threats of extremism by working closely with local governments, law enforcement agencies, scholars, community leaders, religious figures, and other agents of the civil society in developing a nuanced diagnosis of the challenges ahead.
  3. Any counterterrorism intervention plan in the region should be complemented by providing US investments and economic opportunities and implementing empowerment programs to help the local youth—the majority population—break away from poverty and the entrapment of hopelessness.
  4. In addition to reactive counterterrorism measures, US policy in Africa should consider parallel strategies of prevention. Local governments remain desperate for foreign aid programs to improve the infrastructure and curriculum of local schools in the region. Any support for a modern educational system has the potential of defeating the indoctrination of jihadism and extremism before local youth begin to consider bearing arms against the so-called “infidels.”

Dr. Mohammed Cherkaoui is professor of Conflict Resolution at George Mason University and former member of the United Nations’ Panel of Experts. He sits on the Academic Advisory Board, and is a Guest Analyst at Arab Center Washington DC