22 January 2013
Claire Spencer

Dr Claire Spencer

Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme & Second Century Initiative


While the devastating impacts of last week's hostage crisis in Algeria continue to be assessed, the main focus of the British and other western governments will be on combatting the spread of Al-Qaeda-linked militancy across the Sahara and Sahel region. However, if security objectives are to be pursued through the language and methods of previous strategies to combat global terror, then the risks of making things worse are high. 

The immediate emphasis has focused on the unforeseen capacities of 'Al-Qaeda franchises' to wreak havoc across regional borders, which, in the words of the British Prime Minister David Cameron, could take decades to reverse. Yet a more sober analysis should also examine the limits to jihadist groups like Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) acting as more than spoilers and opportunists in determining longer-term regional outcomes.

The spread of jihadist ideologies has been more contingent on their use of finance and force than on local conversion to their goals. As such, they rely heavily on the weaknesses of the populations they have come to control such as in Mali, if not yet elsewhere. In the small numbers still represented by these largely foreign groups, there are limits to how far this approach can extend over more densely-populated areas by force and complicity alone. Hard-core jihadists may know the local terrain well and have acquired the capacity to mount major attacks of the kind witnessed in Algeria last week, but they are not embedded in the communities they have subjected, and from which they are beginning to be dislodged by French forces in Mali.

The jihadist phenomenon is in reality an exploitative adjunct to a longer-standing series of regional imbalances and crises which have their roots in poverty, the disruption of traditional lifestyles, ethnic divisions and the neglect by central governments of their Saharan populations. Most immediately, if not exclusively, this affects the nomadic Tuareg populations found on both sides of the Algerian-Malian border. They are now suffering an additional burden of blame for the actions of the northern Malian Tuareg separatist movement, the MNLA, in unleashing the current sequence of events beginning in early 2012.

Criminal rather than ideological

Despite their recent military ventures, AQIM and other Al-Qaeda-inspired groups, such as the Malian Tuareg Ansar Eddine or the recently-formed Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), are better seen as the instigators of the past decade's upsurge in regional criminality rather than as a united 'franchise' in pursuit of Islamist goals. As demonstrated by the internecine quarrels that provoked the formation of breakaway militias by the now notorious Mokhtar Belmokhtar, these groups appear to be far from united. They may now close ranks under concerted international pressure and the attendant publicity attracted to their cause. What they will still compete over, however, is control over the trans-regional networks of crime they have collectively established. The accumulation of wealth - rather than al-Qaeda's jihadist appeal - is what has succeeded in tipping the regional balance away from the Sahel’s weak and ineffective governments towards a wider array of light-footed and well-funded non-state actors.

International efforts to strengthen local African capacity to regain control should not as a result focus exclusively on distant capitals and their unresponsive political and military elites, as has perennially been the case in Mali. Allegations that regional elites have been caught up in the Sahel’s lucrative traffic in arms, drugs and people and ransoms from the kidnapping of foreigners deserve more than passing scrutiny, especially where this has undermined the ability of local populations to resist the impositions of foreign and local jihadists. Previous attempts by the US and France to coordinate regional military responses to Islamist terrorism have also fallen foul of different regional political calculations and rivalries, just as foreign-brokered agreements to resolve earlier Tuareg insurgencies in northern Mali and Niger have failed to be implemented by their respective governments.

Region overlooked

There may be a temptation to see the rise of jihadism in the light of an unwelcome fallout from the region's Arab Spring, with Libya and Tunisia both cited as conduits for the heavy weaponry now being deployed by the armed Islamists of the Sahel. If the policy response to this is to seek to shore up or re-establish a group of regional strongmen, then the mistakes of the past will be compounded. The use of military force, both regional and international, should have as its initial goal the strengthening of local, not national capacities; over many years the region's nation-states have failed to serve all of their citizens' interests equally, if at all. As the world's attention turns to their long-overlooked region, disadvantaged citizens will be more vocal about their marginalization, increasing the risk that local scores will be settled along ethnic lines if their grievances continue to be ignored.

Finally, regional state-building may be a desirable long-term goal, but only if new elections in Mali and elsewhere result in democracies in content as well as form. Recent crises have arisen in peripheral regions where central governments hold little sway, or are unaccountable to local populations. As a result, support to central state authorities should be made contingent on their engagement and involvement of local leaderships, just as the deployment of West African troops into Mali should be responsive to ethnic divisions and local grievances.

In the heat of designing responses, western governments have much to learn from the failures of previous international responses to terrorism; focusing on local realities, insights and partnerships rather than over-arching strategies would seem a good place to start now.