An emerging risk that has occupied our minds lately is the profound risk to security, livelihoods and stability in the Sahel, presented by a possible spread of Islamic terrorism from Mauritania in the west to the Horn of Africa in the East.Osama bin Laden is dead but the seeds of dissent sown by Al-Qaeda and its franchises continue to foment violence – as witnessed recently with the horrific kidnap of foreign oil and gas workers in Algeria.
Problems in Mali
The great swathe of the Sahel region may appear neatly segmented by national boundaries on the map (see right). However, witness Mali, the desert topography and the ideological leanings of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and many of the nomadic Tuareg population make for an extremist threat to security that could percolate through porous border from Mali into Niger and Mauritania.
Potentially coalescing with Boko Haram (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad) in Nigeria whilst filling power vacuums created by weak governance and increased support in Chad and Sudan, it is possible to project further alliances and coordination with Al Shabaab in Somalia and Northern Kenya.
A key factor boosting AQIM’s ability to project violence regionally was the significant influx of weapons and mercenaries from Libya following the fall of Muammar Gadhafi’s regime in 2011.
As such, the nascent Libyan regime and Algeria remains threatened by AQIM. Indeed, the existence of a fertile bed of unemployed and militarily experienced young men throughout the Sahel willing to turn to conflict and it’s occasional financial rewards can only increase the likelihood of creeping extremism that could disrupt the already fragile political settlements being negotiated by states and their citizens in the Maghreb.
Looking South, an uncontained springboard for terrorists could threaten Sub-Saharan Africa’s long and lurching progress towards effective governance and prosperity.
If uncontained by the current and planned interventions—and history suggest this is not guaranteed in the short term—organisations in the countries of the Sahel and its neighbouring regions, whether journalists, aid workers or corporations would see their risk profile significantly altered.
Loss of infrastructure will increase the probability of business disruption, attacks upon foreign installations and threats to individuals such as violent crime, murder or kidnap for ransom (an accepted ‘fund-raising’ mechanism for AQIM) will rise in and beyond terrorist locations.
Finally, just as the extremists have a freedom of movement to strike and withdraw, so too will local populations be driven from their land at the expense of their lives and fragile rural economies. A potential belt of aggregated terror bringing a contagion of economic decline and human misery threatens the region.