Rabat – The Sahel and Sahara is one of the international geopolitical regions that is witnessing a bitter conflict between terrorist groups, on the one hand, and regional countries backed by major world powers, on the other. It appears that each side is aware of the important geopolitical location of the area, which is a crossing point between southern Sahara with the north and the Mediterranean with Europe. This therefore makes the region in a constant state of war due to the conflicting interests of international powers and terrorist groups.
The recent summit of leaders of Sahel and Sahara that was concluded in Mali a few days ago paved the way for a new phase of confrontation between international powers and terror groups. Held under the theme of fighting terrorism for ensuring security and development, the summit was preceded by a meeting of defense ministers from each of Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania, Mali, Chad and Morocco on May 4.
Along with the recent summit, the meeting will effectively signify a transition between security cooperation towards military one.
The gatherers at the summit, held in the Malian capital Bamako on July 2, saw the participation of the leaders of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad, as well as French President Emmanuel Macron. They agreed to form a joint regional force to combat terrorist groups in the region. This “army” of some 5,000 soldiers will begin its work before the end of the year. It will receive funding of some 423 million euros, 8 million of which will be presented by France.
Why the alliance now?
It appears that the alliance was made after a series of important developments in Sahel and Sahara. The first of which bolstered the terrorist groups, whereby the most important of these groups merged in one, forming the “Jamaat Ansar al-Islam and al-Muslimeen” headed by Iyad Ag Ghali. The group once again pledged its allegiance to the al-Qaeda terrorist group.
Since the merge, it has carried out several terrorist attacks and kidnappings. These developments have emboldened terrorist groups that have since expanded their area of operation, therefore posing a real challenge to the countries of Sahel.
In wake of all this, Ivory Coast Defense Minister Alain-Richard Donwahi underlined during the May summit with his African counterparts the need for coordinated efforts by Sahel countries to counter the terrorists.
This stance was echoed by each of Ivory Coast Vice President Daniel Kablan Duncan and Secretary General of the Community of Sahel and Saharan States Ibrahim Sani Abani, who said that combating terrorism requires regional joint efforts on the security, military and development levels.
At the Bamako summit, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta declared: “In the face of rising extremism, we must unite efforts to confront challenges and we must even go beyond that.”
A Malian official said that terrorists are leaving nearby countries and coming to Mali, which demands regional and international efforts to thwart them.
Local and international forces
Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali attempted to rely on themselves in combating terrorism. In January 2016, they announced the formation of a mixed military force aimed at preserving security in the Liptako–Gourma region, which lies between these three countries, “because it was practically turning into a hub of all sorts of terrorist and criminal groups.” These local efforts are still struggling however and they need international logistic support and training.
In April 2010, the joint command operations center between Algeria Mauritania, Mali and Niger was formed in an attempt to establish regional cooperation against the growing threat of terrorist groups and foreign ambitions in the region.
This was followed with the formation of the regional “army” that will bolster UN-led international efforts in the region and the extension of the term of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) on June 30.
About three weeks ago, Macron paid a visit to the French military base in Gao in northern Mali to affirm his country’s commitment to standing by Mali and supporting its security.
In October 2016, German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Mali and Niger, announcing that her country will support counter-terrorism efforts in the region.
The United States has also set up a military base in Niger, dedicating a budget of some 100 million dollars for it. The base will ensure that US troops will be able to intervene immediately in case of any unrest in the area. This was demonstrated when American jets carried out raids in Mali, Libya and Niger in 2016 and 2017.
Given all of these developments in Sahel and Sahara, one can say that the battle against terrorism will be long and hard due to the geography of the region and its ethnic diversity and tensions that are stoked by border disputes and criminal organizations. This will place regional and international efforts in a direct confrontation with very complicated and sensitive factors that ultimately all favor the region’s terrorist groups.
*Khalid Yamout is a visiting political science professor at Mohammed V University in Rabat.