Stemming the Salafist tide in the Sahel and Sahara is no easy task, but an unlikely star is on the northern horizon ready to ravage the religious zealots.
In the depths of the Sahara’s shifting sands, trouble is brewing. Bolted on to militant Islamist terrorist militias armed to the teeth is the arcane-sounding dogma of intransigent Salafists touted as a panacea for Muslims in Africa and the world. Over most of the past decade the Sahara and Sahel regions of Africa have been in a sorry state. The deplorable security situation was exacerbated with the demise of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Yet one pivotal country defies the general gloom. The Algerian authorities are cooperating with Western powers, and in particular, the Operation Enduring Freedom-Trans Sahara, spearheaded by the United States and the United Kingdom and launched in 2007.
Algeria moved from the periphery of African politics to the core. Still, in April 2014, militant Islamist terrorists murdered 11 Algerian soldiers in the Tizi Ouzou region, east of Algiers, inhabited predominantly by the indigenous Amazigh population of Algeria. The fighting has spilled over to Tunisia where militant Islamist terrorists ambushed and assassinated at least 14 Tunisian troops while they were unsuspectingly breaking the fast of Ramadan in the remote Chaambi Mountain Range close to the Algerian border. Tunisia promptly declared three days of national mourning.
The ructions in the region are making the Algerian and Egyptian authorities edgier than ever with militant Islamist terrorists determined in a now obvious pattern of murder and mayhem to assassinate troops from Tunisia to Sinai while breaking their fast in Ramadan.
Once considered the problem progeny of the Maghreb region, Northwest Africa, has emerged as a bastion against militant Islamist terrorist movements across the Sahel and the Sahara. Algeria’s lead in the war against terror does not necessarily mean that it is totally immune to terror itself. Indeed, in 2013, the hostage crisis that engulfed the In Amenas petroleum hub in the centre of the Algerian Sahara attracted international attention and regional trepidation.
Algeria has had to combat the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), a group allied to the regional and even more potent Al-Qaeda Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb, a vicious and ruthless militia whose tentacles spread across the vast swathe of territory from Algeria and Morocco, Tunisia and Libya, to Chad, Niger, Mali and Mauritania. It is likewise in cahoots with Nigeria’s notorious Boko Haram. All these countries are unwittingly sucked into a conflict of continental proportions. The GSPC phenomenon originated in Algeria and has spread across the Sahara and the Sahel. Algeria in turn has been persuaded, perhaps with urgings from like-minded countries such as Egypt, to take the treat of regional militant Islamist terrorism more seriously.
Algeria, like Egypt, has become most concerned about the chaotic situation in Libya, in particular, with militant Islamist terrorist militias threatening to overrun the country. Last Tuesday, unidentified gunmen besieged the Libyan parliament, the so-called General National Congress (GNC), an ineffectual body for all intents and purposes. Moreover, the GNC’s detractors maintain that it is controlled by militant Islamists.
To add fuel to the fire, Tripoli’s International Airport was stormed by motley militias on Sunday and has since become a battlefield with rival militias vying for supremacy and air traffic has virtually come to an abrupt halt. An estimated 90 per cent of planes in the airport were destroyed in the process.
Libya’s Foreign Minister Mohamed Abdel-Aziz on Thursday officially appealed to the United Nations Security Council for assistance. One version of the events claims Islamist fighters of the Misrata militias attacked Tripoli International Airport only to be countered by anti-Islamist Zintan militiamen. Both Zintan and Misrata militias were instrumental in the ousting and subsequent assassination of the late Libyan leader. They both collaborated closely with NATO.
“The stakes are high on all sides,” UN Special Envoy to Libya Tarek Mitri declared. Libya is a failed state and its militias constitute a menace to its neighbours. The Algerian authorities have become concerned that the Libya crisis cannot be dealt with in isolation of what is happening in the rest of the region. The Al-Qaeda-affiliated militias in the Sahel and the Sahara have targeted the Algerian authorities precisely because as an oil and natural gas exporter it is one of the few North African countries with a relatively deep pocket.
Algeria launched the initial phase of an inclusive inter-Malian dialogue on 16 July in Algiers. Several key Malian political factions and groups attended. And, so did ministers from the countries of the Sahara and the Sahel as well as North Africa. “Our role is to enable Malians to speak directly to each other and envisage the most appropriate solutions to help end the Malian political impasse,” Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra told reporters last week in the Burkina Faso capital Ouagadougou after meeting with the Burkinabe President Blaise Compaore.
Compaore was appointed mediator by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) when the Malian conflict erupted in 2012. However, Algeria appears to be taking the lead at the moment in containing the militant Islamist terrorist threat in the countries of the Sahara and the Sahel, south of the Sahara as well as in Libya and other North African countries.
Islamists in the region note that the poor taste few of the fruits of the natural wealth of the Sahara, rich as it is in mineral deposits, ranging from uranium to oil and natural gas. The ethnic Tuarag separatist group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) in affiliation with ethnic Arab militias in northern Mali, are a disgruntled group that do not necessarily share the militant Salafist ideology of Al-Qaeda-affiliated militias. Indeed, they have been playing militant Islamist terrorist militias against each other. Yet, this sordid saga cannot carry on indefinitely. And, hence, it is not easy for the authorities in either Egypt or Algeria to wield soft power against the militant Islamist terrorists in their own sovereign and national territories nor in the vast expanses of the Sahara and the Sahel.
And, that includes the traditional ethnic Tuareg and MNLA stronghold of Kidal in northern Mali.
Gamal Nkrumah is a Cairo-based African and international affairs expert.