In his State of the Union on January 28, 2014, President Barack Obama’s speech focused on domestic issues, but singled out Africa, specifically mentioning Somalia and Mali, in reference to the evolution of the al-Qa`ida threat, the emergence of al-Qa`ida affiliates and the need for the United States to continue to work with partners to disrupt and disable these networks.
Just one year before this speech, the capital of Mali was threatened by an al-Qa`ida-dominated militia that had, in effect, hijacked a local rebellion of the northern region. Mali immediately became a high priority concern for the Obama administration, and although much more needs to be accomplished in the region, the multilateral response to Mali provides many lessons for how the United States may engage with al-Qa`ida threats in various regions across the globe—depending on the nature of the threat and the willingness of other partners to participate.
The multilateral campaign’s success notwithstanding, numerous violent non-state actors persist in Africa, in the Sahara, and to its north and south. They include jihadists and ethnic or regionalist militias. Much analysis of terrorist organizations in Africa has focused on whether different groups are collaborating with one another, and while this would unquestionably increase the threat they pose were it to be true, the emphasis on collaboration detracts from a more fundamental problem—all of the groups are already significant risks to their own country’s stability. Although the destabilization of one Saharan or Sahelian country may not be an actionable threat in and of itself, the region presents a scenario where the sum is greater than the parts: the disparate destabilization of several Saharan and Sahelian countries simultaneously.
Not only do all of the groups pose significant risks to their own country’s stability, but they also all have a cross-border component. This cross-border dimension has led to the notion of an arc of instability stretching east to west across the Sahel and Sahara, but it also leads to another newer and often overlooked arc spanning the Sahara north to south.
The primary counterterrorism challenge in the region going forward is to ensure that these groups do not carry out future offensives like the one in Mali. Additionally, conditions that can radicalize those who feel aggrieved to turn frustration into violence should be recognized and addressed. When such offensives do occur, however, France’s Operation Serval in Mali may provide many lessons for how to contain the threat by using carefully coordinated coalition operations.
In the summer of 2012, different Islamist groups, including al-Qa`ida affiliates, dominated a largely ethnic separatist rebellion in northern Mali. In January 2013, militants made a surprisingly aggressive southward push and President Amadou Haya Sanogo, who came to power through a coup in March 2012, appealed to the international community for help. By the middle of the month, France deployed fighter jets to blunt the rebels’ offensive, quickly adding ground forces and several thousand Chadian fighters. For its part, the United States responded to French requests to contribute three critical components to the initial stages of the campaign, including in-flight refueling for French aircraft, heavy airlift of French and Chadian soldiers and vehicles, and all sources of U.S. intelligence. One consequence of this counterterrorism cooperation was to reinvigorate the United States’ operational relationship with France to the point where it is stronger than it has been in a decade or more. This strengthened counterterrorism relationship was most recently evinced by French President François Hollande’s visit to the White House on February 11, 2014, where he and President Obama discussed intelligence sharing and counterterrorism.
By the end of January, French and Chadian troops controlled Mali’s three major cities along the Niger River. The rebel factions, including terrorists and insurgents, splintered and fled throughout northern Mali. The Élysée then sought international support via a UN peacekeeping operation, while French forces continued to hunt for high value targets. For its part, the United States trained and equipped some of the peacekeeping contingents prior to their deployment. In addition, U.S. Special Operations Forces and other units provided training and assistance to regional countries around Mali, including Niger, Libya, Mauritania and Burkina Faso. The United States also provided intelligence to support these operations, including use of an unarmed MQ-9 drone.
Operation Serval yielded several important lessons for counterterrorism operations. Foremost, the effectiveness and efficiency of the operation was helped by identifying the appropriate players for appropriate roles: an international coalition against an al-Qa`ida threat need only be led by a single major country such as the United States, France, or the United Kingdom, which are the only countries that are capable of leading complex, multilateral operations; when either of the latter two leads, the United States can provide vital enabling support such as airlift, logistics and intelligence; the UN’s ability to provide effective peacekeepers in Africa should not be underestimated as long as their capabilities are not overextended by conducting offensive operations and as long as they are supported through training, equipment, and embedded advisory support. Doing so frees the coalition leader to pursue terrorist leaders, disrupt lines of communication, and identify remote camps and safe houses while maintaining a low profile. Such has been the case in Mali, where a small French and U.S. footprint materially augmented the effectiveness of the UN operation.
New and Emerging Threats
Operation Serval, however, was fundamentally a reactive action, rather than a proactive or preemptive one, and apart from the operation’s successes, terrorism in North Africa, the Horn of Africa, the Sahara and sub-Saharan Africa appears to be increasing. While the reasons for the emergence of terrorism in the region vary as do the reasons for the intensifying trend, there are nevertheless some commonalities. The region is characterized by scant economic opportunities and fierce competition for those that do exist, both legal and illegal. Security services are alternately ineffective or indiscriminate. And there is a complex mix of ideologies, ethnicities, and nationalisms.
Although almost no data supports the notion that poverty leads to terrorism, the sharp perceptions of injustice inherent in the unequal distribution of wealth and poverty can lead individuals to embrace extreme ideologies, either to justify fighting for resources to alleviate poverty or to punish those individuals they hold responsible for making them and others poor. In Mali, the rebellion that was hijacked by AQIM and other Islamists was fueled by the Tuareg population’s sense of economic marginalization and perceptions that the country’s southern capital neglected the north. In Nigeria, Boko Haram and Ansaru condemn secularism’s role in fostering an environment conducive to corruption and inequality that can only be combated through the implementation of Shari`a (Islamic law). Poverty, lack of opportunity, and acute injustice sparked the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and those same sentiments continue to be exploited by Ansar al-Shari`a and proponents of Salafi-jihadi ideology. In Algeria, perceptions that the oil and gas sector job market was unfair and unequal led to protests in Ouargla and Ghardaia, which then led to the radicalization of some individuals seeking to redress the sector’s injustices. In Libya, contestation for control over limited economic activities in the Sahara, particularly over provision of services to international oil companies in the upstream and over smuggling routes, has led to bouts of violence, some sporadic and others sustained.
In part, the limited and seemingly unfair economic opportunities that characterize the Sahel and Sahara stem from poor governance. In some instances, governments are genuinely unjust and uneven. In others, the government is absent, thereby creating space for illicit commercial activities on which terrorists and violent non-state actors thrive. Somalia and Libya and parts of northern Nigeria, northern Mali and western Tunisia lack a meaningful government presence. These are not ungoverned spaces—the so-called stateless areas that terrorist groups are said to favor—but they are poorly and only intermittently governed spaces. They are not stateless, but the states do fall short of maintaining a continuous and beneficial presence. The collapse of authoritarian regimes in the region during the Arab Spring has amplified this shortfall and afforded terrorists and violent non-state actors more room to maneuver.
Making matters worse, the economic unevenness and inconsistent projection of states’ hard and soft power are exacerbated by ideological and ethnic differences. In Mali, the rebellion that was eventually taken over by Islamists began as an ethnic separatist movement. In Nigeria, Boko Haram and Ansaru are violently at odds with not only Christian aspects of Nigerian state and society, but also with proponents of Sufi Islam, both of which overlay with a strong regionalist element. Somalia’s al-Shabab is riven with clan rivalries and jingoism. Tunisia is struggling to come to terms with not only divisions over the role of religion in state and society, but also divisions about the use of violence in Salafism. And Libya’s numerous militias draw inspiration from almost anything—ethnicity, region, hometown, interpretations of Islam, tribe, or even an urban neighborhood or city suburb.
It is in this complex environment that terrorist organizations operate and evolve. Past analysis has emphasized trying to understand whether groups like Boko Haram or al-Shabab are shifting to a more internationalist stance and whether there are any actionable linkages between the groups. The groups themselves debate this, weighing the benefits and costs of joining forces, and while these are no doubt worrying developments, it overlooks a more fundamental problem. Instability in one country can not only spread to another, but simultaneous instability in several countries—regardless of whether or not the causes are related—can pose an enormous challenge. At the moment, Mali is far from stable. Somalia is even worse off, with Libya not too far behind. Niger has started to sound the alarm bells, while the trend in Tunisia is troubling. The Algerian state remains strong, but social grievances can quickly turn deadly. In some instances, the causes of instability are related and in others they are not, but the cumulative impact could be catastrophic. In the case of terrorists and violent non-state actors in Africa, the sum of the parts may be greater than the whole.
Violent non-state actors and terrorist groups’ cross-border connections add a north-south arc of instability to the commonly understood one that stretches east-west across the Sahara. Boko Haram may be linking with AQIM which may be linking with Ansar al-Shari`a in Libya and also the Uqba ibn Nafi Brigade in Tunisia. Militant groups in southern Libya have revived ties to northern Niger. Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al-Murabitun Brigade appears to be as adept at moving north and south as it is at moving east and west. The impact that these groups can have on their home countries means that not only is there a potential east-west instability axis, but there is a north-south one as well. Taken together, the vectors of instability and insecurity morph and multiply.
Operation Serval may be seen as a template for future counterterrorism engagements: a threat is perceived, it is quickly acted on, and objectives are clearly delineated. The U.S. commitment is limited, but its strategic objectives are achieved. The challenge going forward will be to try to apply the lessons learned from Operation Serval elsewhere in Africa and against more diffuse targets than a coordinated—but ultimately heterogeneous and disparate—rebel offensive.
Michael A. Sheehan is the Distinguished Chair in the Combating Terrorism Center. Prior to the CTC, he was the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict from 2011-2013. A career Army Special Forces officer with experience on the National Security Staff and in the United Nations, he has also served as the Ambassador-at-Large for Counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department and the Deputy Commissioner for Counterterrorism at the New York City Police Department.
Dr. Geoff D. Porter is an assistant professor with the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. In addition, he is the founder and president of North Africa Risk Consulting. He specializes in political stability, violent non-state actors, and the extractives industry in North Africa.
The viewpoints expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.