The Terrorist Myth In North Africa

The terror continues in the Sahel, that broad expanse of remote desert stretching from Africa's north Atlantic coast inland to the border of Darfur. In February 2008 gunmen opened fire on the Israeli Embassy in Mauritania. Then two Austrian tourists were kidnapped in Tunisia, hauled overland to northern Mali, and held for eight months for ransom before being released unharmed. Soon after, a group of men beheaded 12 Mauritanian soldiers. And earlier this year three people, including a Canadian diplomat, were released after being held hostage for months by militants in Niger and Mali. All the attacks were linked to Al Qaeda, and all of them, officials say, are evidence of its tightening grip over a region poised to become a "haven" for Islamic terrorists, according to a statement released by the European Union last month. Likewise, U.S. officials claim that more than 100 "terrorists" have been killed in the Sahel since 2004, and they fear that as strikes against militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan's tribal areas become more numerous—and more effective—Qaeda affiliates are growing stronger in other parts of the world, including across the Sahel.

In response, American security officials have claimed this huge expanse of nothingness as their next big project—the latest front in what the Bush administration dubbed the war on terror. Last year Washington increased counterterrorism funding for the region to $101 million, up from $8 million in 2002, when U.S. officials first took note of the violence and the unsettlingly large number of countries there that stood on the verge of failure. And through a combination of Pentagon, State Department, and USAID funding, the Obama administration has made a huge effort to boost the military capabilities and intelligence resources of 10 of Africa's most impoverished and poorly governed countries in the hope that if it denies Al Qaeda safe haven in West Africa, the Sahel won't go the way of Waziristan.

But a closer look at the region suggests there is little danger of that happening. Like the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Sahel is remote and inhospitable. For centuries, both areas have offered safe routes for drug smugglers, criminals, and brigands. Yet the Sahel offers little of what Pakistan's border does in the way of hideouts, training camps, or networks of madrassas full of potential recruits. Unlike Tora Bora or South Waziristan, with their caves and hilly enclaves, much of the Sahel is vast, empty, trackless desert. Northern Mali, just one of the Sahel areas that American security officials are expressing concern about, is about 700,000 square kilometers—roughly the size of Texas—but has fewer than 1 million people. "With the size of the area we're talking about, it's unbelievably hard to organize a movement across the region," says Ian Taylor, an expert on the Sahel at the Centre for the Study of Terror and Political Violence at St. Andrews University in Scotland. "If the U.S. isn't capable of broadcasting its influence across the region, it's hard to imagine a ragtag group of terrorists doing any better." Indeed, American military officials acknowledge that the most significant outpost they've found in the area consists of little more than a few pickup trucks and a dozen or so men in a desert wadi.

What's more, the region has never proved to be a fertile ground for the kind of extremist ideology that drives Al Qaeda's expansion in other parts of the world. Unlike the hinterlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan, where sympathy for hardline Islamist ideology runs broad and deep, in the Sahel jihadist ideology has never taken root. Instead, moderate strains of Sufi Islam have governed the lives of the region's inhabitants for centuries. Leonardo Villalon, director of the Center for African Studies at the University of Florida, observes that despite the poverty in the region—often the kind of conditions that can spur resentment against the West and interest in jihadist movements—terrorist groups have gained virtually no traction there. Surprisingly, he says, there is instead "widespread social condemnation" of the kind of brutal violence witnessed in the Sahel over the past few years.

There is also little evidence that the groups carrying out the violence in the Sahel subscribe to the same world views as Qaeda militants along the AfPak border. The clearly stated objective of the militants in Waziristan, for instance, is the toppling of the nuclear-armed regime in Pakistan. The Sahel gangs, by contrast, have failed to outline a clear rationale for their attacks, and their operations are more like those of small-time criminals than purveyors of ideological hatred bent on regional or global domination, even if their rhetoric includes references to jihad and the "detritus of Afghanistan," says Vijay Prashad, an expert on the Sahel at Trinity College in Connecticut. The Sahel group, known as Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, is "not a threat on the world stage," says Prashad. "It has no global ambitions. It doesn't even seem to have local ambitions. They've devolved into a gang."

Indeed, at least so far, the violence in the Sahel bears few similarities to large-scale Qaeda operations elsewhere in the world. Western institutions have largely been spared. Al Qaeda provides no financial support to the region, according to U.S. military officials. Nor have funds raised locally found their way to larger Qaeda operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Iraq, say U.S. officials. "I think it's a mistake to interpret this episodic instability as part of a broader movement with a clear religious or political agenda," says Peter Lewis, director of the African Studies Program at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies. "I don't know of anybody outside the security or national-defense establishment who is making that interpretation."

Still, American policymakers see the violence in the Sahel as proof that Al Qaeda in the Maghreb is threatening to transform the region into a hotbed of radical Islam, undermining the stability of local governments and threatening Western interests. Gen. James Jones, Obama's national-security adviser, has argued that the Pan-Sahel region "provides opportunities to Islamic extremists, smugglers, and other insurgent groups." To counter the perceived threat, the Pentagon has increased its efforts to help train and equip the weak and underfunded armed forces of the region. The U.S. military's trans-Sahel initiative is fast becoming one of the chief priorities for the fledgling AfriCom, which was set up in 2007 to help foster cooperation between U.S. forces and militaries across the continent.

The larger strategy for the region is still being hotly debated. The concern of some Africa watchers is that extending the war on terror to the Sahel in such an aggressive way may actually attract jihadists to a region where there are, in fact, very few. "If you treat it from a solely security perspective, you're producing more jihadists," says Yahia Zoubir, a researcher at Chat-ham House in London and an expert on security developments in the Sahel. Moreover, Vicki Huddleston, deputy assistant secretary for Africa at the Pentagon, acknowledged last month that recruitment by Al Qaeda in the Maghreb was "weak" and pointed out that local tribes "do not believe in their ideology." Yet the policies coming out of Washington suggest that the administration believes the next big threat of terrorist activity comes not from Pakistan or Afghanistan, but from a barren desert in northern Africa populated by a relatively small group of thugs who go by the name of Al Qaeda.