Tangier — The greatest threat to global security and stability comes from the Sahel and Sahara, MEDdays 2012 chief Brahim Fassi Fihri says.
The Mali crisis, the terrorist threat to the Maghreb, post-Kadhafi Libya and Sahel security will top talks next week in Tangier at MEDays 2012. The 5th edition of the influential forum will also discuss the global economic crisis and prospects for development in Africa.
Billed as a meeting for global players involved in the geostrategic, political, economic and social spheres of the South, panellists and participants at the November 14th-17th event will include heads of state and governments, foreign ministers, business leaders and civil society representatives.
Brahim Fassi Fihri runs the Amadeus Institute, which organises the annual MEDays conference. He met with Magharebia in Tangier to discuss hot-button topics such as whether Mali is the "next Afghanistan", the difference in salafist strains and the biggest dangers facing the Maghreb.
Since its launch in 2008, MEDays has focused on the Sahel and Sahara. Will this year's edition be the same?
The situation in the Sahel and the Sahara is among the most important security issues for the international community, if not the foremost, and its prospects are very worrisome. This region, an area of up to 2,000km on the outskirts of Europe, is witnessing a unique overlap of political and geostrategic problems that makes it like a bag of gunpowder. There is the problem of Touareg identity and the problem of the partition and division of Mali, which threatens to impact other countries of the region.
In addition, there are growing numbers of terrorist organisations intertwined with bands of organised crime, as well as weapon and drug smugglers. All this is taking place against the backdrop of deteriorating economic, social and political conditions.
The Amadeus Institute organised a number of seminars and forums over the past several years in order to alert the international community to the dilemma of the Sahel and the Sahara. We are calling on the international community to take responsibility and deal with the situation before it is too late.
Is military intervention the only way to solve the Sahel security problem?
There is no time to look for other solutions. Military intervention has become inevitable and urgent, in light of the current situation. I think that the main objective of military intervention will be to prevent the partition of Mali, an outcome that would have dire consequences for the whole region.
We should enable Mali to continue the process of political transition, which was interrupted by a military coup last March. A military intervention will initially secure Bamako, then recover Timbuktu, and secure the stock of uranium in northern Niger and north-eastern Mali.
It should also eradicate the terrorist organisations and criminal gangs that breed in the area.
What is the relationship between these organisations?
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has become stronger than its parent organisation. The latter seemed to find it difficult to launch new operations after the killing of bin Laden and other leaders.
There are indicators confirming that Ansar al-Din trained in AQIM camps. The same goes for Boko Haram...
The al-Shabab movement in Somalia adopts the same intellectual and ideological orientations of al-Qaeda. We are facing a long geographic stretch, extending from the Sahel to the Atlantic Ocean in the west to Somalia in the east, where terrorist and criminal organisations are breeding.
We should not overlook the fact that 40 per cent of the cocaine that enters Europe passes through this region. All these considerations make military intervention necessary and urgent in the Sahel-Sahara region. However, I think that this military intervention must be African only, so as not to repeat the mistake of the international intervention in Afghanistan.
There are many similarities between the situation in the Sahel and Afghanistan. The terrorist organisations in the Sahel are equivalent to al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, the pivotal role of Algeria in the Sahel region is equivalent to Pakistan's role in Afghanistan, and the cocaine in the Sahel is equivalent to the opium in Afghanistan.
You said that AQIM became stronger than the parent organisation. Do you mean that the weight of al-Qaeda has shifted from Afghanistan to the Maghreb?
Exactly. AQIM is constantly gaining strength because of the problems that we talked about. It has managed to snatch the spotlight and stardom from the parent organisation in Afghanistan. The latter became weak and has been in a steady decline since the beheading of the snake's head: the death of bin Laden. The parent organisation received recently another blow with the killing of its military leader. Now only al-Zawahiri remains.
With the withdrawal of the international troops from Afghanistan, it can be said today that the legitimacy of the ideological struggle has been withdrawn from under the feet of al-Qaeda. It is left with one project: the conflict with the regime in Kabul, or to further destabilise Pakistan after being the spearhead in the fight against Western forces.
Today, the real threat to global security and stability exists in the Sahel and Sahara, and the danger is AQIM and the organisations that move in its orbit.
What is your perspective on the new player in the region, Ansar al-Sharia?
I think we must initially identify the salafists. We have to decide which approach to adopt with them, a political one or a security one. In Egypt, we noticed that salafists integrated into the political game and participated in the recent elections. In Tunisia, they didn't participate in the elections, but their weight is still important. They control residential neighbourhoods and entire villages that they manage independently from the central government.
The question that must be answered by salafists in Tunisia is: are they ready for political participation and to accept the democratic rules of the game? If they accept, why not then make room for them and see what they have to offer?
The situation in Libya, however, is completely different. Ansar al-Sharia over there is watching today over an important and varied stockpile of weapons. Therein lies the risk if they switch to extremism and terrorism. Libya is completely destabilised.
There is evidence of relations between Libyan salafists and AQIM. That's the reason I distinguish the salafists of Libya from the others. I don't think we should put all the salafists in the same basket with AQIM.
If they accept democracy, we should not stop them. If, however, they are close to forming an armed movement that could threaten the stability of the country - as is the case in Libya - then we must fight them.
What about Morocco?
We must not lose sight of the golden rule, which is that no one is immune to the terrorist threat. The Argana cafe bombing is a very recent example...
The perpetrator of the 2011 Marrakech attack did not belong to any organisation. He was a lone wolf that al-Qaeda brainwashed ideologically in a way that made him volunteer of his own volition to commit this heinous criminal act.
However, in the case of AQIM, the ideological danger is coupled with an imminent military threat. This risk is increasing by the day because of the massive and varied weapons being smuggled from Libya. That's why I warn against the Sahel turning into a new Afghanistan and AQIM into a new Taliban...
I call for speeding up the international military intervention in order to clear the area, an action that is long overdue.