Washington — Two new studies report that "the growing role of al-Qaeda across northern Africa," fueled by the Mali crisis and Libyan arms influx, is creating an 'Arc of Instability' across Africa's Sahel that poses an "acute threat" to countries in the region and to Europe and the US.
The studies — by NATO Allied Command's Civil-Military Fusion Centre, "Al Qaeda and the African Arc of Instability," and CNA Strategic Studies, "Security Challenges in Libya and the Sahel" — also cite or link to evidence of ties to al-Qaeda groups by members from the Polisario-run refugee camps near Tindouf, Algeria.
The CNA Strategic Studies report, by Sarah Vogler, says "the situation in Mali remains a veritable powder keg." Regionally, the Mali crisis and flood of arms from Libya has fed the formation of "a network of jihadists from Africa to Asia," and relocation of Al-Qaeda's "center of gravity" to North Africa, extending an "Arc of Instability" across the region. Locally, the report warns "the infiltration by AQIM and the political destabilization of the country pose an acute threat to Mali's neighbors." Of particular concern "is evidence that AQIM has infiltrated the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, as well as indications that Sahrawi from the camps have joined terrorist groups based in Mali." This poses "immediate concerns for the security of Western Sahara, Mauritania, Morocco, and Algeria."
The CNA Strategic Studies report says the security threat extends beyond the Sahel/North Africa neighborhood. "As the Islamist militants have established their control of the north, fighters from other countries have poured into the area to join the conflict." The al-Qaeda-linked Islamist groups Ansar Dine and Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) have likewise allowed the "transnational terrorist organization a base of operation in Mali's north from which to launch attacks against Western targets."
The NATO CFC study, by Angela Sanders and Samuel Lau, says northern Mali has become "the largest al Qaeda stronghold since the fall of Afghanistan in 2001," transforming the Sahel "from a rear logistical base to the locus of jihadist activity in North and West Africa." The CFC report acknowledges efforts by the international community and UN Security Council to raise an ECOWAS military force to reverse this terrorist takeover in northern Mali, but adds that "al Qaeda fighters will probably solidify their gains in northern Mali in the months that it will take the international community to train and equip the African force."
The NATO CFC study says "Jihadists and other militants thrive in power vacuums, especially in areas where there are large numbers of accessible weapons, such as in Libya, Mali and Syria. In North Africa, militant Muslims and Islamists have taken advantage of recent upheavals thereby thriving and growing in influence, creating what is now being referred to as an 'Arc of Instability' that stretches from the coast of West Africa across the Sahel region into the Horn of Africa." The study, which links to an earlier report by the International Center for Terrorism Studies, says that "On the African continent, ties between radical groups Boko Haram, al Shabaab, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its offshoots - the Unity Movement for Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Ansar Dine - are becoming stronger; as are ties with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen."
Both studies call attention to AQIM's prodigious fund-raising abilities. The terrorist group's "alliances with drug traffickers and other criminal syndicates," including partnerships some analysts note with Latin American cocaine cartels, "have allowed AQIM to expand their activities and improve their military capabilities," says the NATO CFC study, also citing AQIM's lucrative practice of kidnappings for ransom, which has become "a multi-million dollar industry."
The CNA Strategic Studies report says "The importance of ransom kidnapping as a contributor to AQIM's rise in Mali cannot be overstated. Indeed, the international community should have been addressing organized crime in the region long ago, but now there is a renewed urgency--and the opportunity--for US involvement. Given the link to the crisis in Mali, there is the potential for the US to diplomatically push an international approach against kidnapping for ransom in the Sahel. This diplomatic push could be in the form of a UN resolution that bans payments to groups in northern Mali. The EU could also be a strong partner for the US in these efforts, given that Europeans have been the most widely targeted by kidnappers in the region.
The NATO CFC report also cites MUJAO's active efforts to recruit new members, noting "that hundreds of young recruits had arrived from Algeria, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal and Somalia, and that many more were expected." It reports Morocco's recent dismantling of a cell that recruited young jihadists "and sent them through Algeria into northern Mali where they joined AQIM or MUJAO."
The CNA Strategic Studies report says "If resolving the immediate security crisis in Mali is the primary concern, repairing the central government in Bamako and preventing the spillover of terrorist and militants into the politically and economically vulnerable neighboring countries is the obvious secondary concern. This cannot be achieved by quashing the militants alone, but by creating the social and economic opportunities that can attract the fighters and those sympathetic to their cause to give up their weapons." It says "Mali was the first to succumb to these forces, but more countries could follow." To get long-term stability requires "a developmental aid effort in which the US could take the lead... such an effort has lacked the requisite political will and interest--until now."
The NATO CFC report concludes citing António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who wrote in the New York Times that the fact a "crisis of this nature has taken root so rapidly in what appeared to be a stable democracy has significant implications extending far beyond Mali's borders [...] If unchecked, the Mali crisis threatens to create an arc of instability extending west into Mauritania and east through Niger, Chad and Sudan to the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden, characterized by extended spaces where state authority is weak and pockets of territorial control are exercised by transnational criminals."
NATO Civil-Military Fusion Centre/CFC, & CNA Strategic Studies/Center for Naval Analyses