Magharebia (Washington DC)

North Africa: Maghreb Menace Begins in Mali

interview

Casablanca — "We are facing a creeping enemy with a masked face," Marrakech Security Forum organiser Mohammed Benhammou warns.

Diplomats, officials and analysts from 67 countries are gathering Friday (January 25th) for the 4th Marrakech Security Forum, organised by the African Federation for Strategic Studies (FAES) and the Moroccan Centre for Strategic Studies (CMES).

Magharebia met with Mohammed Benhammou, who presides over both think tanks, to ask about the future of regional terror groups, the long-term outlook for the Mali intervention and the global fallout of Sahel instability.

Magharebia: What's your take on the international military intervention in northern Mali?

Mohammed Benhammou: It's certain that the armed extremist groups in the region, as well as in neighbouring countries, will take advantage as usual of this intervention, and label it as a crusade, a war on Islam and an assault on the dignity of Muslims in Mali.

We can only expect this from these groups that exploit all available opportunities to inflame the street and gain supporters and new recruits in order to achieve their plans, even by altering the facts.

The fact of the matter is that the situation in Mali and the threats witnessed in the Sahel have imposed the military and security option. However, it should not be the only option, but should be aligned with other strategies in order to solve all the crises witnessed by the region.

Magharebia: What kind of enemy are we up against?

Benhammou: We are facing unconventional warfare, where regular forces are confronting multiple and varied gangs. Regular armies participating in this military operation can retake control of cities and regions and liberate them from armed groups. However, it will always be difficult to tell the nature of these achievements. Are they real victories and progress on the road to eliminating the risk of these groups, or just a tactic of extremist groups that may choose to retreat and avoid a direct confrontation with these armies?

Extremist groups seek to turn the theatre of operations into a quagmire, into which they drag large armies.

We have noticed in this recent period, ahead of the military operation, how a number of fighters from these groups moved to neighbouring countries. Others melted into the civilian population and abandoned their fighting uniforms. Another group fled to refuge in rugged places abounding with safe havens from the strikes of the advancing armies.

Magharebia: Before the start of military operations, there was talk of a political solution. Is this still possible?

Benhammou: There should be a serious dialog to find a political solution to this crisis. I think that the present stage requires that there be an end to all territorial, ethnic, racial and political conflicts witnessed by the region of the Sahel, the Sahara, North and West Africa. These conflicts are obstacles to the building of the future of this region. And these conflicts date back to a long gone era - the Cold War - that we should now have passed. This is the case for the Touareg.

As for armed extremist groups, particularly al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, MUJAO and others, I think that dialogue with them is out of the question. First, these groups lack the desire to exit the logic of violence. Secondly, the countries of the region, and rightly so, refuse to give any legitimacy to these groups, or to engage with them in any kind of dialogue.

Magharebia: What do you foresee for these terror groups in the future? Can we eliminate them?

Benhammou: The life and resistance of these groups is based on their small size. Every time they get bigger, they split and go back to a normal size, or small cells and groups. So I think that the multiplicity of these groups - and their spawning of smaller ones - is normal once they find fertile soil and a favourable climate.

We are facing a creeping enemy with a masked face and unclear features. This is an enemy whose strength lies in its strong capacity to move and relocate, and to adapt and cope with all conditions. Their strength is also in their capacity to adapt to the social and human fabric where they find themselves.

So, we are facing groups that have better chances of survival when in small numbers. They cannot be in the form of a regular army familiar with rules, with central and known leadership, with clearly defined headquarters, and subject to a traditional style of organisation. So I expect that the breeding and proliferation of these groups will continue.

The more pressure on them in this region, the more of this we will see.

Magharebia: But how did things get to this point in the Sahel region, and what are the ways out of this situation?

Benhammou: That is exactly what will be discussed by military leaders and international security experts from 67 countries during the Marrakesh Security Forum on January 25th-26th.

In the Sahel region, we are not facing a specific crisis, but rather multiple and complex crises. Some are old and chronic, such as the Touareg crisis, as well as territorial and ethnic conflicts. Some result from the failure of the state and its weakness.

Countries of the Sahel are considered among the poorest countries in the world, and are unable to play their role as states and conduct the task of monitoring national territory, especially when this consists of a vast, arid and barren land with low population density.

Hence, large parts of these countries have been turned into havens for terrorist groups. These groups originally fled Algeria after the intensification of the war by the Algerian authorities and found a safe haven in the Sahel, where they rebounded, spawned and proliferated.

There are also international criminal gangs, specialised in smuggling drugs and weapons, as well as abetting human trafficking and illegal immigration. The Sahel has become known as the cocaine path, as tonnes of drugs from South America cross the region in the direction of Europe.

The Sahel of today is also a theatre for the circulation and proliferation of heavy weapons, especially since the collapse of the Kadhafi regime. Mercenaries who fought with Kadhafi returned to their areas of origin in the countries of the Sahel.

All of these factors have turned the area into a den of threats to regional and international peace and security. Yet solving this dilemma requires - along with the military solution - comprehensive strategies for human economic and social development and the rehabilitation of Sahel institutions.

The military option became necessary to defuse threats to the security and stability of the world, but it must be coupled with strategies that respond to the expectations of the population in order to reach a sustainable position of safety.

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