Magharebia (Washington DC)

West Africa: Sahel States Must Share Intel, African Expert Warns

interview

Marrakech — Chad-based security strategist Zakaria Ousmane says Sahel states could partner for a counter-terrorism strike force.

Zakaria Ousmane of the Centre for Peace, Security and Sustainable Development in Chad was among the security experts from 50 countries who recently met in Morocco to discuss the post-Arab Spring spike in extremism, terrorism and crime.

Magharebia met with Ousmane on the sidelines of the Marrakech Security Forum to get a Central African perspective on the radicalisation of the Sahel region.

How did radical Islamist movements arise in the Sahel?

The Sahel is a strip of land running from the Atlantic coast to the Red Sea and covering 15 countries. These countries were colonised by France, Great Britain or Italy. So they have different systems of government and operate differently. They share the region's arid conditions and are similar in terms of population.

Having said that, you have to recognise that except for Eritrea and Ethiopia, the majority of these countries are Muslim-dominated. This is Sufi Islam with Malikite traditions. This is an Islam made up of very ancient brotherhoods, a form of Islam which has adapted to the region.

Over the past 20 years, we've started to see the Wahhabites making inroads into the region... Out of the ashes of Wahhabism, a number of new ideologies have sprung up, such as Salafism.

What's the source of the salafist strain?

It was exported to North Africa. The point of entry was Algeria. From there it found fertile ground. Violent Islam was used to fight the colonists, but as it advanced over time it changed sides. But the model of violence remained the same.

This is how the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) came about, as well as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). It gave rise to Boko Haram, a Wahhabite movement, which went on to become radicalised. The same happened with Ansar al-Din, the Movement of Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and less significant groups that do not constitute a real threat.

Over by the Red Sea, you had Al-Ittihad, which emerged and evolved to set up Islamic courts. Fifteen unions were formed, giving rise to the Union of Islamic Courts, which itself changed after being defeated and went on to become al-Shabab ... That's a broad outline of jihadist movements in the Sahel.

What percentage of the population is claimed by these movements?

All in all, they represent somewhere between 10% and 15%, no more than that. The vast majority are still Sufi Muslims. However, salafists, just like the Wahhabites, have power and money, and they're well-organised.

They're making headway, because they started at just 1% in 1960 but had grown to 15% in 2012. In 50 years, they'd grown to 15%. That's slow, but it's still growth.

What do you foresee for the region's security?

Actually, you have to see the crises affecting the region as challenges to be overcome. By establishing a space for regional and international co-operation, the countries in the region will be able to develop a strike force to reduce terrorist activities.

As for completely eradicating them ... I don't think that's possible or feasible, because it's impossible to tell how far they've penetrated.

But you can make sure that they won't be a danger or a threat.

There's been a call for Maghreb and Sahel countries to exchange intelligence. Can such security partnerships stem terror activity?

Necessity is the mother of invention. If such co-operation did not exist, you would be obliged to invent it. The situation today is that everyone is threatened to some degree, because it's a threat that extends across borders. So we're obliged to work together if we're to deal with all these challenges once and for all.

Could the various terror groups ever establish a united front?

Indeed, all scenarios are possible. However, I'm firmly convinced that given the international community's determination and the region's own realisation of the situation, they will make sure that the terrorists' efforts are in vain, or at least hindered.

We shall return to a system, which will guarantee peace and make room for development and investment. I don't think that can happen without security. I think we've almost achieved that goal.

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