Washington — Over the past few years there has been a dramatic upsurge in criminal violence, terrorism and extremism in the countries that make up Africa's Sahel region which spans more than five-thousand kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.
In 2012 there were a reported 144 terrorist attacks in the region, up from 44 attacks in 2004.
Professor Yonah Alexander, a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies says the region is rapidly turning into the world's geographical center of terrorism.
"It is clear that an arc of instability is emerging across Africa's Sahel which has opened a path for al-Qaida to shift its center of gravity from Afghanistan and Pakistan to a new sanctuary and has created a potential launching pad much closer to US and European shores," he said.
Alexander says al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its affiliates have already carved out a new Afghanistan in the African Sahara, establishing a breeding ground for jihadists in Africa.
Peter Pham, director of the Africa Program at the Atlantic Council, says the Sahel is an ideal base for terrorist groups.
"Central governments in most African countries are largely unable to assert authority beyond major cities, so terrorist organizations found it is easier to exploit wide areas in these countries away from military pressure in Afghanistan and Pakistan," he said.
Pham says social indicators in the region are some of the worst in the world and terrorists have been able to exploit the situation.
"Poor education, ethnic and religious intolerance, poverty, lack of economic opportunities, political fragmentation and criminal activities linked with militants," he says are just some of the factors that drive young men to join jihadist groups. Impoverished young men join for either ideological reasons or for money.
Arab Spring as a catalyst
Alexander says a key factor in the upsurge in violence is the Arab Spring.
"Al-Qaida and other militant Islamist groups in the Maghreb, Sahel and neighboring African countries are attempting to take advantage of the Arab Spring to destabilize the region even further."
As an example Alexander cites Libya where chaos led to one of the worst days in U.S. diplomatic history.
"This brutal reality was graphically illustrated by the killing of four US government personnel, including Ambassador John Christopher Stevens, in Benghazi on September 11, 2012," he said.
Alexander says that chaos has now expanded southward where Libyan arms have flowed to terrorist groups. The result is a violent salvo of attacks, including the bloody siege attack on Nairobi's Westgate mall carried out by the Somali-based al Shabab and multiple attacks by Boko Haram militants in Nigeria.
Mali, a case study in instability
By 2012, northern Mali had fallen under the control of various jihadist groups including AQIM, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, Ansar Dine and al-Qaida's al-Mulathameen Brigade. Before a French-led military intervention, these groups took sizable chunks of territory in the north, implementing harsh Islamic law in a bid to create a radical caliphate. The ensuing violence forced more than 350,000 people to flee south.
Pham notes there has been a splintering of terrorist groups in the Sahel based on different leaders jockeying for power.
"There is the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), the al-Mourabitoun brigade led by a former battalion leader of AQIM, Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabab in Somalia."
Alexander says many of the groups also have their roots in criminal activity.
"Every group has first local issues and interests, then ideology connected different radical groups, exploiting religion but practicing what Islam is not preaching, like violence, kidnappings, killing and trafficking of arms and narcotics to finance terrorism."
David Luna, director for Anticrime Programs at U.S. State Department, says terrorists in this region engage in kidnapping for ransom, illicit trafficking of drugs and arms. He says globally terrorists get most of their funding from such activities.
"The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that terrorist transnational forms of organized crime generate approximately $3.34 billion per year," he said.
The United Nations Security Council recently warned that if not contained, extremism in the Sahel could transform the African continent into a breeding ground for terrorists and a launch pad for larger attacks around the world.
Regional and international cooperation is essential
Experts agree they key to fighting terrorism in the Sahel is regional cooperation supported with international assistance. In 2005 the U.S. launched the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative (TSCTI) to assist governments in the region to better control their territories and to prevent huge tracts of African desert from becoming a safe haven for terrorist groups.
Then in 2008 the U.S. created a unified military command for Africa, the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), which took over the responsibilities of TSCTI.
Alexander says that both hard and soft power strategies are needed.
"While the U.S., EU and NATO must strengthen their cooperation with African countries on the security level, the international community must find diplomatic solutions for some regional conflicts like the Western Sahara between Algeria and Morocco and without economic development of the region; the situation is going to deteriorate," he said.
And Pham says promoting good governance must be a key ingredient in a broad counter-terrorism strategy.
"To counter this rising tide of terrorism there must be a broader strategy that includes better governments that provide basic services and goods to people, developing economies with investment to reduce the temptation of terrorist groups' recruitment," he said.