How many of the mushrooming number of terrorism experts now on TV, or journalists pretending to compete with them in their instant expertise, have heard, let alone know about, what is going on in the Sahel? Or that there is actually something called Sahel that is important in the fight against Islamist terrorists? The answer is: depressingly few -- and that is good for us.
Indeed, if more were known, we would immediately hear the screams of human rights fundamentalists, from Amnesty International to Jimmy Carter, demanding a cut off of aid to less-than-Jeffersonian regimes in such exotic places as Nouakschott, Bamako, Niamey and N’Djamena. That, in light of recent events, would amount to denying ourselves an important tool against international Islamist terror.
The facts: Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Chad, all former French colonies and each much larger than France itself, are by and large divided into southern Black Christians and northerners of mostly, but not necessarily, Muslim religion and mixed race–Berbers (mostly Tuaregs), Arabs or other mixed race elements. From the Atlantic to the Red Sea, this area is many times larger than Europe, albeit with many fewer inhabitants–Sudan aside, a combined total of some 20 million, less than the population of Romania.
So what does that have to do with September 11? To begin with, these are all very poor and vulnerable states whose population is largely, sometimes majority Muslim, and which are caught between a huge, increasingly militant Muslim northern Nigeria, and the rich and aggressively militant influence of Saudi Wahhabism. The area concerned, between Mauritania on the Atlantic and Chad, separated by Sudan from the Red Sea, is enormous–in fact much larger than Western Europe. They are also weak states, meaning that large swathes of their territory are outside the effective control of the central government, thus making them a perfect location for an al-Qaeda organization seeking precisely such “black holes” to establish its training and recruitment camps. Second, the Sahel states are direct neighbors of some of the known centers of Islamist terror–including Morocco, Algeria, and Sudan.
There are a number of apparent but encouraging oddities in what is going on at this time in the Sahel. Although all the above-mentioned states are former French colonies, and some, especially Chad, also have a French military presence, cooperation between the usually jealous French (traditionally wary of any American inroads on what Paris still sees as its rightful area of influence) and the incoming Yankees is generally excellent. That parallels the similarly solid cooperation between US and French intelligence and military in Djibouti, another ex-French colony and a strategic key to access and intelligence on Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Indeed, it matches the discreet but excellent cooperation between France and the US on counterterrorism in general–not something one would expect considering the public political spats between Paris and Washington.
A very good recent example of this, and one largely lost in the media’s defeatist obsession with Iraq, is the successful Franco-American joint effort in the Sahel against the GSPC (Jamiyy'a Salafiyya li'l-Daw'a wa-'l Jihad - Salafist Group for preaching and combat – a.k.a Groupe Salafiste pour la Predication et Combat), the main Algerian Islamist terrorist group. Established in 1998 as a splinter from the existing GIA (Groupe Islamique Armée), at Osama Bin Laden’s direct instructions, GSPC last year kidnapped dozens of Western European (mostly German, Dutch and Swiss) clueless tourists, and obtained a $6 million ransom to release them.
The operation was led by one Amari Saïfi, a.k.a Abderezzak el Para, who used some of the German ransom money to buy arms throughout the region. And then, at the beginning of this year, Saifi’s group–made up of Algerians and Nigerians—was slowly pushed eastward, from Mali to Niger to Chad, due to US and French intelligence and air attacks. Chad was well chosen–it has the best army by far in the region, and its president, Idriss Deby, is a former and distinguished veteran of the Chadian military humiliation of Libya’s Ghadaffi during the 1980s.
The result was a Chadian attack on Saïfi’s group, which inflicted some 50 casualties and captures, including vehicles. The captures were an intelligence bonus; the loss of vehicles made the remnants of the group vulnerable to any attacker. Hence, by last month they, Saifi included, were picked up in the desert by a minor Chadian rebel group seeking Deby’s overthrow – the Movement for Democracy and Justice in Chad (MDJC). According to the New York Times, the group is now trying to find a buyer for Saifi & co. and has approached France, US, Germany and Algeria.
The political problem is that MDJC is opposed to our best ally in the region, Chad’s Idriss Deby; any recognition of its legitimacy may weaken Deby, thus making the French role, and experience in the complicated Chadian politics, essential. Naturally enough, to deliver the terrorist to Germany would make a joke of the effort. He may, or, judging by the recent and pathetic record of German courts, may not get anything more than some 15 years in comfortable imprisonment—if that much. Algeria, then, is the logical place–the terrorist is an Algerian national, and that country’s courts have little time for terrorist leaders.
The GSPC, of which the paratroop-trained Amari Saïfi is a prominent leader, is a typical international terrorist group. Its members have been captured throughout Western Europe, and it has direct and personal links to Osama bin Laden. Some of its militants were trained in Bin Laden’s Afghan camps prior to September 11, and the very capture of his joint Algerian/Nigerian group suggests the growing danger of Nigeria–or Nigeria’s Islamic north–becoming a recruitment and training center for international Islamists in the now familiar manner: Saudi (i.e. Wahhabbi) money and imams, Algerian and/or Moroccan military trainers—some with Afghan experience—combined with huge numbers.
To its credit, the US government, or the military, has seen the dangers ahead of time– hence the United States European Command recently sponsored a meeting of defense and intelligence leaders of Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad in Stuttgart, Germany, and, under the Pan-Sahel Initiative, asked Congress for $ 125 million, compared to then puny $7 million it started with.
That defense and intelligence leaders from neighboring Sahel countries needed a US – sponsored meeting in Stuttgart to actually meet and know each other is itself a demonstration of the magnitude of the problems facing the US and Paris; that it was done at all suggests that the US military is not just reacting to events in the Sahara, but preparing for and acting on the future.
Ultimately, the still-obscure events in the desert wastes of the Sahara demonstrate how global Islamist terrorism is, how international the response has to be, and, certainly, that the public is not informed enough to judge the impact of the Bush Administration’s efforts – yet.