In a Sept. 11, 2006 video, Ayman al-Zawahiri declared that, “Osama bin Laden has told me to announce to the Muslims that the GSPC (the Algerian-based Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat) has joined Al-Qaeda. This should be a source of chagrin, frustration and sadness for the apostates [of the Algerian regime], the treacherous sons of France. There is some question as to whether this pronouncement represents a strategic gain for Al-Qaeda in North Africa or is indicative of the declining fortunes of the GSPC.
Nevertheless, it helped to reinforce concern in some quarters, most notably in Washington but also in European capitals, the United Nations and the African Union, that terrorists might gain a firmer foothold in the more remote, largely ungoverned, areas of the Sahel, a region composed of four countries- Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Chad- covering an area roughly the size of the United States. Islamic fundamentalism has been part of the Sahelian political and social landscape for well nigh 60 years now. Its proselytizers, adherents and fighters have moved easily across the porous borders of this vast, sparsely populated desert region.
Jihadist elements are a small but not insignificant presence in the Sahel, plying their trade in fundamentalist ideology and holy war alongside, and often in close collaboration with, smugglers, drug dealers and kidnappers. They have not gone unnoticed, particularly by the US government, which is now investing tens of millions of dollars to counter the threat they pose to the four countries, but perhaps more importantly to neighbors in the region who are situated in areas of substantial geo-strategic import, whether it be the Maghreb or the Horn of Africa, or sit on very valuable resources, principally oil.
Nigeria and the Gulf of Guinea are two prominent examples. The US policy objective is to stem terrorist threats in these areas at their inception, or at “Phase Zero, in the parlance of the US European Command (EUCOM), through the use of a full range of political, economic, development and security tools. Critics wonder if such investment is commensurate with the gravity of the threat, but there is little question as to its popularity among the financially strapped and in some cases politically fragile regimes in the region. Since the early 1990s, there has been a rise in activity by Islamist missionaries and NGOs in all four countries of the Sahel. Chad has been the site of considerable stirrings, with locals reporting the presence of large numbers of foreign travelers carrying false identity papers and infiltration by Islamist networks linked to Sudan.
It is the northern region of Mali, however, that has witnessed the most significant influx of foreign jihadists, with the GSPC penetrating from Algeria and other armed elements moving in from South Asia and the Middle East.
The GSPC is by far the most worrisome of the jihadist groups since it is the best financed, most organized, and operationally active. It has extra-regional ambitions and operatives not only in the Sahel but throughout Europe.
Although wounded by Western-supported counterinsurgency efforts and put upon by local competitors, including the Tuareg rebels of northern Mali, the GSPC, despite a dramatic recent drop in membership, is still very active in the region, with between 300 and 500 fighters. GSPC fundraising, recruiting, establishment of support networks and armed attacks will continue in the Sahel, as will similar efforts by Al-Qaeda-affiliated or -inspired organizations. There is much at stake here for all players. Antipathy to US policy, particularly in the Near East and Iraq, is a key factor in the overall impact of radical Islamists on a sizeable percentage of Sahelians.
Their ideology is especially appealing to politically disenfranchised and economically marginalized segments of the local population, many of whom resent the plundering of national assets by small ruling elites. These elites are seen as corrupt and too eager to embrace the West, whether to increase their own political and financial gain as to address national security concerns. Money is an equal opportunity corrupter, however, and there are reports that leaders of the GSPC are now criticized for being motivated more by money than by ideology.
According to one observer, GSPC leader Mokhtar Benmokhtar’s modus operandi “no longer [has] anything to do with a political project, it is almost a way of life; it is basically criminal banditry . All of this presents an interesting question for policy makers: whether it makes more sense to ‘buy’ or to kill Jihadists in the Sahel. With a $100 million a year to spend in the region, the US might want to pay serious attention to the overall cost/benefit equation here. Hrach Gregorian is president of the Washington, DC-based Institute of World Affairs, a partner in the consulting firm Gettysburg Integrated Solutions, and an associate professor in the graduate program in conflict analysis at Royal Roads University in Victoria, Canada. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter