(Editor’s Note: The Arab Spring of 2011 has resulted in dramatic changes across the already fragile Sahel region, creating power vacuums and areas no longer under any governmental control. Traditionally porous borders and a proliferation of weapons from deposed regimes mean that violent extremist groups are able to benefit from instability “Countering Violent Extremism” was the subject of a plenary discussion June 26, 2012, at the Senior Leaders Seminar hosted by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. The plenary discussion was led by Laurence Aïda Ammour, an associate researcher at Les Afriques dans le Monde at the Institute of Political Sciences, Bordeaux, and a consultant in international security for GéopoliSud Consultance. The two-week Senior Leaders Seminar took place June 18-29 in Arlington, Virginia, and was attended by 70 security sector professionals and other government leaders from 40 Africa nations. Academic discussions at the Africa Center are conducted under a strict policy of non-attribution to allow free and open sharing of ideas. However, several presenters agree to allow portions of their presentations to appear on the record in order to promote broader awareness of the issues.)
Laurence Aïda Ammour, an associate researcher at Les Afriques dans le Monde at the Institute of Political Sciences, Bordeaux, and a consultant in international security for GéopoliSud Consultance, presented at plenary session of the ACSS Senior Leaders Seminar. She discussed the threat of violent extremism throughout the continent of Africa, as well as some methods in place to address these issues.
Ms. Ammour made her remarks in the context of the Arab Spring of 2011. She stated that the uprisings, especially in Libya, had utterly disrupted the former geopolitical order of the Sahel region, resulting in dramatic changes in an already fragile region. The ouster of former leaders, she claimed, has created power vacuums as well as areas that are no longer under any governmental control. These ungoverned spaces, combined with porous borders in a sparsely inhabited region, have allowed proliferation of heavy arms out of Libya and into the hands of extremists. The removal of conditions imposed by the Qadhafi regime, which had suppressed the demands of marginalized ethnic groups, has served to “unfreeze” conflicts, such as the Tuareg issue that has contributed to destabilizing Mali. These developments, combined with the presence of Al-Qaeda affiliates and the overall radicalization of Islam in the region, are all factors in the rising tide of violent extremism in the Sahel and West Africa.
Ms. Ammour gave detailed descriptions of the many extremist groups in Africa, focusing on geographically clustered organizations. In the Algerian/Malian sub-region of the Sahel, groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Eddine, the Unity Movement for Jihad in West Africa, and the Mujahedeen Movement in Morocco use tactics such as bombings, kidnappings, and drug trafficking to support their aims. While the leadership, recruiting, and tactics vary among the organizations, they share a geographic region and have begun to show increased levels of cooperation in carrying out operations.
Organizations in the Sinai Peninsula (Tawhid al-Jihad, Ansar al-Jihad), Nigeria (Boko Haram), and Somalia (Al-Shabaab) have likewise carried out bombings and kidnappings. Many of these groups have explicit connections with AQIM or AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), and many of them have likewise obtained heavy arms that have spread from the aftermath of the Libyan revolution. While the groups tend to be focused locally, these connections to Libya and to each other represent a shared security challenge between the host countries and even Europe and the United States, which strive to prevent potential attacks on their own soil.
Due to the shared challenges of interconnected extremists groups, many of the affected countries have begun joint initiatives to counter the problem. Among the cooperative security efforts is the African Union’s African Center for Studies and Research on Terrorism, located in Algiers. A conference of regional interior ministers in Tripoli in March 2012 crafted an agreement to strengthen security on international borders to prevent the transfer of arms and explosives. Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad have likewise worked to improve border controls.
Across the board, Ms. Ammour stated, these new cooperative initiatives are still young, weak, and insufficient. In addition to international cooperation to combat extremism, she noted that programs to promote social justice, economic prosperity, education, and good governance are also essential to countering the spread of violence.
Summary prepared by Eric Severson. Mr. Severson is pursuing an M.S. in Defense and Strategic Studies at Missouri State University, and is a 2012 summer student employee of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.