Africa Center for Strategic Studies Assistant Professor of Transnational Threats, Dr. Benjamin Nickels, contributed to a recent discussion about development and security in the Sahel with approximately 25 senior World Bank leaders at the organization’s Washington, D.C., headquarters. The group focused on the crisis in Mali and the region’s looming food crisis, as well as drug trafficking and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
“Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is the most significant and powerful terrorist organization operating in the Sahel today,” said Nickels. “[However,] the threat AQIM poses to the region should not be overstated.” The World Bank discussion took place in May 2012.
Based on his own research and conversations with security sectors leaders in the Sahel and the United States, Nickels said AQIM has some weaknesses, including its size (the group is estimated to include at most 1,000 members), internal divisions, and ideological weaknesses.
“AQIM is internally divided and does not enjoy great coherence and discipline,” Nickels said. “It suffers from leadership and ideological divides, and above all, there is a significant North–South tension, which has existed for at least a decade,” since before the predecessor group – the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) – merged with al-Qaeda.
According to Nickels’ research, AQIM also remains ideologically weak, and joining the international Al Qaeda network did not result in higher recruitment of followers. The merger may have distanced the group from powerful local grievances while doing little to unite the Northern and Southern factions.
“In fact, if anything, the Sahel battalions have become more criminal than ideological in their behavior since the 2007 merger,” said Nickels. “Some analysts refer to the period after 2008 as the criminalization [era] of AQIM.”
The ACSS scholar acknowledged that the terrorist group, whether as GSPC or AQIM, has managed to adapt and survive for some 14 years, despite considerable efforts to put a stop to its activities. AQIM’s operatives have also proven capable of navigating a dynamic landscape of sub-state powers and violent non-state actors in the Sahel, in part by building alliances with local tribes and communities such as the Tuareg and Berabiche through business interactions and marriages. AQIM has also found a way to cooperate with drug traffickers and smugglers. Furthermore, it has maintained its ability to conduct attacks, especially on Westerners and Western officials. By one account, the number of people kidnapped for ransom between 2003 and 2011 was at least 54.
Nickels also said the response to AQIM’s threat has been international, regional, and national.
At the international level, the United States has taken the lead in responding to terrorism in the Sahel. It has done so through dedicated regional initiatives that have been ongoing for nearly a decade. Nickels cited the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP), a program led by the U.S. Department of State that involves the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Agency for International Development. TSCTP includes joint-training operations and programs that address root causes of terrorism in the Sahel.
At the regional level, the most important initiative, Nickels said, was the 2009 creation of a Joint Operation Committee of Chiefs of Staff headquartered in Tamanrasset, Algeria, that brings together Algerian, Mauritanian, Malian, and Nigerien militaries in an effort to improve information sharing and coordination of operations across the borders.
“How effective all these responses to AQIM have been is open to debate,” Nickels said. “They probably deserve some credit for AQIM’s containment. And the growing engagement of the pivotal player, Algeria, is generally a positive sign.”
Nickels suggested that this marks the second time in the World Bank’s history that the Sahel as a region has emerged as a site of policy debate and action. The first occasion was in the 1970s and 1980s, when drought and famine brought the region to the world’s attention and made humanitarian aid and development the preeminent concern. This time, security concerns predominate, and “the World Bank may need to find ways of leveraging the region’s security concerns without becoming overly wedded to them or defined by them.”
The security landscape will likely directly shape World Bank’s work, however. “AQIM’s penchant for attacking Westerners and representatives of international institutions may continue to hinder international development efforts in the Sahel,” Nickels concluded. “The Bank may need to develop a strategy for conducting development work in an environment where its representatives on the ground are targets as such.”