By Fernando Reinares
The deteriorating security conditions across the Sahel in general and, specifically, the growing terrorist threat posed to Western citizens and interests by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), both within and without the area, have become a matter of serious concern for affected EU nations over the past years. This is particularly so since AQIM’s resources and operational capabilities have been enhanced after having found sanctuary in northern Mali.
AQMI’s repeated kidnappings of Europeans in this African subregion and its activities north of the Mediterranean, as well as related security issues ranging from the spread of violent extremism to the nexus between terrorism and illicit trafficking, led the EU’s External Service last year to publish a Strategy for Security and Development in the Sahel (SSDS).
An urgent and priority goal for the SSDS was to prevent AQIM attacks in either the Sahel or the UE’s home ground. The long-term objective was to limit AQIM’s capabilities and erode its mobilisation potential, while depriving the jihadist organisation and linked criminal networks of a haven. The SSDS aimed to coordinate the EU’s engagement in the area and reinforce its security sector by supporting the strategies and policies of the relevant state authorities, with a special focus on Mauritania, Mali and Niger. It also sought to promote regional cooperation through the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
However, during the spring of 2012, just a few months after the SSDS was presented, the Sahelian terrorist sanctuary witnessed the emergence of a jihadist condominium in Northern Mali. Coercive social control over the inhabitants in localities such as Gao, Kidal, Tumbuctu and others was effectively imposed by AQIM in close cooperation with its splinter –but apparently subordinate– group, the Movement for Unification and Jihad in Western Africa (MUJWA), and a newly articulated and like-minded local organisation called Ansar al Din.
Thus, the area’s security and terrorist problem has substantially deteriorated this year, and markedly so from the EU perspective. Reality has quickly overtaken the original scenario that gave rise to the SSDS, while the latter has become outdated and unexpected events now require an immediate response.
In part, this explains why the EU’s reaction to the worsening security conditions in the Sahel and the establishment of a jihadist condominium in northern Mali has been slow and unsure. Opinions on security in the Sahel and the threat posed by AQIM differ between the different member states’ political elites and public opinion, given their varying historical antecedents, geographical proximity and socioeconomic presence in the area. Sensitivity is obviously at its highest in France, followed by –notably– Spain and Italy, but is also shared by Belgium, Germany and the UK.
France held presidential and legislative elections as events were unfolding in Mali, so it took some time for its new government to take the expected lead in shaping the EU’s response. Finally, on 23 July, the EU Council formally invited proposals for the possible deployment of an ECOWAS force in northern Mali under a UN Security Council mandate and at the request of a National Union Government in Bamako. Paris then consulted other EU governments, with an important meeting being held in August between the French Minister of Defence and his Spanish counterpart.
On the one hand, this meant that the UE and its member states became reasonably persuaded that the more time passes the less reversible the situation will be in northern Mali, although their military involvement will not be direct. Financial, logistic and intelligence help would indeed be the advisable option. On the other hand, it meant that the EU, with France in the lead, had become active in promoting military intervention.
Not unsurprisingly, it was France’s special ambassador for the Sahel who, on 4 September, first announced that Mali’s interim President had formally requested from ECOWAS a military contribution to stabilise and reunify the country. More recently, the French President, François Hollande, in his address to the United Nations General Assembly, asked the Security Council for urgent action to authorise intervention and oust the Jihadists from the condominium they seek to consolidate.
Even if military intervention is considered a necessity by the EU to prevent the terrorist sanctuary in northern Mali evolving into a consolidated Jihadist condominium, it must be borne in mind that such an option involves a very considerable risk, particularly as the extremist organisations in the area have been able to recruit thousands over the past few months. If the operation fails to be relatively quick and successful, with the participation of all the relevant states in the area, any subsequent violent confrontation could simply further encourage foreign Jihadists to go and fight alongside AQIM, MUJWA and AD.
The situation can also be an opportunity for the EU’s institutions, member states and civil society to reflect on their own responsibility in the growth of terrorism across the Sahel. By paying ransom to terrorists in exchange for hostages and forcing states in the region to release from prison individuals linked to jihadist organisations, Europeans are applying double standards and strengthening the terrorists at the expense of the local populations subject to them.
Fernando Reinares is Senior Analyst on International Terrorism