*”There are more links between criminal elements than between the governments themselves… Terrorism is a cross-border phenomenon that requires a cross-border response.”*
Magharebia, Interview by Bakari Gueye (Nouakchott, Mauritania, June 14, 2013) — When it comes to dismantling networks of terrorists and traffickers, Maghreb countries have a big problem. There are now more links between criminal elements than between governments, a top security analyst says.
And with the Mali conflict over and the armed extremists camped on the Algeria-Tunisia border and in Libya, joint counter-terror and law enforcement efforts are more important than ever, says Mohamed Vall Ould Oumer, a UNESCO prize-winning writer, reporter and regional security expert.
Magharebia met up with him in Nouakchott to ask where the Maghreb goes from here.
Magharebia: For starters, what happened to all the terrorists and jihadists in Mali? Are they in Libya?
Mohamed Vall Ould Oumer: The terrorist threat in the Maghreb has become stronger and stronger in the wake of the French intervention in Mali. Maghreb elements within Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) returned to their countries of origin.
Libya has become a sanctuary for them. This trend appears to be continuing. So the Maghreb area is in danger of becoming the new northern Mali.
Magharebia: Algeria has the strongest military of the Maghreb. What’s its stance on Mali and whatever comes next?
Ould Oumer: There were objective reasons that spurred the Algerian government to support the intervention. It was essential to preserve the territorial integrity of Mali….
The second reason is the fact that there is a sociological continuum that spans every country in the Maghreb and northern Mali. So anything that affects northern Mali will inevitably affect those countries too….
In addition, the In Amenas gas plant attack proved that Algeria was not immune.
Magharebia: For weeks, Tunisian troops have been chasing armed jihadists holed up in the Jebel Chaambi forests along the Algeria border. Is Tunisia able to remove the al-Qaeda terrorists camped on their doorstep?
Ould Oumer: I don’t believe that Tunisia can deal with this threat single-handedly.
Terrorism is a cross-border phenomenon that requires a collective and cross-border response. Its connection with organized crime must be tackled through a Maghreb-wide link-up between the armed and security forces.
That’s where these countries are failing – because most of them are in a transitional phase and remain fragile and unstable.
Magharebia: Algeria this week announced it is working with Tunisia to protect the shared border. Are North African states now more willing to work together?
Ould Oumer: There is security co-operation between Maghreb countries, but it is inadequate. And there are more links between the criminal elements than between the governments themselves.
What’s needed is effective sharing of intelligence. We need to create joint forces, harmonize strategies and jurisdictions, and simplify judicial proceedings in extradition cases.
In a nutshell, security integration is needed. We’re still a long way from achieving that.
Magharebia: For over a year now, Mauritania has seen virtually no terror attacks. What made this happen?
Ould Oumer: I think Mauritania is reaping the rewards of a profitable strategy, because it has enabled the country to extend its sovereignty over the whole of its territory by establishing base units. It has also enabled the country to tackle the terrorist threat by creating Special Intervention Groups (SIGs).
Operations conducted within Mali made it possible to push the threat far away from the country’s borders. Heavy blows have also been dealt to the terrorists who were on the brink of pulling off in Mauritania a coup like the one in northern Mali.
Magharebia: As the Mauritanian foreign minister recently underlined in Brussels, the terrorist threat extends beyond the Maghreb-Sahara region. Can Western nations offer us anything to help curb this phenomenon?
Ould Oumer: The first thing that comes to mind is joint military assistance for Mali even if it’s within a UN framework. Training and finance also come to mind. But personally, I think that the most important form of assistance is rather to encourage our countries to become more democratic and help them achieve real development.
What happened in Mali gives the impression that there was something to be gained from trading in something old for something new. Up to that point, Mali had been held up as a model of democracy and a country which operated under the rule of law. But all of a sudden, we discovered that the state was fragile…
Magharebia: There’s a lot of talk about a resurgence of drug trafficking in the Maghreb. Is this really happening?
Ould Oumer: Well, there is the West Africa phenomenon. I think this is a process which began in the middle of the 1990s and continued in Mauritania until 2006, and in Guinea-Bissau until very recently.
Despite all of the efforts made by the Maghreb countries individually, they will always be transit points. But it should be pointed out that the drug traffickers’ gains in these countries ended, and that’s a good thing.
Magharebia: One more question: why are terrorism and organized crime able to attract young people in the Maghreb?
Ould Oumer: The Maghreb is a region where the majority of the population is very young. Nearly 70% is under age 30. So there are problems in terms of education, jobs and frustrations arising out of the unfair relationships between the state and the populations, as well as the inequitable management of resources in these countries.
So young people find themselves in difficult situations and are prone to despair.
If we understand the phenomenon of terrorism correctly, we see that it is not underpinned by a plan. The act of perpetrating it brings about one’s own death and, in the process, that of one’s fellows. People with no plans for their lives have no hope.
What’s more, the young people of the Maghreb are suffering from a lack of guidance, the absence of a model and the profound disconnect between forgotten tradition and unrestrained modernism.
And between the two, people become lost and end up in a deadly place where they should not be.