Caitlin Dearing Scott, MAC
January 8, 2015
Big changes to the security situation in the Maghreb and Sahel occurred during 2014 including the deteriorating crisis in Libya, the improving security environment in Tunisia, and continued instability on Algeria’s borders. Libya is literally a country on the brink of civil war, and ISIS is attempting to take advantage of the instability there and elsewhere, in terms of recruitment and propaganda, to expand its reach. ISIS has also had an impact of some of the region’s terrorist groupings – with various leaders defecting from AQIM to pledge allegiance to its leader Baghdadi, leading to both new alliances (unified in their support for ISIS) and continued fragmentation.
While the movement towards parliamentary democracy in Tunisia is a positive sign, the country is still plagued by terrorist attacks and is a leading exporter of foreign fighters to ISIS. Algeria is still confronted with terrorist attacks and increasingly struggling to patrol its borders with its less-than-stable neighbors. For Morocco, 2014 marked an upsurge in both exports of foreign fighters and arrests of allegedly homegrown terrorist cells, but the country fortunately avoided any attacks. The same can be said for Mauritania despite AQIM’s continued intent to conduct attacks in the country. And despite some high-profile terrorist attacks in Niger in 2014 (and fears of Boko Haram in the border regions), the security situation did not drastically deteriorate.
As for Mali, though in 2014 the country faced serious challenges and an ongoing stalemate in negotiations with the Tuareg, it nevertheless showed marked improvement in its security situation when compared to the Islamist takeover of 2013.
Or so it seemed until the recent spate of terrorist attacks to mark the New Year. Already this year, AQIM claimed responsibility for a deadly attack on a Malian military base that killed at least eight; the mayor of a town in northern Mali died in an ambush; and six peacekeepers were wounded in a roadside bomb attack.
What then is the security outlook for the region in 2015? Leaving aside Libya and its myriad militias (see the work of Fred Wehrey for a comprehensive overview of various factions operating there), the Maghreb and Sahel are home to four major groups: al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb under the leadership of Abdelmalek Droukdel, al-Mourabitoun led by the infamous Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Ansar Dine, though its strength is questionable, and the group reportedly has dwindled to several hundred fighters.
Of course, this is an overly simplistic portrayal of the players – changing alliances, fragmentation, defections to join the Islamic State, the intermingling of terrorists with organized criminal groups and drug traffickers, and the very real intent of ISIS to establish a presence in North Africa, all complicate the situation further. Nevertheless, as we begin 2015, it is clear that these key groups will have a substantial impact on the security situation by exploiting the vast, uncontrolled desert swaths of the region and beyond. Unfortunately, the whereabouts of most of their leaders is unknown.
Where is Mokhtar Belmokhtar? Reportedly in Libya or operating along the southern Algerian border, depending on whom you believe; either “recruiting Jihadi fighters returning from Syria to launch attacks on Western targets” or operating in Mali where the spate of recent attacks makes it seem like some Jihadis are starting to return. And Abdelmalek Droukdel? Probably still in Algeria, but who even knows how long he will retain his leadership role given recent reports of a rebellion in his ranks over the decision not to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State.
All this to say that the security outlook for the region in 2015 is constantly evolving. The same cannot be said for the counterterrorism approach of many of the region’s governments, save Morocco and a few others. Coordination amongst the Sahel countries is still lacking, and it is unlikely that 2015 will bring a sea change in this regard.
CEMOC – the Joint Military Staff Committee of the Sahel Region – is still only comprised of Algeria, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, leaving out the important regional player Morocco that has much to contribute in the field of counterterrorism –from both a hard and soft security perspective. CEMOC met this week in Algeria to assess the security situation in the Sahel and the fight against terrorism and organized crime in the region. Unfortunately, the outlook for CEMOC’s capacity to fight terrorism in 2015 remains bleak as long as it remains divisive, and the organization looks set to once again fall short of achieving its objectives.
What about other regional groupings? The Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership – a US government program with 11 countries in the region (Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal) to facilitate regional cooperation, strengthen regional counterterrorism capabilities, and counter violent extremism is still going strong but faces obvious setbacks, including the continued refusal of Algeria to cooperate with its Moroccan counterparts, not to mention occasionally diverted US focus on other hot spots around the world.
As for the individual governments, as is well known Morocco is working domestically and regionally to combat terrorism and counter violent extremism. Morocco is engaged in several bilateral and multilateral counterterrorism partnerships and is working with its neighbors and allies on efforts to bolster intelligence-sharing and border security, as well as to combat terrorist financing and foreign fighter flows. Just as importantly, it is working to combat violent extremism through the promotion of moderate Islam throughout the Maghreb, Sahel, and West Africa. Its program to train imams has already begun and is set to train imams from Mali, Libya, Tunisia, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Guinea, the Maldives, and Nigeria. Further afield, Morocco is working with the anti-ISIS coalition to prevent the spread of the group. We can expect that these initiatives will continue and expand in 2015, with Morocco confronted with ongoing security challenges and perhaps new ones resulting from returning foreign fighters.
And one can always hope that 2015 will bring a resolution of the Sahara conflict that is at the heart of the lack of cooperation between Morocco and Algeria, the biggest counterterrorism players in the region.