It has certainly been an interesting week for security in the Maghreb and Sahel, with the region making rare headlines in the US thanks to the alleged killing (or not) of renowned terrorist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, AKA Mr. Marlboro. Initial reports that he was killed in a targeted US airstrike in Libya were confirmed by the Libyan government, but not the US. Subsequent reports from the ground, courtesy of Libyan militant group Ansar-al-Sharia, denied that Belmokhtar was among those killed in the attack.
This isn’t the first time Belmokhtar has been reported killed – and it may well not be the last. Belmokhtar, an Algerian best known for being the master mind of the 2013 attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria, has been an elusive target of regional and foreign security services alike. Recently embroiled in the ever-changing mix of alliances in North Africa, Belmokhtar has, until now, been steadfast is his allegiance to al-Qaeda and vocal in his opposition to the Islamic State. Beyond whether or not he is actually dead, it also remains to be seen what the impact of his alleged death would be for security dynamics in the region. There are any numbers of replacements waiting in the wings, but Belmokhtar has been a big player in the region for decades, and his death – or continued activity – will certainly make waves.
As for the rest of the region, there is a similar struggle to assert authority over lawless areas. Libya continues to suffer from a violent struggle for control in a fractured society. The resulting political vacuum has drawn in a massive number of sub-Saharan migrants attempting to pass through the country on their way to European shores, leaving those north of the Mediterranean scrambling to react to the crisis. Meanwhile, the UN is encouraging Libyan rivals to accept a power-sharing peace deal that was negotiated during UN-sponsored talks in Morocco.
Mali, on the other hand, had a breakthrough in its peace negotiations, culminating in the signing of a peace agreement over the weekend between the government and the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA). The US cautioned that much work remains to be done to create a lasting peace, certainly given ongoing insecurity in some pockets of the country and an uptick in violence in 2015 that has led United Nations Secretary General Ban-Ki-Moon to call for more troops to support the UN Mission there.
Another major development in the region was in Chad, where Boko Haram is blamed for a twin bombing near a police academy in N’Djamena that killed 23 and wounded over 100. This was reported as the first terrorist attack on the capital in years. Chad has become increasingly involved in Counter Terrorism operations, having committed 3,000 troops to the African Union- approved Multi-National Joint Task Force, hosting the French troops taking part in Operation Barkhane, and fighting Boko Haram in Nigeria. As a result, Chad has also become a target of extremists.
The regional security environment is continuously in flux, but the news of the peace deal in Mali offers a glimmer of hope for its future. This will require sustained commitment not just by Mali itself but by the international community, which all too often only shows interest in the region in times of crisis (or the many near-misses against Belmokhtar).