Forbidden desert

George Joffé

A haven for terrorism under siege, have years of civil war turned the Sahara into a breeding ground for uncertainty and instability in Africa?

Before French colonialism began to take over North Africa in the early 19th Century, the Sahara was the ‘inland sea’ for people living north and south of the greatest desert in the world. It was crisscrossed by trade routes along which caravans of camels brought gold, ostrich feathers and slaves to the great trading cities of the Mediterranean coast and beyond, returning with manufactures from Europe and elsewhere to populations of the savannah and the tropics. The great mines of Taoudenni in mid-Sahara, too, supplied rock salt north and south and from Mauritania and Senegal in the west, the annual pilgrim caravan took a year to wend its way, via the Western Sahara and the Maghrib, to Egypt and eventually to Jiddah and Mecca in Saudi Arabia, before returning to its West African home.

The colonial experience was to change all that ancient tradition of trans-Saharan contact. Railways in West Africa were to divert trade to the Atlantic. Colonial boundaries impeded, and eventually stopped, regional trade and travel. The economies of the new colonies along Africa’s Mediterranean littoral were designed to supply Europe so that trade with the African interior was abandoned.

These economic and political patterns have persisted into the post-colonial era and the Sahara has become, instead, a vast, empty, barely-controlled space in which smugglers and, latterly, terrorists abound. North Africa, in short, is today cut off from its Saharan and African hinterland, united instead with Europe in seeking to stop the flow of sub-Saharan migrants intent on making their way to the alleged utopia north of the Mediterranean sea.

The Sahara leapt into the headlines because of the hostage crisis at the Algerian natural gas facility at Tiguentourine, near to In Amenas in Eastern Algeria. The attempt to take hostages there in January highlighted the way in which the Saharan region has become the breeding ground for the uncertainty and instability created by the aftermath of Libya’s civil war in 2011 and the much older civil war in Algeria in the 1990s. The legacy of the fi rst has been an apparently uncontrollable arms bazaar in Libya’s Sahara from the armouries of the Qadhafi regime and of the second, the creation of a terrorist redoubt since 2003 around Taoudenni in remote Northern Mali. When Tuareg mercenaries from Libya returned home at the start of last year to seize autonomy from the Malian state, the three terrorist groups in Taoudenni seized their opportunity to create an Islamic caliphate there instead.

Since the arrival of French forces in mid-January, that particular dream appears to have been abruptly halted but the threat has not gone away; it has been merely dispersed into the desert and the few scattered settlements throughout it. Perhaps the promised African force which is eventually to replace French troops will finally liquidate it, more likely not. Its likely failure, however, means that we need now to understand what the real threat there is and who is really threatened by it.

Is it an existential threat, similar to that posed by terrorism from Iraq or Afghanistan, as the British premier, David Cameron, would have us believe, or did France intervene for atavistic reasons and for reasons of self interest? And what do the states around Mali feel about this threat in their midst? Do they see the issue as part of a global trans-national terrorist threat or rather a localised menace to their own security?

Despite the jihadist rhetoric of the would-be hostage-takers at In Amenas, the reality is that the Saharan threat is localized and criminalised. For years, the groups concerned have financed themselves through their integration into the drugs – and people – smuggling networks across the desert, together with the ransoms paid by European states to free their unfortunate nationals captured from mining sites, especially in neighbouring Niger. France, for instance, depends on the uranium mined at Arlit in Niger to power its nuclear electricity industry. And 80 percent of all the electricity in France is produced by nuclear power! France has also taken a close paternalist and post-colonial interest in the Sahel ever since the 1960s, so its engagement in Mali with its collapsing government is no surprise.

And the groups concerned came from Algeria a decade ago, where the parent group, the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat, which now calls itself al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM), is still active in Kabylia. There has never been a significant trans-national dimension to its activities, although it may now be implicated in recent events in Libya and Tunisia. Over the past decade, during which the groups derived from it have been active in the Sahel, they have made little attempt to be active elsewhere, except, of course, in Algeria. It is the Algerian state, in reality, that is still their ultimate target and it is also that state that seeks to create regional cooperation to eliminate this Saharan Islamist threat. It does not want foreign intervention, especially from Europe and particularly from France, its old colonial master.

Algeria has, it is true, offered limited cooperation to the United State’s Africom forces in the past and has never allowed them basing facilities. Washington has, instead, turned to Niger where it signed a status-of-forces agreement last month, an essential first step to a permanent military presence to attack Islamist hideouts in Mali.

Yet American and European engagement runs the risk of creating the very thing we profess to fear. For now there are rumours of links to Boko Haram in Nigeria and to Ansar al-Shari’a in Libya. However, there is little evidence that these amount to much or that the groups concerned have the capacity to reach further afield – unless, of course, we should inadvertently encourage this by according them more attention through such active intervention than they deserve! Far better that we aid the region in creating its own security and help it in countering the poverty and misery in which such extremism flourishes.

And what of the Sahara itself, in such a world of increased surveillance and political concern, how will it relate in future to its northern and southern fringes? Will it once again become the bridge between them, albeit for reasons of regional security rather than trade? That seems rather unlikely; despite plans for trans-Saharan highways or even, perhaps, a railway. It seems more likely that security concerns will entrench its status as a forbidden world, open only to terrorists, smugglers, drones and military forces safeguarding vast frontier marches. Nor would economics help, for North Africa is now tied into the European economy and sub-Saharan Africa can offer nothing so enticing. The colonial divide, in short, will persist with Africa south of the Sahara only being able to offer a mild enticement to the Maghrib’s entrepreneurs, compared to the obsessive gaze they direct to the North.

About the author:

George Joffé lectures on international relations of the Middle East and North Africa at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge


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