An offshoot of al-Qaeda is working to turn the whole of Africa’s Sahel region, which lies just south of the Sahara, into a “new Somalia” and jihadist bases there pose a growing threat to European and pan-African security, a panel of experts has warned.
Jerome Spinoza, the head of the Africa bureau in the French ministry of defence, said the sub-Saharan Sahel area, up to 1 000 kilometres wide and stretching from the Atlantic in the west to the Red Sea in the east, presents challenges that Western policymakers have ignored at their peril.
“Instability is on the rise,” Spinoza told the Chatham House think-tank in London last Friday. “Without a meaningful policy, the area could constitute a lasting safe haven for jihadists.”
Robert Fowler, a former United Nations special envoy to Niger, who was held hostage for four months in 2008 to 2009 by al-Qaeda in the Maghreb region, said the 31-strong group of captors was well disciplined and concentrated on its aim of creating an Islamic caliphate embracing the Muslim lands of Africa and the Middle East.
“These men are highly motivated and totally ascetic,” Fowler said. “They have no needs. They are dressed in rags. They have a bag of rice and a belt of ammunition and that’s it. They are totally committed to jihad. They said to me: “We fight to die, you fight to go home to your wife and kids. Guess who will win?” Even if it takes 200 years, they want to turn the Sahel into a new Somalia.”
Fowler said the threat to Europe’s southern flank had risen after advanced weapons were plundered during the collapse of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya.
The Sahel region embraces southern Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, southern Algeria, Niger, northern Nigeria, Chad, South Sudan and Darfur in western Sudan, northern Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Spinoza said the region has rapid population growth, weak and ineffective governance, inter-state tension, poor access to education and employment and acute food-supply problems, exacerbated by climate change and the advance of the Sahara.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is exploiting the resulting instability, he suggested. Spinoza called for a united approach by the international community. —