The UN mission in Mali is one of the most powerful in the United Nations, but also one of the most dangerous.

AFRICA – The Sahel is basically a cocktail of problems. Not in vain do they call it the African “hunger belt” of Jihadist. 

Conflicts, poverty, organised crime and terrorism coexist in this strip of 5,000 km that crosses the African continent, from the Atlantic Ocean in the west, to the Red Sea in the east, and serves as a transition between the Sahara desert and savanna African.

To all these structural problems of the region has been added one in recent years that has stirred even more then the Sahel hornets: Libya.

With all this so close to its southern border, it is not surprising that Europe has focused its concerns into the increasingly important militarisation of the area.

Efforts are focused on preventing the area, and primarily Mali, from becoming a terrorist sanctuary . But the strategy, due in addition to the large area of ​​land and its complicated geography, is huge and complicated to monitor.

French soldier, surrounded by children in Mali.

Some 3,000 French soldiers are deployed in the Sahel through Operation Barkhane.

A region in crisis

This is how it is defined by Colonel Ignacio Fuente Cobo, an analyst at the Spanish Institute of Strategic Studies (IEEE), under the Ministry of Defense.

The factors that contribute to this crisis are several. 

In the first place, explains Fuente Cobo, there is a political crisis: it is about ” very weak states that arose from colonial processes, whose borders do not coincide with the nature of populations that settle within those states”.

Scene of an attempt of Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Boko Haram has carried out numerous attacks in Nigeria.

They are very diverse states, says Eduard Soler, an analyst at the Barcelona Center for International Affairs (CIDOB) -a think tank based in Barcelona and specialised in international affairs- in which “power has not always been representative of the whole, there are communities that feel marginalised from the power structure. “

And then there are the populations that move on horseback from the various states, such as the Tuareg , who reject the existence of borders between them.

Many of these states have internal conflicts , such as Mali, and the situation is aggravated by international terrorism and organized crime , as illegal trafficking routes of all kinds converge in the area, from drugs to people and weapons, camouflaged between porous borders and areas in which the state presence is non-existent.

Sahel map

In addition, a socioeconomic factor contributes to the deterioration: it is, in most cases, a very low per ca-pita income and an explosive population growth . “It’s a kind of demographic bomb,” says Colonel Fuente Cobo.

This implies that there is a huge number of young people without economic prospects and therefore, “easy prisoners” of the criminal and extremist groups that operate in the area, explains Soler.

As if all this were not enough, climate change is dramatically affecting the region, and previously fertile areas, such as the Lake Chad area, are now being decertified.

New cradle of jihadist?

“Islamist jihadist move in a very comfortable way throughout the region, ” according to Fuente Cobo.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) is present in the area – mainly in Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – since 2007. Boko Haram was founded in 2002 and has also been operating in parts of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon for several years. , the same as Al Shabaab , in this case in the eastern part, mainly in Somalia.

These are just some examples of the groups that have made headlines after bloody attacks. But many more operate in the area.

The threat is not new or unknown to European countries 

In fact, the first French troops fighting terrorism in the region were deployed in 2013 – first with Operation Serval, in Mali, replaced a year later by Operation Barkhane across the Sahel.

However, there are two factors that are increasing tension and fear.

A child walks in a desert area in Mali.

The area is also one of the most affected by climate change.

In the first place, “the Sahel was previously isolated from Europe, by a series of countries, on the southern shore of the Mediterranean that had a stable political situation,” explains the colonel and IEEE analyst, “but now it has opened a very important one that is Libya , a country that nobody controls “.

Through this enormous hole, “many of the Sahel’s problems are reaching European territory”, but there is also a significant movement of mercenaries and weapons from Libya to the south , feeding the jihadist groups that operate in that region.

Many of those fighters are members of the Islamic State (IS) that were defeated in Sirte in 2016, and now it is feared that those who were also defeated in Syria and Iraq seek to settle in this region.

All the analysts consulted by Conspiracy Talk News clarified that in no case is it going to be a massive movement from the Middle East, since the majority simply can not leave Syria and Iraq, although they do recognise that there is concern.

“A part is also going to Afghanistan, a zone where jihadists are welcomed, some are going to the Asia Pacific area and others are trying to reach the Sahel area,” says Fuente Cobo.

“There one of the great concerns, although we do not have reliable data, but it can become a new safe area (for terrorists), a kind of new Afghanistan, but much closer to European borders .”

The defeat of the Islamic State in other places, estimates, on the other hand, Sergio Altuna, specialist researcher in the Maghreb and the Sahel of the Elcano Royal Institute, is causing the area to be seen as a “potential reunification point” of the jihadist movement.

But for that there is no need for the Islamic State to send new combatants there, because the jihadists have been operating in the area for years. Then, “a problem that already existed is being rediscovered ,  Altuna adds.

In that sense, the CIDOB analyst, Eduard Soler, concludes that the Sahel “is not going to be the next stage of struggle against jihadism because it is already being” , but it will not be the only focus either. “There are other places of concern too, such as Afghanistan and Southeast Asia,” although in this case, for Europe, there is a “real proximity”.

The federation of jihadist groups

Among the jihadist groups operating in the Sahel there is a great mutation and changes of loyalties, but “al Qaeda has always been the winning horse in the Islamic Maghreb ,  says Fuente Cobo.

“When the Islamic State arrived, many of these groups broke their allegiance to al Qaeda and left with IS.”

But, what happens now, that IS was defeated in Libya first, and lately in Iraq and Syria? Are they going to compete or are they going to produce absorption by al Qaeda?

Although it is one of the big questions, there has already been a series of movements that show a reconfiguration of forces.

“The decrease in geopolitical power and capacity of IS has also started influence within the Islamist world,” explains the colonel. “We are witnessing a resurgence of groups linked to al Qaeda.”

Within the framework of this resurgence, in March several groups in al Qaeda, including AQMI, came together to form the largest jihadist organisation in the Sahel a Support Front for Islam and Muslims.

“To prevent EI from using the area as a new logistics base and a recovery zone, all the groups in al Qaeda have partnered within this new organisation.”

The answer: militarize the Sahel

All this accumulation of threats and problems has led to an increasingly visible military presence in the area, mainly European, although there are also American troops.

In the Sahel right now there are several operations and missions, dependent on different organizations and countries.

The efforts are mainly focused on Mali , the red flag in the region.

“Mali is a critical country, it is the most fragile, with a north that has been fundamentally Arab and Tuareg and a south that has been mainly of black populations, Christian animists, it is very clearly a divided country, with borders that are the product of decolonisation, “explains Fuente Cobo.

This is where the United Nations operates, through its Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission of the United Nations in Mali ( MINUSMA ), established in 2013 to support the Malian authorities in the pacification of the country, following a series of Islamist rebellions and a coup in 2012.

It is the most powerful mission of the UN with some 13,000 troops, but also attacked by jihadist groups. In fact, it is one of the most dangerous UN missions in decades, with more than 115 blue helmets killed in four years.

On the other hand, there is Operation Barkhane, a purely anti-terrorist mission undertaken by France . 

It involved about 3,000 soldiers deployed by a series of forts, from Mauritania to Chad, “trying to create a kind of barrier so that the jihadists do not move easily between the northern Sahel and the southern zone.”

On the other hand, there are the training missions of the local forces of the European Union in the area, and the most important is the one in Mali, currently led by Spain.

And along with this, a new initiative established in 2017: the G5-Sahel force , composed of a total of 5,000 soldiers from Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso and Niger . Financed by the EU and the United States, its goal is both, to fight against jihadist and curb trafficking networks and illegal migration.

The AFP agency reported that an internal G5 document describes northern Mali as a “known hiding place for terrorists” and a “platform for launching attacks against other countries.”

Faced with this increase in militarisation, experts point out that this can not be the only way.

Although development cooperation plans have been developed, fundamentally undertaken by France, the former colonial power in the area, these are proving insufficient.

“Militarisation can not be the only answer, it is essential to create security conditions, but it is not enough,” says Soler.


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