If you asked somebody a month ago about In Amenas, few would have probably known even where it was on the map. But for about two weeks now, the world has been paying attention to this small town in eastern Algeria. This is because of the four day siege at the gas plant there that resulted in the deaths of 38 civilians, mostly foreign workers on the site.
The exacerbation of terrorism in Africa seems to be a topic of high importance at the present, as the attention fades from the terrorist cells in Middle East and arises a few thousand miles further, namely in Africa, especially the Sahel region. The situation in Mali enhances the concerns, as the French troops intervened to put an end to the threat represented by the Islamist forces along with the Tuaregs, that took control over the northern part of Mali last year. Francois Hollande claims that France has one goal: “To ensure that when we leave, Mali is safe has legitimate authorities, an electoral process and there are no more terrorists threatening its territory”. It is a pretty ambitious objective for an operation that should have allegedly last for a few weeks, but has now extended to a few months. Probably, the greatest fear is for another intervention similar with Afghanistan: long, costly and in the end with little success.
The unrest in the region is not something particularly new (there are a number of failed states: Chad, Sudan, Nigeria and so on that are plagued with violence and extremism) but what has changed is the fact that a new actor becomes more preeminent. The jihadist movement and the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, with its Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa Group are the newcomers that received a quite warming welcome for the population. Furthermore, West Africa is becoming a transit route for the drugs coming from South America with destination Europe, thus helping the terrorist cells to prosper and also supports the weapons traffic by empowering terrorist leaders in the area.
The question remains: Is this a repositioning in Africa of the Islamist extremism, that will help consolidate the movement, or is it just where Al-Qaeda went to die after it was driven away from the Middle East?
Source: The Economist
First of all, most of the Saharan and Sub Saharan regions are prone to disorder. Religious tensions, issues with food and water security, low employment rate, precarious health system or violent extremists and high rate of criminality are just some of the concerns. The figure showing a map of Africa is taken from an article in The Economist concerning the Jihad in Africa and illustrates the religious division in African States. One can notice that there is a considerable percentage of Muslims living in the northern part of Africa and in the Sahel region, making it simpler to understand the acceptance of the Al-Qaeda in the region.
Thus, when jihadists looked for adepts among the population in Africa, they found rebels that resonated with their cause. These extremists already have the experience from previous conflicts and wars in the area and supposedly had access to weapons (from the Libyan war for example). Moreover, the extremists take a hostile stand in regards to the West, take the Nigerian extreme Islamist group called Boko Haram which translates: “Western teachings are sinful”.
Still, Africa is not an ideal place for terrorism. First of all, the desert heat makes almost impossible to be in the sun after 12 am and there is little place to hide. The terrorist may work this into their advantage as they encounter little resistance and they can hide in the unpopulated caves. Secondly, the African population is actually quite open to democracy and they pledge for a better life. Without the foreign assistance, the governments are not able to respond to the terrorists so they still depend on the West.
It seems to me that with the extremists movement or not, Africa is a place that needs to be watched as a risk for conflict there is high. In this particular situation, it is a matter of how the Western countries deals with the situation so they won’t make the population hostile but it is a manageable; that is also because of the lack of finance for Al-Qaeda in the region.
The conclusion: for the moment it seems that Africa is rather a last resort than a start point to Al-Qaeda. Once again, that shouldn’t be seen as an invitation to inaction, but on the contrary, an opportunity to get a step closer to the end of terrorism.