Why you should care
Because with ISIS on its back heels in the Middle East, this is a natural area for terrorists to hide, plot and expand.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “The Spy Who Told Me” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
OZY senior columnist John McLaughlin teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and was deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004. Follow him on Twitter: @jmclaughlinSAIS
With the high-profile, headline-grabbing ISIS “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria mostly dismantled, it’s tempting to think that a good deal of steam has gone out of the terrorist movement. But ISIS survives in scattered enclaves there, globally and online. Meanwhile, al-Qaida is reviving in several parts of the world, and most of the larger strategic factors that gave rise to these movements are still at play.
Intelligence services and the U.S. military worry rightly about cleaning up ISIS and al-Qaida remnants and other terrorist offshoots in the Middle East and monitoring their movement to neighboring regions. None is more worrisome or riper for terrorist exploitation than the nearby region of North Africa (the Maghreb and Egypt) and the band of states to its south, the so-called Sahel.
In this area, there are already at least 20 groups that have some kind of linkage to ISIS’ global network. Al-Qaida, for its part, has always had a presence here — its local affiliate took over an area the size of France in northern Mali for more than six months in 2013 — and it is nowhere near being defeated. There are numerous other splinter groups that share much of the same ideology, engage in a blend of terrorist and criminal activity, and share networks, logistics, finances and weapons.
Combating terrorism here will always be a tough slog. This becomes clear when you consider three classic goals of counterterrorism:
- Capture or destroy terrorist leadership.
- Deny terrorist groups safe haven.
- Change the conditions that give rise to the phenomenon.
All of this is especially difficult in North Africa, largely because there are countless places for terrorist leaders to hide and plot, given the vast ungoverned spaces in countries filled with so much desert and mountainous terrain.
Take Algeria, the largest country in Africa, the Arab world and the Mediterranean basin. More than 90 percent of it is covered by the Sahara Desert. Libya is also 90 percent desert. The population of both countries is concentrated along a narrow northern coastal strip, leaving much of the territory sparsely populated around small villages and oases. Governments are hard put to monitor much of this territory — and in Libya, following the collapse of the Gadhafi regime, there are at least two governments competing for authority.
When it comes to changing the conditions that foster terrorism, this region is also among the world’s most challenging.
In Egypt, meanwhile, major terrorist activity occurs not so much in the densely populated western part of the country but to its east, in the sparsely populated Sinai Peninsula. Sinai, mostly Bedouin tribal people, has only about 1.4 million of Egypt’s 99 million people scattered across a largely desert area the size of West Virginia. Last year, the death toll from terrorism in Sinai was exceeded only by those of war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. This has alarmed neighboring Israel sufficiently that, according to press reports, it has since 2015 — with Cairo’s approval — carried out air strikes against jihadist targets in Egypt.
Second, borders are loosely patrolled and easily breached in much of the region. I was sensitized to this when I assisted with a study for the Norwegian energy company Statoil of the 2013 terrorist attack on a natural gas facility in Algeria that it jointly managed with two other firms. In that attack, a gang of several dozen terrorists managed to slip easily across the Libyan border and take the facility by surprise in an attack that saw 37 hostages perish.
That attack also illustrated another way in which borders and nationalities mean less there than in highly developed, tightly governed societies. This terrorist gang, led by a breakaway al-Qaida operative, pulled together eight different nationalities — fighters from Algeria, Mali, Libya, Niger, Egypt, Canada, Mauritania and Tunisia. Similarly, the attack that in October killed four U.S. Special Forces soldiers in Niger occurred in a desert village along the Mali-Niger border — the West Africa affiliate of ISIS recently claimed responsibility for the attack. This group, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, also exploits the geographic and demographic features of the region by operating primarily along the hard-to-patrol Mali–Niger–Burkina Faso border.
Tunisa, struggling to keep its post-Arab Spring democracy on track, has gone so far as to build a 100-mile earthen wall along its small border with Libya to bar terrorists. Morocco, for its part, has remained relatively more secure and successful against terrorism as a result of King Mohammed VI’s approach, which has emphasized economic and social reforms combined with tight security measures and strong support for moderate Islam.
When it comes to changing the conditions that foster terrorism, this region is also among the world’s most challenging. A number of its countries, especially Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad, are among the bottom 20 nations in the U.N.’s Human Development Report. Economic growth is concentrated almost entirely in urban areas, while the countryside remains devoid of opportunities. Yet the region sees some of the highest population growth rates in the world, at about 7 percent annually in the Sahel. This combination — low economic growth, high unemployment and strained services — is the most fertile of recruiting grounds for extremists.
This danger to North Africa isn’t drawing headlines yet. But given the continued determination of ISIS and of al-Qaida to attack American and allied targets in Africa and elsewhere, it’s a problem the U.S. cannot afford to ignore. And it serves as a reminder that terrorism has complex causes that cannot be dealt with by military and intelligence alone.
There are some promising initiatives underway, such as the Sahel Multilateral Planning Group, supported by the U.S., United Kingdom, France, Italy and Canada, as well as a French-led effort to organize a 5,000-strong cross-border monitoring force in the Sahel, to which the Trump administration has pledged $60 million.
So, terrorism might not be the “forever war” that many claim, but it’s clear that the end is not yet in sight. And without a combination of economic development, social progress and relentless counterterrorism effort, much of terrorism’s future could unfold in this part of the world.