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US counterterrorism policy and the crisis in the Sahara-Sahel

In a number of ways, the American counterterrorism doctrine, which is a part of a long-time transnational destabilization of the Sahara-Sahel, has helped create the current conflict in the region

‘All that we have to do is to send two mujahidin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaida, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits for their private companies.’
Osama Bin Laden, October 2004

Scenes of a hostage crisis at a natural gas installation in eastern Algeria likely came as a shock to many longtime observers of the region. During the last two decades of armed violence in Algeria, very rarely did Islamists groups attack energy infrastructure, and almost never in the Sahara. Yet the ease with which it seems that a small group of Algerian and internationalist fighters were able to seize the energy facilities in In Amenas raises several difficult questions. Why has the Achilles heel of the Algerian state never been targeted by groups allegedly bent on its overthrow? Groups, that is, who seem to have absolute freedom of movement across vast stretches of the Sahara, picking and choosing targets at will?

Embarrassment, however, is not Algiers’ alone. The prolonged crisis in Mali, which has finally been subjected to a long intimated French intervention, points towards a more disturbing complex of factors driving the transnational destabilization of the Sahara-Sahel. Attempts to historicize current events in the region have often pointed to the coup in Mali, the flood of arms unleashed during the 2011 Libyan civil war, the presence of an Al-Qaida franchise (AQIM, Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghrib), and the cycles of Tuareg rebellion since the end of French colonialism.

What has often been missing from these conversations is an appreciation of the US role in the destabilization of the region. Mali, after all, was the centerpiece of US counterterrorism doctrine in the Sahara-Sahel under the Obama administration and his predecessor. As has been noted by many commentators, the coup leaders had been the recipients of US military training and Azawad separatists easily confiscated military equipment supplied to Mali in the name of countering terrorism. But the processes by which US efforts to stabilize the Sahara-Sahel region have actually resulted in its profound destabilization are much longer in the making. These processes are simple to understand and not uncommon in the world of counterterrorism. That is to say, counterterrorism doctrines seem to have an amazing ability to produce, and then reproduce, the conditions of its own necessity.

It is one thing to say that the current crisis in the Sahara has been deliberately engineered, as that begs the questions ‘By whom?’ and ‘For what purpose?’ That is not what is being suggested here. The processes by which we have arrived at France’s intervention in Mali and the attack in In Amenas, I believe, lack coherence or a unitary logic. These processes can nonetheless be accounted for within a framework that seeks to appreciate the hegemony of US power in global affairs, a hegemony that is inefficient and obtuse but is nonetheless built upon a structure of historically and globally unrivaled capacities to appropriate and mobilize political, financial and military power.

Here are some analogies. Scholars working on the problem of persistent and protracted famines, notably in Africa’s Sahel (though more historical cases bear mention), have long recognized that mass starvation is not always intended but there are nonetheless benefits to be reaped. The process here is not unlike the one identified in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. In its more abstract form, the basic proposition is quite simple: those who are best able to manage — and thus benefit from — the chaos of catastrophic situations are often those who made the catastrophe possible in the first place, sometimes unwittingly, sometimes serendipitously, and sometimes deliberately. Yes, it is a conspiracy theory. But it is a conspiracy in which the world’s most pervasive and powerful ideology is in the driver’s seat (for Klein, Neoclassical Economics and Neoliberal governance). We do not need a bunch of smoking men in a dimly lit room in the Pentagon to make sense of the world.

Like capitalism, terrorism — that is, late counterterrorism doctrine — has had a similar propensity to manufacture the conditions of its own necessity. In the world of (counter)terrorism studies, Joseba Zulaika has stood out as one of the few scholars to recognize and warn against the dangers of this pathology. Adam Curtis’ documentary, Disciplining">">Disciplining Terror: How Experts Invented “Terrorism” promises to be the definitive account of how terrorism has been more made than found.

In the Sahara-Sahel, a similar pattern has emerged, albeit constrained by local specificities. In other words, US counterterrorism doctrine has helped make the conflict we see today possible. Invention is the mother of necessity.

To better understand what is going on in the central Sahara and the western Sahel today, one has to first look at the ways in which US counterterrorism doctrine in the region has understood itself. At the ideational level, US securitization — or rather terrorization — of the Sahara-Sahel is rooted in the problematization of 9/11 style terrorism as a confluence of vast spaces allotted to weak governments where radical ideologies can stage global war. That is, the safe haven myth. Early US initiatives were not premised on the existence of terrorism in the Sahara, but rather on an imaginative cartography of anticipation.

Roughly three months before the GSPC shocked the world by abducting several dozen European tourists in Algeria in early 2003, the US government was already implementing the Pan Sahel Initiative (PSI). The language of this counterterrorism program is drenched in the rhetoric of empty spaces, porous borders, and suspect mobilities. Nearly three years into these initiatives, the International Crisis Group, well known for its on the ground research, was still asking the basic question Is there even a threat here? Contrary to this critique, journalists like Robert Kaplan and Joshua Hammer, who were allowed to report on US Special Forces training programs in the Niger and Mali, respectively, were quick to note the uncharacteristically preventative nature of these programs.

The symmetry between the anticipatory cartography driving these preventative programs in the early 2000s and the now extant conflicts that materially populate Africa’s ‘arc of instability’ is startling. The Pentagon has postulated many arcs of instability across the globe, but across the Sahara an arc of instability has been said to run 4,000 miles from Somalia through the Sahel to the central Sahara. This arc was imagined early in the war on terror, when there were only vague indications that the GSPC was operating in the Algerian desert. Now experts debate whether or not there are ‘operational’ linkages between several groups that did not even exist before military planners in Washington constellated this arc — that is, between Al-Shabab in Somalia, Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, and AQIM in the central Sahara. Either the Pentagon was extremely prescient or something else is going on here.

For its part, the Obama administration has done little to change his predecessor’s Saharan initiatives. Late in the George W. Bush administration, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) examined the Trans-Saharan Counter Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP), citing key deficiencies in its implementation. Yet if one scrolls through the GAO’s list of recommendations to the State Department (which leads the “partnership”) and the Department of Defense (which gets most of the money), all say “Closed – Not implemented.” According to the GAO, the TSCTP — five months into the 2012 Mali crisis — was still largely running on documents created in 2005. Yet the beauty of US counterterrorism doctrine’s self-understanding is the extent to which abject failure (e.g., Mali today) is also a key rationale for more of the same (e.g., a new drone base in Niger). The now demonstrated power of armed Jihadi groups in the Sahara-Sahel will not force a rethink of US counterterrorism in the region; it will likely constitute a key argument to justify the amplification of Africom’s budget.

What US counterterrorism doctrine in the Sahara-Sahel is unable to account for is its participation in the imaginative and material elaboration of the very conditions that have led to the crisis we see today. Did the TSCTP find terrorism in the Sahara or did it help make it? A good place to start looking for an answer is to trace the effects these initiatives have had on the region’s political economy. A number of competing and evolving factors likely affect the forces that are now driving armed conflict in the region, but central to the recent ‘radicalization’ of Tuareg and Arab communities in the western and central Sahara is the loss of tourism revenue. The loss of wholesale tourism witnessed in the movement of the Paris-Dakar Rally to South America is but an indicator of the loss of smaller scale tourism across the region, a loss that has hit Tuareg and Arab communities especially hard. The counterterrorism policies of the United States did nothing to address this flight of tourism and, in many ways, they exacerbated it by insinuating a threat that had yet to take significant material form.

Furthermore, in working closely with the governments in Bamako and Niamey (capitals gerrymandered by French colonialism to rule over far off Saharan populations), the US government was arming and training militaries that the Tuaregs have been fighting since the 1960s. Morocco, another key US partner in the region, has been at war with Arab Sahrawi nationalists since 1975. Thus it should come as little surprise that Rabat has been very keen to promote the arc of instability idea too, such that the western tip of the arc conveniently lands at the headquarters of the Frente POLISARIO, the Western Sahara independence movement based near Tindouf, Algeria. Washington’s support for the new revolutionary regime in Tripoli is also likely to exacerbate a disturbing native/settler discourse in contemporary Libya. Northern Arab and Berber revolutionaries are portraying supposedly darker skinned populations (Tawergha, Tebu, and Tuareg) not only as Gaddafi loyalists to be mistrusted and imprisoned, but also as non-indigenous populations to be denied citizenship and expelled, by force if needed.

A more thoughtful approach to Saharan-Sahelian security might begin with the simple acknowledgement that the core stakeholders should be, first and foremost, the people who live there, not the corrupt politicians who claim to rule there. Yet US counterterrorism policy has allied itself and worked through regimes that have historically seen indigenous Saharan populations as threats to their access to the wealth of the Sahara. These are conflicts that predate 9/11 by decades.

There is also an important knock-on effect of US securitization/terrorization of Saharan life and mobility. This is the loss of any incentive for the Sahelian and Saharan governments or local communities to combat smuggling, or at least keep the routes far away from tourism sites. Shifts in global narcotics flows also help to account for the recent transformations in the Saharan livelihoods, from one dependent on foreign travelers to one increasingly dependent on trafficking human and goods. Compounding the issues at the micro level, the region as a whole is being acutely affected by global warming, which has likely contributed to increased frequency of crop failures and famines along the Sahel. Moreover, the global food price index has not significantly abated since peaking with the outbreak the Arab Spring in early 2011. And so what little food is available remains dangerously expensive.

Life in the Sahara and Sahel is not essentially precarious. As we know from Judith Butler, the life is made precariousness by our politics. Life in the Sahara-Sahel has been recently produced as extremely precarious by forces largely beyond the control of the people who live there. One of the most potent forces is US counterterrorism doctrine. After a decade of US counterterrorism initiatives in the Sahara-Sahel, the greatest achievement of these programs (to which we can now add the US Africa Command) is in having made their warrant real and durable.

* Jacob Mundy is an Assistant Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Colgate University, where he also teaches African and Middle East studies. He is the coauthor (with Stephen Zunes) of Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution and coeditor (with Daniel Monk) of the forthcoming The Post-conflict Environment. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Kent State conference ‘Humanitarian Dilemmas: Debating Interventions in Africa and the Middle East’ in April 2012.


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