Archive for December 19, 2013

AFRICA: What to Do About the Sahel UPDATE

Security First

Updates with U.S. terrorist organization designation for al-Mulathamun Battalion; background on UN concerns; quote from Garvelink and background on Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Africa’s vast Sahel region – on the southern edges of the Sahara Desert – has become the object of heightening international concern because of repeated droughts, political turmoil and violence. Many Western observers fear that the windswept region is becoming a breeding ground for disaffected Islamist extremists and terrorists spreading that violence across the continent — and possibly to Europe.

The U.S. State Department on Wednesday (December 18) named the al Mulathamun Battalion, a former al Qaeda-affiliated group operating in the Sahel, as a foreign terrorist organization. The group, once part of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), became a separate organization in late 2012 after its leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, split with AQIM.

The Sahel Region. (Wikipedia)

The Sahel Region. (Wikipedia)

A United Nations official says 16 million people in the Sahel are at risk of hunger in 2014 due to conflicts and rapid population growth — despite recent good harvests and rainfall, according to a Reuters report.

And U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that terrorism, trafficking in arms, drugs and people and other forms of transnational organized crime threaten security in the border region south of the Sahara. Because of the region’s vast size and porous borders, the security challenges can be addressed successfully “only if the countries in the region work together,” Ban told a U.N. Security Council meeting Dec. 12 on the Sahel situation.

Key to meeting those challenges is economic development and medical assistance, according to most of the panelists at a discussion Wednesday night on the troubled North African region at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank

A 2012 drought across the 10-nation region left 11 million people in danger from what the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) calls food insecurity: They have used up their food stocks and are facing high food prices while awaiting the next harvest.

But violence in the area is on the increase, endangering outside aid workers trying to alleviate the crisis. “Never before has the intensity of conflict been so great,” said Santiago Martinez-Caro, general director of Casa Africa, the Spanish government’s diplomatic and economic outreach organization with Africa, where Spain once had colonies.

As the region’s economy continues to falter “the piracy issue is going to grow,” Martinez-Caro said, eventually sparking a multi-national military response like the one around the Horn of Africa on the continent’s eastern coast.

The people of the region are tough and resilient nomads, said journalist and film maker Donovan Webster. “All they need is water, education and some medical help,” he said, adding that clean water from newly dug wells has cut down on disease and migration.

Photo courtesy of Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Photo courtesy of Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

But security remains a crucial issue for international organizations trying to assist victims of hunger, bad water and health problems, said Vivian Lowery Derryck, former assistant administrator for Africa at the U.S. International Development Agency (USAID).

“I think we can use development issues to promote peace,” said Lowery Derryck, who now heads The Bridges Institute. She noted that civil society – representing all aspects of a society – from the extended family to the state – can be a political catalyst to change governments without resorting to rebellions or military coups.

But the military can play an important role – positive or negative – when it comes to change, she added. She noted a number of factors can affect the actions of a soldier: mission, doctrine, religious considerations and respect from the civilian population. “Is he going to get paid?” Lowery Derryck asked, adding that if the soldier isn’t getting paid, he was likely to join AQIM, which does have money.

William Garvelink, former U.S. ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, noted that the U.S. government has closed most of its diplomatic missions in the Sahel, where institutions are weak and many governments are corrupt. A mediator in many of the region’s disputes — former Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi, “is gone,” he added — killed in a revolt that has released a flood of small arms and other weapons.  Garvelink now is senior adviser for global strategy at the International Medical Corps.

After the split with AQIM, Mokhtar Belmokhtar merged al Mulathamun Battalion with another violent group: Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, according to the State Department. The new group, al Murabitoun, “constitutes the greatest near-term threat to U.S. and Western interests in the Sahel,” the State Department said.

The one-eyed Belmokhtar was the mastermind behind a January attack on a gas facility in Algeria that left left 38 civilians dead, including three U.S. citizens, according to the New York Times.

December 19, 2013 at 12:49 am 1 comment


December 2013


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