February 22, 2007

HARRISONBURG—In his weekly column for the World Defense Review, Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, reviews the security situation in the Sahel, the critical boundary region where increasingly significant Sub-Saharan Africa meets North Africa.

According to Dr. Pham, “since 9/11, a number of experts have voiced concern that the Sahel, with its vast empty spaces and highly permeable borders, could serve local and international terrorists both as a base for recruitment and training and as a conduit for the movement of personnel and material—much as Afghanistan had been for al-Qaeda in the late 1990s.” In recent years, the Bush administration has worked to develop closer military, political, and economic ties with the states in the region, including two successful counterterrorism capacity-building programs, the Pan Sahel Initiative (PSI) and the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative (TSCTI), which currently includes Algeria, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia.

Despite these successes, Dr. Pham cautions that “discussions concerning Africa’s place in the global war on terrorism…have largely focused on al-Qaeda-liked groups in the Horn of Africa and Islamist penetration of local militant groups in places like Nigeria…[even as] the Sahel has witnessed an increase in terrorist activities as militant Islamists groups under pressure from TSCTI partners in the Maghreb—including Algeria’s GSPC, the Moroccan Islamic Combat Group (known as GICM from its French acronym) implicated in the simultaneous bombings in Casablanca (2003) and Madrid (2004), and the Tunisian Islamic Front (FIT)—have shifted their operations to the remoteness of the Sahara.”

Thus, the article concludes: “Fortunately to date radical Islamism has not attracted widespread support among the 100 million or so inhabitants of the Sahel. Yet the extreme poverty of and simmering ethnic tensions within the region, when compounded on the general weakness of its governments, render the terrain especially fertile for extremist penetration… In this context, and given the strategic importance of Africa to U.S. national interests as reaffirmed by the creation of AFRICOM, it would behoove American policymakers to follow the situation closely and to continue engaging the countries of the Sahel and Maghreb…cultivating their cooperation in security matters and, just as importantly, developing their governance and socio-economic capacities as the surest bulwark against violence, Islamism, and terrorism.”

To read Dr. Pham’s article, “Violence, Islamism, and Terror in the Sahel,” click here.