John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Placing the Sahel Crisis in Context

by John Campbell
January 25, 2013

A Malian soldier checks two civilians in the recently liberated town of Diabaly 24/01/2013. (Eric Gaillard/Courtesy Reuters)


The confluence of a radical Islamist push toward the south in Mali, the consequent French intervention, a raid on a natural gas facility near In Amenas, Algeria, and Secretary Clinton’s congressional testimony on Benghazi on January 23, are generating the largely unexamined view that the war on terrorism with an al-Qaeda focus is underway in the Sahel-Sahara region of West Africa. The attack on In Amenas and the resulting tragic loss of life has particularly focused international attention.

Scott Stewart in Security Weekly wrote a sober piece that places In Amenas in context. Far from being new, he argues that Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s goals, tactics, and the size of his force are similar to what he has done in the past. And it has little to do with al-Qaeda or the War on Terror, and a great deal with maximizing ransoms. His description and analysis of the attack itself and the Algerian response is fascinating. He also points out–as have a few other commentators–that Belmokhtar broke with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb more than a year ago.

I find it hard to fault his conclusion: “militancy and banditry were fixtures in the Sahel well before the jihadist ideology entered the region. [Belmokhtar’s] history–combined with the vacuum of authority in the region brought on by the Malian coup and the overthrow of Gaddafi, the prospect of millions of dollars in ransom, and the large quantities of available weapons—means we will see more kidnappings and other attacks in the years to come.” But, this is far from “the War on Terror.”

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  • Posted by Hank Cohen

    OK, the issue in northern Mali is not Al-Qaeda and is not the “war on terror”. Armed groups with a political agenda have taken on the cloak of “sharia”. But I still contend that the French made the right decision to intervene, not to fight terror or sharia, but to prevent the total destabillisation of Mali, leading to the destabilisation of Mauritania and Niger, all three quite fragile. Since the various fighting groups in the north do not have the same type of external support enjoyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, suppressing them to manageable levels should be relatively easy for the French. The big challenges will be political and military reform in Mali itself.

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