By Mawassi Lahcen i
Military action in Mali may soon be over, but the job of protecting the Sahel from terrorists and traffickers is just getting started.
Terrorist groups and international criminal gangs in northern Mali are still a source of global concern, according to participants at the recent MEDays summit in Tangier.
Malian Foreign Minister Zahabi Ould Sidi Mohamed called on international partners to help rid his country of kidnappers sand killers because “the security of the region and the world” was at stake.
The joint strategy must also address development and the fight against poverty, France’s defence and national security chief said at the 3-day event, which wrapped up on November 16th.
‘France intervened militarily in Mali due to the magnitude of the terrorist threat, Francis Delon said. But that threat has since spilled beyond the country’s borders.
“Europe has to realise that the problems of the Sahel are not restricted to Africa, but concern the whole world, especially Europe,” he said.
“Today, nine months after the launch of the military operation, it could be argued that the country still has not fully come out of the crisis,” he said.
Terrorist groups received several hard blows that “crippled their capacity”, Delon noted. In the most recent action, French forces on November 14th eliminated Hacene Ould Khalil (aka Jouleibib), a top lieutenant to terrorist Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
But as the execution of French journalists near Kigal earlier this month showed, armed jihadists have not yet been “fully eradicated from the north of Mali”, the French defence official added.
Now that French intervention is nearing an end, the government of Mali must be prepared to take the reins, he said.
Drugs add another dimension to the security crisis facing the Sahel-Saharan region, Mauritanian researcher Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Mouhamedou warns.
Drug trafficking overlaps with the arms trade and terrorism financing in northern Mali, Ould Mouhamedou tells Magharebia.
“The region is no longer just a transit area for drugs coming from South America in the direction of Europe, but it has become an area for the manufacture and consumption of hard drugs. This raises a lot the security threats for the region,” he added.
The international drug trade across the region is estimated to be 40 to 50 tonnes per year, “which is worth up to two billion dollars”, says Abdoullah Coulibaly, president of the Forum of Bamako.
“This is a very large amount for a region that suffers from poverty, marginalisation, and weak capacity,” he notes.
The roots of the problem can be traced back to tribal and ethnic conflicts that once plagued northern Mali and had led to the withdrawal of the army, Coulibaly explains.
“This security vacuum was exploited by drug cartels to establish themselves in the region. After that came the terrorists, he says, and “their interests overlapped with the interests and activities of drug smuggling gangs”.
“These groups that call themselves jihadist have nothing to do with religion. They are criminal gangs specialising in hostage-taking and creating chaos. Unfortunately, there was an international miscalculation of the magnitude of the danger posed by the settlement of criminal gangs and armed terrorist groups in northern Mali,” the Malian analyst tells Magharebia.
The prevailing belief was that it was just a problem for Mali, he says. “Today, it is different. It is enough to look at the operation at [Algerian gas complex] In Amenas, where 800 hostages were seized from more than 20 countries, to realise the size of the threat they pose to global security, and not just to localities or regions.”
Sheikh Sidi Diarra, a former United Nations Special Adviser on Africa originally from Mali, blames his country’s leadership of failing to prevent terrorist groups and drug cartels from setting up shop in the north and mixing with the locals.
Things went from bad to worse with the collapse of Moamer Kadhafi’s regime and the return of the heavily armed battalions that supported him, Diarra says.
“The authorities in Mali underestimated the implications of the fall of Kadhafi and found themselves in an unmanageable situation,” the Malian UN advisor says.
“Niger, on the other hand, dealt proactively with the fallout by raising the defence and security budget by 65 per cent, and enabling the army to control the situation and disarm all fighters returning from Libya,” Diarra adds.
As to the United Nations force in Mali, Diarra says that the 12,000 troops promised by West African countries never materialised.
“The UN force in Mali did not reach half of the number originally planned, due to the strict standards imposed by the United Nations in the selection of peacekeepers, which can only be met by a small minority of African soldiers,” Diarra says.
“So I believe that the United Nations will go to countries that have experience in peacekeeping forces to fill this shortage, especially Asian countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India,” he adds.
The issue for experts is where to go from here. For retired French admiral Jean Dufourcq, any solution that does not involve the local population will be doomed to failure. He warns against overlooking the problems of minorities.
He also calls for the creation of a co-ordinating body between the armies of the countries in the region. There should be more reliance on drones to monitor the desert, he adds, to prevent it from being converted into a haven for terrorist groups and criminal gangs.
Michel Reveyrand, the EU Special Representative for the Sahel, endorses joint ventures between the countries of the Sahel, the Sahara and the Maghreb region. Special attention must be directed to the control of borders, he says, to both protect trade and prevent exploitation by gangs and terrorists.
Moroccan expert Jawad Alcardoudi agrees that countries of the region can best ensure their security by working together.
“We must develop a strategy that passes through the exchange of information to joint operations,” he says.
Alcardoudi supports the formation of an African military force for rapid intervention, pointing out that recent events in Mali confirm the urgent need for such a body.
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