Once described by the US as a “Corridor of Terrorism” and home to the feared al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the African Sahel is increasingly becoming synonymous with extreme terrorism. But what is really going on? Professor Jeremy Keenan, a noted author and expert on the Sahara, takes a deeper look and points out some answers.
In January 2013, New African published an article by this writer entitled: “Mali Is Not Another African War”. Its penultimate paragraph read: “Unless something fairly miraculous can be achieved by the turn of the year, northern Mali looks like becoming the site for the start of a region-wide conflagration.”
Nothing miraculous was achieved. Rather, with what hindsight shows us to have been rather prescient judgment by New African’s editors, French land and air forces were launched into Mali days later for the start of Operation Serval, another geopolitically controversial military intervention of recent times.
Its purpose was to liberate Mali, a former French colony, from Islamist insurgents, who during 2012 had taken over all of northern Mali, a region known by the local Tuareg population as Azawad.
By early January 2013 they stood poised to advance on Mali’s meagre southern defences and even the capital, Bamako. The French force, which has most certainly had an impact on the Islamists, although possibly not what was envisaged at the outset, built up during the course of 2013 to some 4,000 troops.
Ronald Rumsfeld’s fabricated “corridor of terrorism” has become a self-fulfilling prophecy
In addition, France’s assault force was assisted by a contingent of crack Chadian troops. France’s defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, announced in May this year that France was to fight militant Islamists across the vast Sahel region, or what he referred to as the “Sahara-Sahel strip”.
French troops will be based in Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso, with more covert basing facilities available in Mauritania. In addition to its three major military bases at Gao (Mali), Niamey (Niger) and N’Djamena (Chad), as well as the use of Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) if required, France is establishing a number of smaller bases, such as Tessalit, close to the Algerian border in northern Mali, Agades and Diffa in Niger, and Faya (Largeau) and Zouar in northern Chad, to be able to launch strikes across the entire Sahel – from Mauritania’s Atlantic coast to Sudan.
Le Drian described the Sahara-Sahel as “the danger zone, the zone of all types of smuggling [… and] key to the security of African states. But it is also for our own security […] France is therefore reorganising its forces to pursue counter-terrorism across several states.”
France’s new mission is reminiscent of President George W. Bush’s 2004 Pan-Sahel Initiative (PSI), which marked the launch of Washington’s Sahara-Sahelian or “second” front in its global war on terror (GWOT).
However, there are significant differences between Bush’s PSI and France’s new mission. First, Bush’s “invasion of Africa”, as locals called it, involved only some 1,000 operatives, roughly half US Marines and half US “contractors”.
The French operation is four times bigger. Second, whereas the PSI consisted mostly of “disinformation” and propaganda, being based on and legitimised by the notorious false-flag terrorism operation, with the knowledge of the US Pentagon, and the kidnapping of 32 European tourists in the Algerian Sahara, the French mission is based on “real terrorism”.
It marks the start of the region-wide conflagration that would be the outcome of Washington’s attempts to destabilise the Sahel.
When Donald Rumsfeld, the US’s extreme “neocon” Secretary of Defense, set out in 2002-3 to project the Sahara-Sahel as what his office called a “Corridor of Terrorism”, it was, in fact, one of the safest places in the world.
Today, it is one of the most dangerous, as Boko Haram’s recent kidnapping of more than 270 schoolgirls in north-east Nigeria has made self-evident. How has this grotesque transformation come about, and where is it going?
The simple answer to the first part of this question is that the French drive across northern Mali, and finally into the militant stronghold of the Ametetai Valley in the Tigharghar mountains of the Adrar-n-Iforas massif in the extreme north of Mali, killed, according to French military information, at least 600 “jihadists”, possibly more. However, as there were well over twice, possibly three times, that number to start with, what happened to the rest?