- A new report asking whether Islamist terrorism in the Sahelian countries Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Chad is "fact or fiction" concludes that the region still poses no danger to Western countries. On the other hand, the military-only approach by the US to fighting terrorism in the Sahel could actually cause what it aims to prevent: a rise of Islamist militancy.
The Brussels-based think-tank International Crisis Group (ICG) today released a report warning Washington against its "military-only approach to fighting terrorism in the Sahel." While still not a hotbed of terrorist activity, the vast region bordering the Sahara - Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad - was "vulnerable" to this approach.
As the US government first pointed to the Sahel's potential for terrorism activities, Washington's initial response had aimed not only to hunt terrorists but also expand programmes for training African militaries. "An unbalanced program could be counter-productive, especially if overwhelmingly American. Broader Western efforts are needed to tackle underlying problems of weak governance and poverty," the ICG report notes.
A new US initiative - not yet finalised and funded - envisages complementing military aid with economic and political engagement. US and European Union (EU) partners "should cooperate more on both counter-terrorism and development work in the Sahel, which needs more than stronger armies to help it resist extremism," the Brussels group held.
The Sahel however deserved greater attention, because its vulnerability was clear. "There are enough indicators - including the presence of groups seeking to take advantage - to justify caution and greater Western involvement out of security interests", said Mike McGovern of the ICG. "But it has to be done more judiciously than it has been so far," he added.
The prospects for growth in Islamist activity in this largely Muslim region, up to and including terrorism, were "delicately balanced," the report said. "Muslim populations here, as elsewhere, express increasing opposition to Western, especially US, policies, and there has been a parallel upsurge in fundamentalist proselytising," it added.
The poor Sahelian states now needed help in bringing basic public services to their distant desert regions, where Islamic fundamentalism has a growth potential. "Moving away from the rhetoric of the Sahel as simply a 'new front in the War on Terror' is encouraging", said Suliman Baldo of the ICG. "The region needs a lot more than stronger armies to help it resist extremism," Mr Baldo added.
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