Political Islam in West Africa and the Sahel

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Ricardo Laremont, Ph.D., and Hrach Gregorian, Ph.D.

Political Islam in West Africa and the Sahel
Guinea-Conakry, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, and arguably, Côte d’Ivoire. Burkina Faso, Ghana, Benin, Togo, and Liberia also contain substantial Muslim minority communities. Our focus is primarily on the West African and Sahelian Islamic movements. It should be emphasized that Al Qaeda and other radical Islamic movements do not organize their activities according to traditional concepts of regional politics. Rather, Islamic movements in West and North Africa have always transcended regional boundaries. Therefore, we need to reexamine the rigid concepts of “North Africa” and “West Africa” embedded in many European and American perspectives. Such geographic distinctions have little relevance to leaders and participants in Islamic movements. They also obscure a complex picture, especially when adding countries of the Sahel (Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad) to the mix. These countries are at the crossroads of North and West Africa. Within the Sahel, North and West are fluid concepts that often converge. An example of this phenomenon is Algeria, an unstable country whose government effectively controls the capital. In Algeria’s vast southern region, the state has a tenuous hold on power, and groups opposed to it and to the United States operate with considerable freedom. Within this underpopulated region, Osama bin-Laden has sustained the operations of the GSPC, which opposes the government in Algiers. Not only has the GSPC attempted to overthrow the Algerian Government, it has sought to extend its ideology and operations into the Sahel. Because the Algerian Government cannot exercise police and military authority in southern Algeria, that region, nominally in North Africa yet adjacent to the Sahel, provides ample opportunity for penetration into West Africa. Communication between North Africa, the Sahel, and West Africa has occurred from at least the

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INCE 9/11, defense of the homeland has become a particularly urgent issue for U.S. military planners. Consequently, foreign policy has shifted to address a new array of challenges to U.S. interests. Among the requirements of the new security environment is a deeper understanding of the global network of terrorist organizations inspired by or directly affiliated with Al Qaeda. There are at least three serious threats to U.S. security interests in West Africa and the Sahel. In order of priority, these are— 1. The emergence of radical, Al Qaeda-linked Islamic elements in Nigeria and Niger. 2. The existence of terrorist-financing networks involved in the purchase and sale of diamonds in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Proceeds from the sale of these “blood diamonds” are reported to fund Hizbullah; the Afwaj al Muquwamah al Lubnaiyyah (AMAL), or Lebanese Resistance Detachment; and Al Qaeda operations. 3. The migration of the Al Qaeda-linked Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) from southern Algeria to eastern Mauritania, northern Mali, northern Niger, and northern Chad, which indicates their intent to establish safe havens outside Algeria.

Where is West? Where is North?

The arc of Islam is almost a circle. The arc begins in South Africa, where there are substantial numbers of Muslims of South-Asian and Southeast-Asian origin, and stretches toward the northeast, touching Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. The arc continues north and west to include Sudan, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco and then curves south to West Africa and the Muslim-majority countries of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, Nigeria, Senegal, Gambia,

Military review  January-February 2006

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8th century, when merchants in gold, salt, and slaves opened trade routes there. Now those trafficking in ideas and arms are exploiting these same routes.1

Nigeria: Oil, Islamism, and Survival

Nigeria is relevant to...
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