A man reads a newspaper headlining "Terrorist attack and kidnapping in In Amenas," at a news stand in Algiers. (Ouahab Hebbat./Associated Press)
A man reads a newspaper headlined “Terrorist attack and kidnapping in In Amenas” in January at a newsstand in Algiers. (Ouahab Hebbat/Associated Press)

President Obama and his critics agree that North Africa has become a hot spot for terrorism. In a region awash with weapons, human and drug trafficking and political unrest, al-Qaeda’s local affiliates, especially al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), are flourishing. Throw into the mix the violent separatist Polisario Front, which seeks independence for the Western Sahara while maintaining squalid refugee camps in Algeria, and you have a breeding ground for new generations of terrorists.

Two scholars from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace have just published a new book, “Perilous Desert: Insecurity in the Sahara.” On Carnegie’s website, the authors explain: “The geopolitical significance of the Sahara is becoming painfully clear. Islamist militant groups and transnational criminal networks are operating in the region’s most fragile states, exploiting widespread corruption, weak government capacity, crushing poverty, and entrenched social and ethnic tensions. The unrest spills over borders and aggravates protracted regional crises.”

One of the authors, Anouar Boukhars, agreed to answer some questions:

Why is AQIM on the upswing? 

In North Africa, AQIM benefits from fragmented politics and security vacuums created by the Arab spring. Tunisian authorities, for instance, are struggling to reform their dysfunctional security services and develop the capacities of the police and gendarme to counter the threats from radical Islamists. The country is quickly becoming a smuggling corridor for arm dealers between Libya and Mali. Seizures of large arms caches are frequent. And Tunisia could become more than just a transit route as Tunisians fighting alongside AQIM and other extremist groups return home from Mali and Syria.

The risks of cross-border militancy are also real. The attack on the gas field in Algeria was hatched in northern Mali and executed by a multinational group of militants who crossed through Niger and Libya. Even in countries with strong security forces, danger looms. Since the launch of France’s intervention in Mali, Morocco has, for example, been on high alert. Several Moroccans are known to have joined militant groups in Mali.

Unfortunately, political fragmentation and fragile security in countries like Libya and Tunisia, the opacity of the Algerian regime, and the persistent suspicion and mistrust between Morocco and Algeria over the Western Sahara dispute make efforts to restore stability to the region extremely difficult.

How do terrorism, drug and human trafficking and an increase in available arms interact?

A confluence of forces, from the revolts in North Africa and the proliferation of weapons to transnational trafficking of illicit goods and terrorist activity led by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, are generating acute concern about the fragile states and territories of the Sahara and Sahel.

The roots of their instability and conflict are complex and run deep. Internal sources of insecurity include institutional weakness and corruption, endemic poverty, and sociopolitical tensions. Unaddressed identity-based grievances splinter these societies, while legacies of past abuses and religious radicalization stir up tensions further. External stresses range from transnational organized crime, terrorism, and weapons proliferation to foreign meddling and global economic shocks.

Compounding these pressures is the weak capacity of many fragile states to deal with their problems — local governments have exacerbated conflict either through inept responses or, in some cases, active collusion with criminal networks, Islamist militants, or ethnic dissidents. This finding has important implications for framing effective policy responses in this troubled region.

How does the Polisario fit into the picture? 

In discussions of organized criminal activity in the Sahel and the growing reach of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), most regional and Western defense strategists agree that urgent efforts are needed to address the frozen conflict in the Western Sahara. A Spanish colony since 1884, the Western Sahara did not become independent when Spain withdrew. Instead, Spain ceded the territory to Morocco and Mauritania in 1975, with Mauritania relinquishing its acquisition in 1979.

The UN secretary general recently warned about the vulnerability of some of the Sahrawis in the Polisario-controlled refugee camps in North-West Algeria to radicalization and terrorist infiltration. “All governments consulted raised serious concern over the risk that the fighting in Mali could spill over into the neighboring countries and contribute to radicalizing the Western Saharan refugee camps,” Ban Ki-moon said in a report to the 15-nation Security Council. Even the Polisario “have not ruled out terrorist infiltrations”.

This is the first time that the UN chief acknowledged what many experts have been describing for years now as a “ticking time bomb.” The same fears apply to the refugee camps in Mauritania and Niger where displaced Malians live in “appalling” conditions. Organized criminals and extremist groups will continue to exploit the fragility of states, frozen conflicts such as the Western Sahara, and the lack of regional security cooperation.

The great powers, including the United States, dread the prospect of the creation of another weak state in an area already afflicted by fragile or failing states. As Spanish journalist Ignacio Cembrero wrote recently, “Only a handful of Latin American and African countries hold contrary views.”  Fragile and failing states pose real threats to international security. They are ideal locations for radical, violent organizations to recruit disenfranchised and alienated youth. Problems in these states can exacerbate protracted regional crises and reignite violent conflicts. Refugee flows, arms, drugs, and insurgencies regularly spill over the borders of fragile states with devastating consequences for neighbors.

What is Algeria’s role in the conflict?

The French military intervention in Mali and the subsequent hostage drama in Algeria exposed critical weaknesses in Algeria’s strategic thinking and counterterrorist policy. Algeria had hoped to stay on the sidelines of the conflict in Mali, focusing on dramatically increasing its military spending, securing its own borders and containing the terrorist threat within the confines of its neighbors. But its reticence to engage Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) outside its borders has come at a high price for Algeria’s national security interests.

Until the sudden French military intervention in Mali, Algeria was attempting to negotiate a political solution to the conflict by nudging the armed actors with whom it has connections.  Algeria was especially focused on the radical Islamist group of Ansar Dine, which did not seek the partition of Mali but the implementation of its own interpretation of sharia law throughout the country. When Ansar Dine withdrew from the negotiation process with Bamako on January 7, 2013, Algeria’s efforts to secure a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Mali came to an end. Subsequently, Algeria opened its airspace to French military jet fighters and closed its southern border with Mali when the French intervention began.

The challenge for Algeria is to intertwine its strategic goals with the needs of its weaker Sahelian neighbors as well as those of larger powers (mainly France) while minimizing their interference.

What can the West do to improve the security situation in the region?

Past approaches have focused on building the capacity of the security sector but have neglected the underlying institutional and social roots of insecurity. Of these, state fragility, corruption, and leaders’ ambivalence are the most insidious. In light of this, it is clear that even well-meaning governments in the region are unable to simultaneously tackle the host of problems they face.

It is up to the international community, therefore, to help local governments prioritize and triage the necessary reforms. Much of this should proceed on a country-by-country basis — distinctive solutions must emerge organically from within each state. International actors can play a crucial role in helping fragile states address their internal stresses.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.