The International Center for Terrorism Studies is out with a new report that should catch the attention of policymakers in the United States and elsewhere. The critical finding is this:
Tragically, the Maghreb — Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia — as well as adjacent parts of the Sahel — Chad, Mali, and Niger — have emerged as one of the most worrying strategic challenges to the international community, and yet for decades these regions have mostly been overlooked by policy-makers in the West. Consider, for example, the empirical data generated since September 11, 2001.
More specifically, for the past ten years terrorist attacks by al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other militant extremists in the Maghreb and Sahel have increased more than 500 percent from their low point in the period to hit a high of 204 attacks in 2009. In 2011, the number of terrorist attacks remains dangerously high, increasing from 2010’s total to reach 185 attacks for the year. . . . What is particularly of grave concern is that AQIM, jointly with other al-Qa’ida affiliates and militant groups (e.g. al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, operating in Yemen, as well as al-Shabaab members in Somalia, Boko Haram militants based in Nigeria, and Polisario militants from Algeria) currently and for the foreseeable future, represent a most dangerous threat both regionally and inter-regionally. Clearly in the failed and fragile states bordering the Sahara, al-Qa’ida has established a safe haven and breeding ground for its activities.
The ICTS recommends 10 steps to address the toxic mix of refugees, drug, human trafficking and terrorism. These include improved “collection and analysis of data related to al-Qa’ida’s terrorism in general in the region and beyond,” additional technical assistance for counterterrorism, and support for governnments in the region “to accelerate regional economic and social reforms with a “carrot-and-stick” approach to increase broadly the levels of economic cooperation between the nations and spur increased trade and commerce that contributes to economic growth and reduces poverty as an underlying factor in fueling social unrest and extremism.” The last few recommendations are most eye-catching:
7. Resolve the Western Sahara crisis, which is inhibiting both security and economic cooperation in the Maghreb and Sahel, and is driving a wedge between two of the region’s most influential nations—Morocco and Algeria.
8. Shut down the refugee camps run by the Polisario near Tindouf, Algeria because they are a recruiting ground for terrorists, traffickers, and other criminal enterprises. The US and international community should prioritize permanent refugee resettlement in line with existing international protocols and agreements.
9. Face the intellectual challenge of radical Islam directly with “home-grown” religious and intellectual leaders who are able to challenge the misuse of Islam and channel religious tendencies into more productive social development opportunities.
10. Raise the diplomatic, economic, political, and military costs to Iran high enough to outweigh the benefits of supporting terrorism and exporting jihadist terrorism elsewhere.
As with Syria and terrorism in the Middle East, Tehran is at the nub of the problem. So long as we demonstrate there is little penalty for terrorist-support, not to mention killing of Americans, Tehran will continue to play a destabilizing role both in the Maghreb and in the Middle East.
I have written before on the the intersection of refugees and terrorism arising from the humanitarian crisis in the Western Sahara. I spoke by phone today with the ICTS’s director, Professor Yonah Alexander, who has studied the topic for 40 years. He told me that the warehousing of refugees creates “a breeding ground for terrorist propaganda, even among children.” So long as thousands remain in camps, he says, we will see “exploitation of people from a very early age.” He warns: “No. 1 is the humanitarian issue.And No. 2 is the national security issue,” which has escalated into violence, kidnapping, gun-running and support for AQIM. He says bluntly that money spent through international agencies to support the camps’ operation is “perpetuating the problem.”
The Obama administration has been rhetorically supportive of late in trying to resolve the Western Sahara conflict. But the report should add new urgency to efforts to empty the tinder box that is fueling an upsurge in violence and terrorism in an already unstable part of the world.