Posted by on August 05, 2014 in Blog
By Myles Teasley
Summer Intern, 2014
Estimated Foreign Fighters in Syria/Iraq by Country:
Libya: 600 - 2500+
Egypt: 350 – 1000+
W. Sahara: 100+
Over the next few years, as many as 12000 experienced, potentially radicalized, fighters will be returning to their home countries. Many of these countries, particularly those in Arab North Africa, also known as the Maghreb, lie on crucial trade and trafficking routes to Europe and the West. With over a third originating from this region, these fighters could bring back with them an arsenal MI6 has estimated as greater than that of the entire British army. Given the precariousness of the region, even glimmering examples of progress (Tunisia) could crumble into a corridor of instability and failed states stretching from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. If there has ever been a time for the United States to abandon its time-honored practice of ‘benign neglect’ toward Arab North Africa, it is now.
One needs look no further than the successes of ISIS in Iraq or Azawad rebels and Al-Qaida in the Maghreb (AQIM) terrorists in Mali to see the damage that relatively small numbers of well equipped, experienced, and radicalized insurgents can do. In Iraq, ISIS’ 7,000 multinational fighters carved out a quasi-state from an Iraqi army of 250,000 that the United States spent $25 billion dollars building. In Sahelian Mali, a few thousand Taureg’s from Libya rode into Mali and seized more than two-thirds of the country from the dysfunctional government. It took a military coup in the capital, combined with French and AU military intervention, to bring the breakaway region back under relative control; Meanwhile fears increase of the permanent breakup of Iraq as embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki fortifies Baghdad against siege by ISIS’ recently declared caliphate.
The cases of Iraq and Mali in the weeks prior to their recent decline, in some ways, resemble Arab North Africa now. High unemployment rates, averaging over 40% among youth, combined with social disaffection among young people who often feel as if their Arab Spring has been hijacked, lend fertile and receptive ground to radicals claiming that violence offers an answer to their dispossession. Weak state institutions and poor oversight has led to a proliferation of foreign Imams sweeping into mosques in disaffected towns and villages in Libya, southern Tunisia, parts of Algeria, and the Western Sahara. And while these countries acknowledge the serious threat that returning militants pose, and have moved to address this issue, in many cases they are limited in what they can do or accomplish without support.
For the past few months, Tunisia’s underequipped military has been confronted with its most significant terrorism challenge in decades as militants from Ansar al-Sharia and AQIM hide out in desolate mountains plotting strikes. In response to a recent attack on its military, the Tunisian government has announced a major crackdown on radical Imam’s in mosques throughout many of the more dispossessed areas in Tunisia, in addition to having prevented over 8000 young Tunisians from fighting abroad thanks to proactive citizenry and law enforcement. Libya’s well-documented instability goes chronically ignored in the west as rival militias clash for control amidst frequent assassinations, fraying legitimacy, and a non-existent national army. Egypt’s damaged political legitimacy and bloody crackdown is now encountering increasingly effective extremists returning from conflicts in Syria and Iraq. A lack of resolution to the decades old Western Sahara issue has bred further disaffection and anger aimed at both Morocco and the West in an area vast and sparse enough to be a major training ground and launch pad for terror attacks throughout the region. Lastly, Mauretania’s tiny underfunded military, widely perceived as corrupt, is hardly prepared to deal with a security threat like one posed by experienced returning extremist militants. Ultimately, what a few hundred to a thousand experienced and well-armed insurgents can do in conditions of popular disaffection, high unemployment, and extant terror organizations should give American and European policymakers chills.
It is abundantly clear what needs to be done. Benign neglect today could lead to a simmering instability tomorrow. Detailed in short form here is an already extant toolkit that policymakers can utilize before what happened in Mali, and what is happening in Libya and Iraq, takes hold, intensifies, and spreads throughout Arab North Africa to the detriment of American strategic interests, regional economic development, and regional stability.
In order to arrest this serious and rising threat, the United States should:
- Establish and expand security and counterterrorism training agreements with Arab Maghreb & Sahelian States (modeled after African Lion Exercises).
- Encourage regional security integration and information sharing in the Maghreb and Sahel;
- Expand investment, educational, and good governance partnerships in the region, and support local civil society because transnational security doesn’t exist in a vacuum;
- Consider extending and expanding “strategic dialogues” and “strategic partnerships” to Maghreb and Sahelian states, incentivizing good-governance and security cooperation;
- Reevaluate and target its foreign aid practices to be in harmony with, and supportive of, local developmental needs, particularly youth development
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