Popular and Opposition Perspectives on Counterterrorism in the Sahel

One thing worth thinking about, when it comes to the issue of terrorism in the Sahel, is that residents of countries like Mali and Mauritania have nuanced opinions about what measures are and are not worth taking in the service of counterterrorism.

I have no idea whether the following quote is representative of attitudes in Mali, but the eloquence of the speaker’s words struck me:

“We are not against the training of the Malian Army by the Americans,” says Fatoumata Maiga, a women’s rights activist in Mali’s capital, Bamako. “But we don’t want the American Army to be present here. We see that around the world, wherever the Americans are, there is a temptation for Al Qaeda to be there.”

Support for American-backed counterterrorism projects, in other words, has real limits in Mali. And Maiga is not the only observer who sees American efforts as a self-fulfilling prophecy – Al Jazeera English did a whole documentary on the subject.

Bamako, Mali

In Mauritania, meanwhile, domestic counterterrorism measures are provoking outcry. According to Afrique Avenir, opposition leader Ahmed Ould Daddah has denounced proposed changes to the anti-terror law (French), saying the new version “contains articles contradictory to the shari’a, to morality, and to Islamic values as well as principles of democracy and liberty.” The law would extend the state’s powers to search private places, tap phones, and revive old cases.

As US policymakers contemplate counterterrorism measures in West Africa, they should bear in mind the potential for strong domestic opposition both to a US presence and to initiatives in the “War on Terror” that local governments undertake. This domestic opposition could become outright anti-Americanism, or impede legitimate efforts to counteract kidnapping and terrorism.

8 thoughts on “Popular and Opposition Perspectives on Counterterrorism in the Sahel

  1. Good post. One of the biggest problems I see is convincing local populations that US efforts and/or presence (however one means the latter) that outside assistance can help to improve the situation, rather than increase AQ activity and hostility.

    At the same time, especially in Mauritania’s current political climate, we have to consider that terrorism isn’t the top issue on their plate. The additions to the counterterrorism law, for example, are seen as being a way for the president Ould Abdel Aziz to strengthen his hold on government and more aggressively combat or control the opposition. A lot of people see it as a way of weakening democracy rather than “fighting terrorism”. The priorities are different, even when people recognize the dangers that AQ can pose. Again great post on an important subject that needs more discussion.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Kal, and for the added perspective on Mauritanian politics.

      For my part, I am really not sure that the US will be able to convince local populations to accept outside assistance.

      • Well my problem is whether this AQIM stuff is real or fabricated. The US don’t need to convince the local population to accept or not, but for the others in power in the Sahel countries and in Africa to accept. Anyway, according to the Chief of AFRICOM, the US has already 2 military bases, one in Tamanrasset and the other in Gao (see link below, the General Ward himself saying so). Seems for some time. But no AQIM member is bothered/handcuffed and planes are landing supposedly to deliver drugs from Venezuela or some far places but never found despite the high surveillance by the US, France, Algeria, Mali and some other countries. Wondering what the hell is going on. The planes full of cocaine, the hostages taking, the ransoms, the three malians small crooks taken to the US for allegedly working for AQIM barons (one of them took $30 dollars at the start from the DEA agent for a trip to Bamako from Accra) are all leading to one thing: publicity over the AQIMisation of the Sahel. Is this to help Aziz of Mauritania (he is the only left now) to convince his countrymen to accept a base or two somewhere in the desert ?. If people believe that AQIM is a real thing, yes. If not, everybody should forget about that as Mauritania has lost so many lives already to what I think is a scheme.


      • I think it’s a good question to ask: where does AQIM in the Sahel sit in relation to the rest of US priorities in Africa and the world? If many are unconvinced of the group’s threat or think it is being used as a tool of the US, that deserves some examination, both the perception and the implications it raises. Such as: who is or would be interested in using AQIM in that area? How badly does the US need or desire AFRICOM and so on. What is the Algerian role, the Libyan role and what does one do if manipulation comes from the US, from Algeria, from Libya or someone else? Lots of questions.

      • Important questions all. Seems to me that US policymakers are somewhat torn about whether AQIM is a real threat; there was little public reaction that I saw by Washington to Chris Leggett’s murder in Mauritania over the summer. If AQIM is a priority it definitely comes at the bottom of a list that now includes “Afpak,” Yemen, Somalia, etc. As for the Algerian and Libyan roles, I have no idea. I’d love to find out more.

      • Add them all of the other bedfellows in this alleged scheme: Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Morocco and France too. Each of them has played something bad and they don’t want to meet to discuss anything (re. call by their friend ATT among the group to meet and discuss in Bamako and the AU is not interested as influenced from within by françafrique). None of these countries speak about anything related to this AQIM up there. The UN also not interested. Came accross an interesting article from MENAS’ Sahara Focus of December 2009 and it is raising an interesting question, which is, why in essence the Spanish hostages takers are going to Northern Mali when the US troups are there with all the surveillance gear (General Wald said this week in an interview with RFI that the US has two bases, one in Tamanrasset and one in Gao) and the Algerian and Malian military in the area? You add to that the Mauritanian military and some special military groups from Spain and France chasing them from day one (source: the Spanish and French Foreign Affairs from day 2 of the kidnapping).

        I think people should focus on the route taken by the Spanish hostages. Two possible routes: Direct through the desert to Northern Mali, which is impossible or through Western Sahara controled either by Morocco or Polisario/Algeria. For sure they have not been taken by a helicopter or a submarine to end up where we are told they are now. Still in Mauritania? The countries are not saying anything. This is the problem and my concern, like lots of people.

  2. Pingback: The politics of anti-terrorism in Mauritania « The Moor Next Door

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