We learn from history that nothing is permanent in world affairs. Empires, nations, and people rise and decline, and others take their place. The only certainty is uncertainty and consequently a realistic analysis of factors that contribute to stability or instability of national, regional, and global security frameworks is critical.
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 neglected by United States diplomacy. Consider, for example, the empirical data generated since September 11, 2001.
Terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other extremist groups in both the Maghreb and Sahel increased 558% from their low during the period to a new high of 204 attacks in 2009, and remain dangerously high, with 178 in 2010. Thus, over the past nine years, more than 1,100 terrorist bombings, murders, kidnappings, and ambushes against both domestic and international targets have claimed almost 2,000 lives and 6,000 victims of violence. Moreover, according to open intelligence sources and a recent fact- finding trip to the region in January 2011, there exists growing evidence that AQIM, local traffickers, and possibly members of the Polisario are forming links with Latin American organized criminal groups for trafficking drugs and humans via transit networks into Europe.
What is particularly of grave concern is that AQIM, jointly with the other al-Qaeda affiliates (e.g. al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – AQAP – operating in Yemen, as well as al- Shabaab members in Somalia) 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-Qaeda has established a safe haven and breeding ground for its activities.
Two major concerns feed into this arc of instability that stretches from the Red Sea and is poised to reach to the Atlantic. First, is the lingering 35-year old Western Sahara conflict, which is creating an opening for AQIM’s expansion and also recruitment of hard-core Polisario members among the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria, further complicating the viability of a diplomatic resolution for the Western Sahara issue.
And second, the sudden and explosive recent popular street protests in Tunisia that ousted the authoritarian President, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled the country for 23 years, open up the possibility that al-Qaeda will attempt to take advantage of the unfolding drama in its effort to destabilize the region.