New Terror Front in North Africa’s Sahel Region?

Libyan weapons, Nigerian militancy, and popular anger could ignite, draw in West

The war on terror is 10 years old, but its fronts only continue to grow. A once-pitiful Islamic group in Nigeria is now giving the government a run for its money and attracting a wary eye from the West, while thousands of missing weapons from Libyan armories spark fears that North Africa could be a new terror “hot spot.”

The Sahel region in orange, where the Sahara transitions into Africa's savannas.

Kooky regional militant group Boko Haram — loosely translated as “Western ideas are forbidden” — once eschewed all modern “Western” technology in their campaigns to get locals to adhere to Sharia. But in the two years since the bow-and-arrow-weilding group’s leader was killed in a government massacre along with over one hundred followers, Boko Haram has discovered the wonders of the gun and the bomb. A recent escalation of violence culminated in the bombing of UN headquarters in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, killing 18.

Nigeria’s government is now trying to negotiate, and may feel especially pressured after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime left tens of thousands of surface-to-air missiles missing in Libya. The arms are said to have made their way into Gaza and could be what the Afghan Taliban claims as it’s “new weapon” against NATO troops. Algeria has slammed its own borders shut to keep the weapons out. Given the ease with which Gadhafi loyalists have slipped into Niger, there’s no reason to think the weapons won’t end up in the much closer and far less controlled Sahel region of Africa, just over the shifting sands of the Sahara from Libya.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a regional militant group, operates in several Sahel countries including Mali, Mauritania, Chad, and Niger, and could have ties to factions of Libya’s transitional council. AQIM has endorsed Boko Haram and could conceivably help the group in the future. “AQIM is flush with ransom money, and they’re the most likely to buy” Gadhafi’s weapons, Mauritanian Naser Weddady of the American Islamic Congress told Time.

The Sahel is a swamp of human desperation, crushed by anti-liberal tyrants, ripe for revolt and overthrow — a flood of weapons could spark a Sub-Saharan Spring or, as the West fears, the rise of unaligned militant groups. As it is, AQIM routinely beats Mauritanian forces in dust-ups, and takes pot-shots at Algerian forces. It has a wink-and-nod deal with Mali, which agreed to leave it alone if the group refrained from attacks in the country.

As in Libya, France might take the lead in pushing for military action in its former colonies — nothing new there — and Nigeria, where the US is already involved in an investigation of the Abuja bombing. Will NATO, and therefore the US, be taken in on another “kinetic” front against a nebulous militant Islamist ideology?

Time will tell, but tensions could escalate this week — Boko Haram has declared it will bomb 18 universities by Sept. 18th.

Last 5 posts by Jeremy Sapienza

Author: Jeremy Sapienza

Jeremy Sapienza is Senior Editor at Antiwar.com