“The spirit of our endeavour is, To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield”
Alessandro Minuto-Rizzo, President
Terrorism in the Sahel: from grey zones to systemic solutions
Andrea Sperini ● 30 November 2021
Understanding some dynamics linked to terrorism is not always easy. This is not only due the extreme complexity of the phenomenon but also because we tend not to differentiate the spaces inside which terrorism manifests itself.
On the contrary, the phenomenon will assume different features and manifestations precisely in relation to the space in which it operates, whether it is geographic, sociocultural and/or economic. Terrorism influences these spaces and it is in turn influenced by them. According to this premise, and also taking into account the experience of specific terrorist organisations, it looks evident that we should reformulate the analytical approach to the phenomenon, in order to correctly understand the phenomenon and the aforementioned spatial variables.
Ten years ago, during my PhD studies under the supervision of Ambassador Alessandro Minuto-Rizzo, I tried to define the correct relation between the physical and cultural dimension in relation to terrorism. The case study was focused on the Sahel region and the different operative dynamics of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The research work highlighted how the evolution of terrorism defines different and specific areas of action in the geographic, social and economic space. After verifying how a coordinated effort on the ground and on the social and economic dimension (both legal and illegal) led to a definition of the problem, it was important to understand the reach of the phenomenon and its potential evolution.
The next step was to think terrorism as a phenomenon inevitably linked to different spaces. It sure is in the African continent and especially in the Sahel region and in West Africa. These spaces, the geographic, economic and social, are the variables that in their interactions have morphed new cultural models where people join a terrorist organisation to survive.
As a consequence, new forms of cultural perceptions were born. These will increasingly tend to impose an ideological sovereignty, aimed at preserving and reinforcing the jihadist system. The experience of AQIM is a good example of the relationship between terrorism and space, which, in the Sahel region, managed to create a complex and dynamic system based on a logical interaction of three elements: the physical control of the territory, the social interaction and the management of the illegal economy that passes through that territory.
If territorial control represents the essential foundation, the management of the illegal economy (in which young local people are employed) represents the moment where the jihadist organisation can insert itself deep into the community, creating a bond between the terrorist organisation and the social reality.
All this is a complex picture where it is possible to observe the result of the interaction of the aforementioned variables in the system: if it is true that the survival of the terrorist organisation (in this case AQIM) depends on the balance between them, a sound understanding of this “evolutionary dynamic” can be vital to defining strategies aimed at countering terrorism.
Regarding this dynamic, the Islamic State is still way behind al-Qaeda. However, we have evidence that an affiliate organisation, namely Islamic State West Africa Province, has started to create a project based on the merging of military power, economic control and the management of the social dynamics. Likely by using AQIM as an example.
This tendency is getting increasingly more common and we need an interdisciplinary answer. Something that needs to be focused but also constant over time, because the results are likely to be observed only in the long term.
When the problem is complex, a good method is to break it apart and then to intervene on single, specific aspects. That is why, in relation to the system terrorism embodied by AQIM in the Sahel, we need to act on the single aspects of the aforementioned system in order to destabilise it and progressively diminish its ability to influence the social and economic space.
It seems logical that the starting point would be to work on the pulling that jihadism has over the local community, what makes it so appealing. We need to proceed by rigorously and consistently replacing the illegal with the legal economy, through a localised economic process. It is a given that this will not be easy to achieve, especially in areas where the social fabric is made up of tribal realities, completely foreign to the economic policies of centralised states.
For this very reason, it could be useful to think about socio-economic project financed by the International Community, in conjunction when possible with regional organisations, in accordance to the government of these nations affected by terrorism. These new socio-economic projects should provide access to credit in order to develop the local economy and then link it to the central economy. This will be achieved by creating localised economic sectors with peripheral competencies, which will directly engage the local communities. A very long process, but one that will lead to the progressive weakening of terrorism.