Islamic Extremists in the Sahel: Why We Should Care

The takeover of much of the Sahel by Islamic extremists barely registered with Americans, with the exception of a minor blip back in January when France decided to intervene militarily and the U.S. agreed to provide intelligence support.

Since then, this region of western and northern Africa has disappeared from the U.S. foreign policy priority list. Washington policymakers have hardly noticed the fact that al-Qaida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is now verbally threatening France and giving the go ahead to its adherents to go after French targets anywhere in the world. Just last month, a car bomb exploded in front of the French embassy in Libya. AQIM was likely responsible.

To most Americans—and most policymakers, apparently—this all seems very far away. I recently attended a conference where the overwhelming majority of “experts” on the region said AQIM had taken the al-Qaida name only for branding purposes and does not have the ability or desire to take on international targets. Its priority, they said, was regional influence.

Years ago, way back in the 20th century, an Egyptian doctor named Ayman al-Zawahiri wanted to take down the Egyptian government. That was his sole aim: to take down a secularist government in his home country. But as the years went on and he traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the mujahedeen were fighting the Soviets at the time, he developed the idea of the far enemy: that dictatorships like the one in Egypt were being propped up by the U.S. and as such, the U.S. was the true enemy.

Very few people thought a group of mujahedeen in the middle of Afghanistan could threaten the United States. And then we had 9/11.

AQIM is more than just a ragtag Islamic group in the desert that took on the al-Qaida name for brand recognition purposes. Many of its fighters have fought in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. And they all know, having seen Zawahiri—now the head of al-Qaida since bin Laden’s death—the way to international recognition is to threaten and hit the United States.

And they have already likely done so, by the way. These are almost certainly the same people who attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing the ambassador and three other Americans.

And many of them probably already have French or British passports, making travel to Europe and the United States incredibly easy.

Nobody thought these people could plan a 9/11-style attack from Afghanistan. And now policymakers seem to be ready to exhibit the same kind of ignorance, choosing to believe AQIM does not pose a security threat to the United States (despite its success in Benghazi). This is short-sighted and I hope President Obama’s Africa and counter-terrorism policymakers push the Sahel to the top of the priority list.

What do you think? Should the Sahel be a foreign policy priority for the United States? Send me your thoughts!

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