The Cartography of Insecurity – What Does ‘The Sahara’ Mean?

This article is the second in the series on the Sahara Desert. The first article explored the idea of emptiness and how this has come to be seen as a threat in international politics.  In this article the author assesses the aggressive language used to describe the Sahara Desert. The tropes of terrorism and poverty have defined the region as an ‘impending Afghanistan’ but the reality isn’t so bleak.


By Jack Hamilton, 2 Feb, 2012

Mapping Stereotypes

In the words of comedian Dara O’Briain, ‘we all have list of countries inside our heads and each of these countries has one or two words attached to them. We can’t all have fully formed opinions of every country in the world’.

It generally narrows down to a few choice phrases. Ask a wide audience how they would define the Americans and the French and you will receive a narrow range of answers. But when happens if the country is less globally visible?

O’Briain jokes that characteristics can be arbitrarily ascribed such as the ‘vacuous people of Vanuatu’ and the people of Swaziland who are ‘terrible at small talk’. The reality is not so random.

Take the Global War on Terror. The terms associated with this geopolitical idea redraw the map of the world into secure and insecure areas. As mentioned in the first article in this series, the ‘empty’ areas of the map are seen to be insecure and the emptiest place on the map is the Sahara.

Sahara = Terrorism

Any act of violence in the region is immediately placed within the frame of a terrorist action perpetrated by a group with global terrorist connections priming themselves to attack the West.  This is not to say that terrorism does not exist in the Sahara. Merely that it is overstated. Ask a large group of people how they envisage Timbuktu. Formerly it was seen to be a city of mystery in the desert, defined by its remoteness. Now the language used to describe it would place it closer to Kabul than Atlantis.

Drawing Lines in the Sand

The concept of the GWoT has redrawn the map of the world to create a global cartography of insecurity. A US Special Operations Command (SOCEUR) briefing during the early years of the GWoT presented a map predicting the movement of the terrorist threat for the next two decades (see fig. 1 below).

This map depicts a cycle of instability incorporating Europe, the Middle East and Africa with specific ‘GWoT Interest’ reserved for Azerbaijan/Georgia, East Africa, the Bight of Benin and the Sahara-Sahel. It provides a succinct example of the rhetoric which assumes a direct linkage between terrorism in Asia and the presence of terrorism in the Sahel.

The diagram to the right of the map asserts that there is a steady arc of terror traversing Africa towards what has been described by Stewart Powell of the US Air Force as ‘a swamp of terror in the Sahara’. This notion of a global terrorist network flowing through the Sahara-Sahel is a recurring theme which is often stretched to breaking point.

The ‘Impending Afghanistan’

In this cartography of insecurity it is important to locate the Sahel not geographically but rhetorically as proximate to other ‘terrorist’ regions, notably Afghanistan. The defining characteristics of the region are perceived to be that it is ‘arid and impoverished’ and according to one US Air Force article this makes it a prime candidate to ‘succeed Afghanistan as the world’s number one haven for fanatic Islamic militants’.

This linkage of demographic conditions and terrorism has been echoed in the appraisal of Military Review in which the Sahara’s ‘conjunction of extreme poverty…and high fertility has created conditions like those found in Afghanistan before the rise of the Taliban’.

Under New Management – Failed States and Failed Regions

Linkages to Afghanistan remain as the term ‘Afghanistan’ has come to mean a combination of a ‘failed state’ as well as a terrorist ‘safe haven’ leading one New York Times columnist to define the Sahel as a collection of ‘potential Afghanistans’. In terms of the GWoT, the idea of ‘weak’ and ‘failed states’ effectively bifurcates the world leading to further comparisons with the Cold War. It is a profoundly political categorisation as it not only defines the borders but it also attempts to justify how to deal with those on the outside.

In this sense the mapping goes beyond the realms of Cold War ‘containment’ due to the understanding of the world as interconnected and borderless. Instead these dangerous regions must be ‘brought towards order’ and be ‘controlled and managed’ in the derisive words of Rita Abrahamsen.

This notion of ‘management’ changes the character of intervention along the lines of the GWoT as it is no longer direct military action but rather armed surveillance with the inherent threat of escalation. It is not a perpetual state of emergency but a permanent sense of insecurity.

Poverty as a Security Threat

The final and perhaps most pervasive trope in framing the Sahara-Sahel as an al-Qaeda ‘safe haven’ in the GWoT has been the construction of poverty as a security threat. The association of underdevelopment and conflict is nothing new, it can be detected in the industrial revolution as the ‘dangerous classes’ constituted a threat to the ‘civilized’ way of life of the upper classes and therefore needed to be controlled.

Mark Duffield has observed that the notion of underdevelopment creating insecurity has become the consensus amongst aid donors under the moniker ‘the structural reform of conflict prevention’. This trope has helped to repackage development as a tool in the armoury of liberal peace.

It is true that informal economic networks flourish in such impoverished regions but the conflation of these crimes and the image of AQIM that has been created exacerbate a reductionist narrative of linking poverty and terrorism.

Narratives of impoverished extremists are especially obvious in discussions about the smuggling activities of AQIM. While it is clear that those associated with AQIM are poor, that is the case for the vast majority of people around them who have never become associated with such movements.

The idea that poverty is the main catalyst for the turn towards religious fundamentalism is not credible. If that were the case, West Africa should have been the centre of Islamist terror for some time now given the extreme poverty of the countries there.


The ‘emptiness’ of the Sahara-Sahel has been combined with the narrative of ‘globalisation’ and the GWoT to forge the ‘swamp of terror’ in the desert. Lacking definition in itself the region has become an amalgamation of GWoT tropes, many without much in the way of empirical support.

Overlapping narratives cease to interpret the complexity of the region itself by obfuscating reality with imagined terrorist migration routes, misinterpreted religious groups and reductionist maps. To make sense of this sandstorm of information the terrorist threat in the Sahara must be looked at in more detail than the simple tropes of failed states, poverty and empty spaces. Without this nuance, in the words of O’Briain, we will be watching a news report on Vanuatu in a week and think, ‘oh, those vacuous pricks’.


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