Fanning the Flames – The Rise of AQAP

An assessment of what has contributed to the swelling of the Al Qaeda ranks in Yemen. Among other factors, this has included the cutting of the remittances from their richer neighbors after the first Gulf War and the security concerns (drone strikes).

By Richard Wallace, 23rd October 2013

Just a couple of months back, news channels were filled with coverage of the impending threat Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP – the Gulf branch of Al-Qaeda) poses to domestic security in Yemen and international security more broadly. Yemen is rarely in the limelight, with much media attention focusing further north on the Middle East states of the Levant and Iran. When it does catch international attention, the media discourse on Yemen is typically highly securitized, to the extent that the country is increasingly cast as the next Afghanistan, the cradle of chaos, and the new haven and hotbed of international terrorism. Whether or not this is really the case, it is clear that Yemen does face serious challenges from AQAP’s local franchise and the danger is real. So just how did it come to this?

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The Black Flag Flies in Mali

In this guest post from Andrew Lebovich, the recent events in Mali are dissected from the military coup to the future of the ‘newly liberated nation of Azawad’. Instability in the region is rife and Andrew posits that without a rapid response, the situation is liable to degenerate rapidly.

by Andrew Lebovich, 9 April, 2012

This post was originally published on Andrew’s website, al-Wasat.  The website seeks to compile perspectives on the Middle East, South Asia, CT and COIN. Their goal is to bring together some articulate, interesting, and occasionally funny individuals to write about radicalization, counterterrorism, terrorist ideology, Muslims in the West, and regional issues, all in one blog.

Less than two weeks after a group of Malian junior officers led a coup against the government of president Amadou Toumani Touré, Mali’s war in the north has fallen apart. In a three-day period that ended Monday, Tuareg rebels had seized the three major northern towns of Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu, victories unparalleled in the past.

On Thursday, a spokesman for the Malian Tuareg rebel group the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (known by its French acronym the MNLA) said that the group’s fighters had arrived “at the frontier of the Azawad” – a mostly scrub and desert territory the size of France that comprises a diverse ethnic population – and declared a halt to military operations. Later the same day, the group declared the unilateral independence of the region. In a dizzying flourish of events, the war that Tuareg rebels had fought since January 17, the fourth in a series of rebellions that began in 1963, appeared at first blush to be over. Instead, the real fight over the Azawad may have just begun.

The rush to capitalize on the dissolution of Mali’s army in the north has brought to the fore deep conflicts between the MNLA and the salafist-inspired Ansar Al-Din, and brought two terrorist groups who call northern Mali home – Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its “splinter” group the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) out of the woodwork.

The scant reporting and witness statements emerging from the north paint a confusing and complex picture of events there, one complicated by conflicting agendas and a sheer lack of information, credible or not. But with some reports depicting scenes of destruction, looting, and even rape in Gao and Timbuktu, the imposition of harsh tenets of sharia law in Kidal and Timbuktu, and a possible struggle for control in all three cities, events in northern Mali appear more than ever to be shrouded, to appropriate a phrase used by Tuareg expert Baz Lecocq, in a “haze of dust.”

Known unknowns

As Lecocq astutely pointed out when writing this week about the situation in the north, much of what we see now is based heavily on slim reporting, nearly impossible to confirm witness statements, and assumptions. But with those caveats aside, it is possible to trace at least the broad outlines of how we have arrived at this conflicted point, and where things may go from here.

According to a pro-MNLA writer Andy Morgan, at a meeting in October 2011 in the desert oasis of Zakak, a group of Tuareg leaders met to decide their future course of action in Mali. Comprised of local notables, past rebels, and commanders and fighters recently returned from Libya, this group would soon be known publicly as the MNLA. But at the meeting, Iyad Ag Ghali – the leader of Tuareg rebellions in the 90’s, and later a Malian diplomat in Saudi Arabia and interlocutor in hostage negotiations with AQIM  – purportedly presented himself to be head of the MNLA.

Iyad lost that attempt, as Bilal Ag Cherif was appointed the Secretary General of the MNLA. He also reportedly lost a subsequent attempt to lead the Ifoghas tribe, towhich he belongs. Alghabass Ag Intallah, the middle son of the current amenokal, or leader, of the Ifoghas was appointed the tribe’s “chief executive.” It should be noted that Morgan appears to be the sole available source for these particular claims, and the full story is likely far more complicated.

Once known for his love of wine, women and song, Iyad, who grew more religious over the years, went into seclusion after these defeats. In December news leaked that Iyad had created a new Salafist Tuareg group – Ansar Al-Din. Yet little was known or heard from or of Iyad until after the violence broke out in January. Following a siege of the military base at Aguelhoc at the end of January, photos and reports out of the city spoke of “summary executions” of nearly 100 Malian soldiers at Aguelhoc, and France and the Malian government suggested that extremist elements ranging from Iyad’s group to AQIM may have been involved.

Although rumors abounded about the presence of Iyad’s fighters and even those belonging to his cousin, AQIM sub-commander Hamada Ag Hama (Abdelkrim el-Targui), there was little hard proof of Iyad’s role in the north throughout February and early March, even as the MNLA advanced rapidly, picking off border towns with Algeria and Mauritania and harassing towns south of Timbuktu. The MNLA acknowledged quietly that Ansar Al-Din had fought with them at Aguelhoc and elsewhere, but categorically denied links to AQIM, even suggesting that Iyad had helped bring a number of Tuareg AQIM fighters back into the fold and away from jihadist militancy.

It was not until the strategic town of Tessalit was seized March 11 that cracks began to show. Soon after the MNLA claimed victory at Tessalit, Ansar Al-Din made its media debut on YouTube. The group’s 12-minute video showed images of Iyad leading his men at prayer juxtaposed with images of fighting at Aguelhoc and a message from another historical rebel figure, Cheikh Ag Aoussa, calling for the implementation of sharia not in an independent Azawad, but throughout Mali. A week later the group is said to have released a statement to journalists calling for the implementation of sharia in Mali by “armed combat” if necessary – far from the MNLA’s message of a secular, democratic Azawad. The move prompted the MNLA to distance itself from and then denounce Ansar Al-Din. Tension mounted as the latter claimed responsibility for a series of key victories in the north, which the MNLA and pro-MNLA sources denied vigorously.

Yet it appears that this outward animosity did not stop elements or commanders from these groups from working together, at least in some capacity. As Mali’s army dissolved from within following the March 22 coup d’état, MNLA and Ansar Al-Din forces surrounded Kidal, reportedly pushing into the city from opposite sides after negotiations for its surrender failed. Just a day later the key southern city of Gao fell with hardly a fight, again with reports that a group of fighters entered and seized parts of the city – the MNLA, Ansar Al-Din, and even the AQIM dissident group MUJWA, which according to some reports seized one of Gao’s two military camps, as the MNLA seized the other.

Just a day later Timbuktu, the last military bastion in the north, fell without a fight. While the MNLA had negotiated a peaceful transition with the local Bérabiche (Arab) militia protecting the town, Iyad soon swooped in, reportedly pushing MNLA forces to Timbuktu’s airport, and announcing first to the city’s religious and political leaders – and then on Wednesday, its people – his intention to implement sharia and fight those who oppose it.

Worse still are the reports that Iyad was acoompanied by several very important AQIM commanders: Mokhtar Belmokhtar, Abou Zeid, Yahya Abou al-Hammam, and close Belmokhtar aide Oumar Ould Amaha (spelled Oumar Ould Hama in some reports).

While the MNLA has forcefully denied being expelled from Timbuktu, Iyad’s statements and a number of eyewitness reports appear to confirm his takeover of the city and efforts to enforce the veiling of womenshutter shops and hotels selling alcohol, and even exact harsh punishment on looters and “vandals”. He is also said to have lowered and burned the MNLA’s flag, replacing it with a black “Islamist” flag.

Emerging from the shadows

One of the more startling elements of the reports out of Timbuktu is the aggressive emergence of AQIM on the scene. While AQIM and its predecessor groups, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) and the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) have long operated in the Sahara, and have attacked regional armed forces and other targets in Mauritania, Mali, and Algeria, AQIM is known much more for smuggling (drugs, cigarettes, weapons, and more) and the kidnapping of Westerners across the region, operations that may have netted the group tens of millions of dollars.

If true, reports of AQIM leaders appearing so openly in public – let alone this many of them, together – would be unprecedented. Yet it is extremely difficult even to assess these claims. While various accounts cite Timbuktu residents and participants at the Monday meeting identifying the AQIM leaders by sight, eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable. Moreover, it would be an extraordinary circumstance for so many key leaders to be in the same place, even if only for a short time. This is especially true given the reputed rivalry between Abou Zeid and Belmokhtar, though I have cast doubt on the extent of their supposed divisions in the past.

Nonetheless, it seems apparent that there is at the moment a sizeable AQIM presence in the city, operating openly alongside Ansar Al-Din and possibly searching for Westerners. Additionally, it makes at least anecdotal sense that AQIM would be both present in the city and useful in supporting Ansar Al-Din.

As I previously mentioned, many analysts believe blood ties exist between Iyad and the AQIM subcommander Abdelkrim el-Targui, who analysts believe is close to Abou Zeid and organized the kidnapping of two French men in the Malian town of Hombori last November. And the two groups share a broad worldview about the implementation of sharia and pursuit of jihad, though significantly less is known about Ansar Al-Din’s core ideology, having only given a small number of public statements.

More apparent, though, is the clear benefit AQIM brings Ansar Al-Din. On the one hand, AQIM can provide dedicated, hardened fighters, a significant factor if estimates that Ansar recently only possessed a few hundred men are correct. More importantly, AQIM may offer Ansar a bridge allowing the group to operate in Timbuktu; both Belmokhtar and al-Hammam have operated for several years in and around Timbuktu, and in particular to the north of the city. Just last month, Mauritanian aircraft struck a convoy they thought included al-Hammam less than 100 km north of the city. And Belmokhtar has, according to most accounts, married a Berabiche woman from a prominent family in or near Timbuktu. Given that Berabiche Arabs are predominant in the city, these longstanding transactional and personal ties – not to mention fear of the organization – could help the primarily Tuareg Ansar Al-Din avoid conflict and exert its influence in the city. It is too early to tell, however, if the tenuous calm in Timbuktu will hold for long.

Less easy to decipher are the gains to be reaped by AQIM or MUJWA from this arrangement. Reporting on the group since the Tuareg uprising has been scarce, though various unconfirmed reports placed Belmokhtar in Libya while others were believed to have fled into southern Algeria, perhaps to pursue business opportunities or simply wait until the instability settled and a clear winner emerged in the north.

The return of AQIM to the battlefield would indicate that they believe that a winner has emerged – though it is difficult to say if AQIM seeks a greater safe haven in which to operate, tighter control over smuggling routes in northern Mali, or simply the chance to spread its own version of Islamic practice. Still, this kind of active and open AQIM presence marks a serious break with past practice, and could herald a shift in AQIM’s behavior, goals, and operations.

This leaves us with MUJWA. The group announced that it had splintered from AQIM in December 2011, criticizing its predecessor organization’s lack of dedication to jihad and promising to spread its operations into West Africa. Interestingly, though, its only known leadership are from Mauritania and Mali, and the group’s only two operations before last week were in Algeria (the October 20 kidnapping of three aid workers from the Polisario-run Rabouni camp) and against an Algerian target (the suicide bombing of the gendarmerie headquarters in Tamanrasset).

The group’s self-proclaimed heavy involvement in the attack on Gao, like with AQIM in Timbuktu, represents a surprisingly overt involvement in the Mali conflict. Unlike AQIM, however, MUJWA has gone out of its way to show off its presence, even appearing before an Al Jazeera camera team in Gao.

We know significantly less about MUJWA, making it harder to discern their motives for playing such a purportedly important role in Gao. It is worth pointing out, however, that one of the group’s leaders, Sultan Ould Badi, is believed to be from north of Gao, which could again be a sign of MUJWA operating, like AQIM, where they have more local support or ties.

And we may get a better sense of MUJWA’s trajectory if allegations that the group was behind the ransacking of Algeria’s consulate in Gao, as well as the abduction of seven Algerian diplomats. Al Jazeera released a video Friday purporting to show MUJWA fighters taking the consul away, as well as shots of the group’s black flag flying over the consulate. This attack shows an unusual focus on Algeria for a group nominally committed to propagating jihad in West Africa, and might indicate that MUJWA remains close in important ways to AQIM.

Iyad and the MNLA

While the rapid expansion of Ansar Al-Din and other jihadist elements is a major concern to Western countries with a stake in the stability of the Sahel, they pose the most immediate threat to the MNLA’s efforts to secure an independent state in the Azawad.

Ansar’s growing public presence last month caused some to begin to doubt the control the organization said it possessed in the north, especially after a Red Cross convoy invited to Tessalit by the MNLA was turned back by armed men, widely believed to be Ansar Al-Din fighters. The MNLA’s failure to secure Kidal and Gao and the embarrassing loss of Timbuktu only reinforced for many this sense that the MNLA had perhaps exaggerated its fighting strength or leadership in the rebellion.

This fracturing of the Tuareg rebel movement has a few potential explanations. The first is simply that expert estimates of the size of the MNLA fighting force (perhaps as many as 3,000 men, according to Tuareg expert Pierre Boilley) were not accurate. The balance of forces also could have been impacted by the fact that Ansar Al-Din fighters have concentrated their forces on individual battles in Tessalit, Kidal, Gao, and now Timbuku, while MNLA fighters have ranged across northern Mali, from Ménaka in the east to Léré in the west, and from Tessalit in the north to Youwaru in the south.

Another possibility is that the MNLA, despite having a clear structure on paper and an impressive media organization centered primarily (but not exclusively) around Francophone Europe-based diaspora intellectuals, is not a truly coherent fighting organization on the ground. Unfortunately, there is not enough reporting to confirm or deny this theory, though it is telling that the MNLA has sought the help of Ansar Al-Din when engaging in most of its major battles or sieges since January. And in the face of clear affronts, the MNLA has thus far staunchly avoided any action that would lead to violence with Iyad.

In part, this is because taking on Iyad directly poses several potential problems for the MNLA. Setting aside questions about the relative strength of both groups (which we can’t answer at this time) attacking Iyad directly could further erode the MNLA’s cohesion. Despite having compromised with the Malian government after the 1990’s rebellions, Iyad remains an influential figure, owing both to his reputation as a former rebel leader and his position within the Ifoghas, the minority tribe that has nonetheless held sway in Kidal for several centuries (a fact aided by colonial France’s decision to maintain and entrench Ifoghas dominance). While the MNLA and its base of support is not just Ifoghas-based, an attack on such a prominent figure could undercut Ifoghas support.

However, I think the theses that privilege the MNLA’s apparent weaknesses ignore important mitigating factors that could help explain the group’s behavior.

For one thing, it is possible that the MNLA decided that it was better to finish its project of securing the borders of its new state, as it announced Thursday, before moving to solidify its internal position. While this is a risky proposition given the rapid and very public steps Iyad and his allies have taken, it may not be an entirely bad strategy; French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé on Thursday made a clear distinction between the MNLA and its erstwhile allies, calling for talks between Mali’s neighbors and Tuareg rebels combined with efforts to combat terrorism in Mali’s north. Reading between the lines, his remarks hold out the prospect of some sort of international recognition for the MNLA’s cause, especially when seen in the context of past vows by MNLA leaders to deal with AQIM if given an independent state.

Additionally, despite some very visible setbacks, the MNLA hasn’t actually left the field. Radio France Internationale reports, for instance, that the MNLA is quietly trying to restore order in Gao, and meeting with traditional and religious leaders in the city.  And despite being pushed out of central Timbuktu, the group still holds the airport, and is, according to some (admittedly pro-MNLA) reports, encircling the city. They have also entered Timbuktu since Ag Ghali’s takeover to spirit three Western expatriates to safety in Mauritania.

Time is running out

The situation in northern Mali remains fluid, and the MNLA may not have time for complicated machinations. Until today it had seemed increasingly possible that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) would send a peacekeeping detachment to Mali, though the contours and rules around an eventual deployment were never clear. Reports indicate that ECOWAS and the Malian junta reached a deal for Captain Amadou Sanogo to step aside in favor of an interim transitional government to be led by parliamentary speaker Diouncounda Traore. In return, ECOWAS will remove travel and trade sanctions put in place following the coup.

Regardless of what’s going on in the south, though, the north will likely remain unstable, and the MNLA must move quickly to reassert its position in northern Mali. If not, it may find itself shut out of the major power centers in the newly “liberated” Azawad, left to contend with an increasingly assertive and entrenched “desert fox.”

Hostage Crisis in Nigeria: Did the Terrorists Win?

In this article the author addresses the prevailing narrative that Boko Haram carried out the kidnapping and executions of two Europeans in northern Nigeria yesterday. By taking all of the evidence into account, the involvement of Boko Haram is one of several possibilities and to immediately place the blame on this group could be playing into the hands of the terrorists.

By Jack Hamilton, 9 March, 2012

In May 2011 two European construction workers were kidnapped in Kebbi, north-west Nigeria.  Yesterday both of these men were killed in a botched rescue mission in Sokoto, northern Nigeria.  Despite some bold assertions by the British and Nigerian governments, what exactly happened to the 28 year old Englishman, Christopher McManus and the 47 year old Italian engineer, Franco Lamolinara, and who they were taken by remains unclear.

First of all, regardless of who was responsible for the kidnapping and the rescue mission, the deaths of these two men is a tragedy.  The decision of the British Government to intervene in such a way must have had the primary objective of getting the hostages out alive.  Whether they were executed by the hostage takers or they were victims of crossfire in the ‘seven hour shootout’, their deaths represent a disastrous failure of British intelligence.

Now we must turn to the evidence of what happened to Mr. McManus and Mr. Lamolinara.  It is important that the narrative of ‘this was Boko Haram’ does not take hold as at this time it remains speculation.  As we will see, it is tenuous speculation.

In a statement today, a Boko Haram spokesperson announced: “We have never taken anyone hostage. We always claim responsibility for our acts”.  Boko Haram certainly have blood all over their hands but they also like to brag about it.  The fact that they have not done so in this case is revealing.

Sequence of Events Leading up to March 8

While kidnappings are common in the Niger Delta region of the country, they are not frequent in northern Nigeria and unheard of in the case of Boko Haram.  The kidnapping of the two Europeans was not accompanied by any ransom demand and the State Police Commissioner has reiterated that the terrorists never attempted to make contact with local security forces.

The kidnapping itself was amateurish for two reasons.  Firstly they allowed for some of their victims to escape and secondly they left a bag of money behind.

Nothing was heard from the kidnappers of their victims until a video was released in August of last year.  In this one-minute video the terrorists claim that they are members of al-Qaeda and show the hostages blindfolded and on their knees in front of their armed captors.

The video raises several possibilities.  Using such a technique is characteristic of al-Qaeda, as the group claim to be, and would provide the first evidence that the group is operating on Nigerian soil.  However, this does not mean that it was indeed al-Qaeda as there are several irregularities.

Firstly, the video did not come from the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb broadcasting centre, al-Andalus.  Seeing as the terrorists were so willing to prove that they are affiliated with al-Qaeda, it would make sense to go through the processes that the group tends to use.  Sending an amateurish video to AFP in Abidjan does not fall within this process.  AQIM tend to broadcast their kidnapping videos on jihadist websites with their al-Andalus watermark.

The second irregularity, pointed out by an expert on AQIM, Andrew Lebovich, is that they are not wearing the traditional attire of Salafis.  No Salafi organisation, with the exception of al-Qaeda in Iraq, dresses in the casual way the terrorists present themselves in the video.

This opens up the possibility that the organisation in question wishes to be seen as AQIM or Boko Haram to increase their bargaining stance.  Such a claim is pure speculation until the demands of the organisation are released but the lack of attention to detail is incongruous with the moniker they claim.  If they turn out to be pretenders, the media coverage reporting on the ‘Boko Haram’ kidnapping has fed directly into their hands.

What Happened on 8 March, 2012?


The location of the hostages in Sokoto is highly significant.  If they had been taken to Kano or Maiduguri there would be little doubt that Boko Haram carried out the attacks.  Reporting from top news sources, including Sky News, is incorrect in implying that Sokoto is a Boko Haram base.

It is worth looking at Andrew Walker’s map of the instances of Boko Haram terrorism in comparison to the location of the Kebbi kidnapping and the shootout in Sokoto.  The operations of the organisation have not come anywhere near this part of Nigeria.

This is not to excuse Boko Haram.  There are two ominous possibilities.  Firstly, that Boko Haram has significantly expanded its geographical reach across Nigeria and has begun to undertake tactics that resemble those of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.  Secondly, that there are now two of these groups in Nigeria.

What was the reason for the sudden raid? 

The Foreign Office has reported that they received intelligence saying that the hostages were about to be executed or moved.  This has been taken further by an article in The Guardian stating that the intelligence came following the arrest of a top Boko Haram official in Kaduna, northern Nigeria.  It also credits the British intelligence forces for training the Nigerian officials who were able to uncover this crucial information.  It remains unclear whether the arrest of these men in Kaduna was the trigger for the execution of the hostages.

For such a decision to have been taken it is clear that the lives of the men were in imminent danger.  A factor emphasised by David Cameron in his apologetic speech yesterday afternoon.

Cameron gave the go-ahead following meetings of the government emergency committee, Cobra.  The Italian Prime Minister, Mario Monti, was only made aware of the rescue operation after it had begun.  He was informed that “an unpredicted acceleration of events took place over the last hours. While fearing an imminent danger for the hostages, Nigerian authorities activated the rescue” by Cameron.

Various Italian MPs have demanded clarification for why Monti was not alerted earlier but this is not the big story.  It is clear that it was a rushed rescue operation conducted on a short time scale.  It is highly unlikely that the wisdom of the Italian Parliament, no matter how well versed they all were on the intricate security politics of north-western Nigeria, could have remedied this situation.

The events of the raid on the compound yesterday remain sketchy, hence the Italian demands for clarity on exactly what happened and why they were consulted so late in the day.

There are conflicting stories of how events unfolded.  The BBC states that “the British were the first at the door” while local sources, such as The World Today, state that the Nigerian state forces used a tank to break down the wall of the compound where the terrorists were holed up.  The lack of coherent information is most likely a result of journalists being kept one kilometre away from the shootout.

Sahara Reporters have released pictures of the compound after the attack.  WARNING: some of the pictures contain spatters of blood on the walls.  [pictures]

It is unclear how it came to be that the two hostages were killed but most sources agree that they were whisked deep inside of the compound as soon as the raid began and executed them immediately.  This would imply that the intervention had little chance of success to begin with if true.  It begs the question: why did foreign forces get involved?

The intervention of British forces on Nigerian soil seems now like a strange decision to have taken.  It is a clear sign that Britain did not trust the Nigerian forces, who they themselves had trained, to carry out the operation.  Instead it was led by the Special Boat Squadron (SBS) including Royal Marines in a mission which may have numbered twenty British personnel.

The Role of Nigerian State

Nigerian intelligence, according to President Goodluck Jonathan, has arrived at the definite conclusion that Boko Haram were behind the kidnappings and the attack.  This claim must be taken with a pinch of salt given the recent record of Nigerian intelligence, especially in dealing with Boko Haram.  It is in the interests of the Nigerian state to put forward a message that they are taking control of the deteriorating security situation in northern Nigeria.

If the narrative of the tragedy takes the form of ‘Nigerian forces kill eight members of Boko Haram following intelligence success’, it will reflect well.  If this was not Boko Haram, the intelligence reports from Kaduna must be looked at again to see if the tragedy was a result of a Nigerian intelligence failure.  For many in the north of Nigeria, the success and popularity of Boko Haram is down to the failings of the Nigerian State’s security.

Did the Terrorists Win?

The demands of the terrorists have not been stated.  If the intelligence reports from Kaduna are to be believed there must have been some hint at the ambitions of the organisation when these men were revealing the location of the hostages to the security services.  It has been reported that in the initial kidnapping, a large bag of money was left behind.  Perhaps the perpetrators believed that the ransom payout would be swift and bountiful.  Perhaps the kidnapping was for political rather than economic motivations.  To state a case for either based upon the bag of money would be pure speculation.  It is therefore more useful to look at the previous actions of Boko Haram to see if the terrorists were following a pattern.

The kidnapping of foreign nationals does not fit with the previous actions of Boko Haram.  Their demands have tended to be on religious institutions and local government with little violence reserved for international bodies (with the exception of the bombing of the UN in Abuja).  If the desire was, as with the UN, to gain international attention, the actions of British and Nigerian intelligence played straight into their hands by attempting what would be a futile rescue operation if it was carried out by Boko Haram.  The organisation could undoubtedly gain more attention from killing the hostages which begs the question: if British intelligence sources truly believe the aggressors to be Boko Haram, why did they play straight into their hands?

Below is my interview on Sky News as the news broke

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’.

Securing Emptiness: The Sahara Desert and the Global War on Terror

“So Geographers in Afric-maps With Savage-Pictures fill their Gaps” – Jonathan Swift

This article is the introduction to a series of pieces on the Sahara Desert. In this piece the author assesses the idea of emptiness and how this has come to be seen as a threat in international politics. In the words of Jonathan Swift, “So Geographers in Afric-maps With Savage-Pictures fill their Gaps”


By Jack Hamilton, 23 Dec, 2011

Emptiness is both romanticised and feared.  In this sense deserts serve as a geographical blank canvas upon which cultural and political views can be painted.  It is this fear of the unknown that ebbs into contemporary political and cultural tropes on the Sahara Desert.

Grazing from Mauritania in the West through the hinterlands of Mali, Algeria and Niger, to the Tibesti mountains of Chad towards the northern states of Nigeria, this is the land which has been described as the ‘swamp of terror’: the Sahara-Sahel.  The narrative of this terrain has drifted from romantic imaginings of nomadic caravans and peaceful Sufism towards depictions of drug smuggling routes and sandy bastions of violent Islamism threatening the West.  When did the ‘nomads’ become ‘terrorists’?

Security for the Insecure

The increased militarisation of the region makes it important to question how this shift in language has come about since the relatively brief introduction of the Global War on Terror (GWoT) to the area and the reasons as to why this occurred.  The current rhetoric used to describe the threat of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is predicated upon previous linguistic constructions of the Sahara as well as the more recent tropes of the GWoT to create a threat far surpassing the capabilities of the small group in the desert.

That is not to say that AQIM does not exist and is not a threat.  It is instead the assertion that the Sahara should be viewed as a diverse region in itself and not merely lumped into the cartography of insecurity put forward under the GWoT.

The Blank Canvas of the Desert

For centuries the unknown hinterlands of the Sahara have been imagined with colourful representations of nomads riding exotic beasts and African kings holding up the famed golden wealth of Africa in their hands.[i]

Defined by its emptiness, religion, wealth and potential threat, the lands to the south of the Mediterranean existed not as a discrete entity but an ebbing shore (or in Arabic, a Sahel) to other civilisations.  Such images have faded but the narratives remain.  The ‘shore’ now borders a ‘swamp of terror’[ii] that is perceived to traverse the globe, sustained by religion and poverty, to create the cartography of insecurity.

The decision to undertake a war in the Sahara may have been inherently political but the success of the messages of the Global War on Terror have relied on pre-existing tropes synonymous with Africa and the Sahara in particular.  The historian, E. Ann McDougall claims that ‘the Sahara has served the West as a canvas on which to paint its greed, fears and ambitions’[iii].  It is upon this cartographic canvas that a small group in the Sahara-Sahel has been constructed as a direct threat to the West.

Geographical Emptiness

Depictions of the Sahara centre on the notion of emptiness.  Maps show a land derelict of flora and fauna that isn’t delineated as being ‘North Africa’ nor can it be ‘Sub-Saharan Africa’ by definition.  It exists in the margins as it is seen as a margin in itself: a geographical ‘other’.  This drought of definitions has been extended into the narratives surrounding the Sahara-Sahel in the GWoT.

Deprived of distinguishing characteristics it has come to be defined by associations, geographical and rhetorical, to explain a region that is simultaneously devoid of life but teeming with insecurity.  It is therefore necessary to locate the Sahara-Sahel within the narratives of the GWoT to see where they interact with the ‘Savage-pictures’ to fill this geographical and rhetorical gap.

In this series the ‘emptiness’ of the Sahara will be evaluated by assessing the threat of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in comparison to the forces being deployed to fight against them.  The next article will assess the position of the Sahara in the Global War on Terror and place the region within the global cartography of insecurity.


[i] This most famous of these pictures is in the Catalan Atlas published in 1356, drawn by Abraham Cresques.  The original is in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris and can be also found on the internet at: accessed on 28 August 2011.

[ii] Powell, ‘Swamp of Terror in the Sahara’.

[iii] E. Ann McDougall, ‘Constructing Emptiness: Islam, Violence and Terror in the Historical Making of the Sahara’, Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 25 (1: 2007), p. 17.