Five possible solutions for kidnappings in Africa's Sahel region
Kidnappings in Africa's Sahel region in recent years present policy makers with a tough question: what is the best way to deal with and prevent kidnappings by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb?
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Preemptive force includes what we’ve already seen in the Sahel: attacks on AQIM, surveillance that leads to arrests and foiled plots, intergovernmental military operations, and training missions by Western armies. Some of these efforts have succeeded. Others, particularly moves toward cooperation, seem promising. Yet some observers call for more force, especially a long-term Western military presence in the Sahel.Skip to next paragraph
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Pros: A French or American force or a larger commitment by Sahelian governments could transform the fight against AQIM from isolated battles into a systematic campaign to destroy the organization. A larger force could patrol larger areas, reducing AQIM’s range of movement and capacity to seize victims.
Cons: A permanent campaign against AQIM, especially coupled with greater Western involvement in the Sahel, could radicalize other groups in the region, increasing AQIM’s membership even as casualties mounted on both sides. Such a campaign might entail serious expenditures of blood and treasure, sacrifices out of proportion to the problem that AQIM poses.
I favor an approach that incorporates some, but not all, of these ideas. I reject two proposals: First, despite my sympathy for Clint’s perspective, I think that for both European and Sahelian governments, doing nothing is not politically possible. Governments will feel compelled to respond to hostage crises. Second, I think an increased and sustained Western military presence in the Sahel would do more harm than good. While training missions and limited cooperation can accomplish much, deploying French or American troops to the Sahel would likely produce a backlash that extended beyond AQIM, and would have unpredictable effects throughout the region.
I think working on multiple lines simultaneously is the best course. Partly, I am suggesting that Sahelian governments do more of what they are doing now. Increasing intergovernmental military cooperation is a good idea because it could reduce AQIM’s freedom of movement and result in more successful strikes against the group. Dialogue and rehabilitation efforts are worth pursuing – and expanding – in order to drain AQIM’s recruiting pool and delegitimize its religious stances. I do not think that Sahelian governments need to adopt shari’a, but I do think that holding listening tours and reforming or strengthening Islamic advisory councils could communicate that governments take believers’ concerns seriously.
Where possible, I suggest governments disrupt the kidnapping economy, either by taking strong steps to reduce unsafe travel or by offering incentives for would-be kidnappers to seek alternative paths. Economic losses from reduced tourism are real, but lives lost will also generate bad press and hurt economies. Finally, I suggest Sahelian policymakers experiment with new strategies, because it seems the answer to preventing hostage crises lies in approaches that incorporate various ideas.