Sahel Blog: European police deploy to the Sahel

Guest blogger Alex Thurston says that in the wake of 9 recent kidnappings, Europe is increasing its police and security presence in Africa's Sahel region affected by Al Qaeda's local affiliate.

At several points, including recently, the French military has participated directly in some efforts to rescue kidnapping victims in the Sahel. European countries have also attended some of the recent meetings on Sahelian security. But this effort looks like it will be a more lasting European security presence in the region affected by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM):

The European Union plans to send a team of police and security experts to the region on the southern edge of Africa’s Sahara desert to help governments there combat a growing threat from al Qaeda, Britain’s foreign minister said on Monday.

“We are stepping up our efforts to counter terrorism in the Sahel region and to support economic and political development,” said [William] Hague, who last month became the first British minister to visit Mauritania.

Britain is working with France and other European allies to develop an effective EU approach to security and development in the Sahel, he said.

Plans were at an early stage for a small EU mission in the Sahel region, focussing on policing, security, infrastructure development and regional training, he said.

This European initiative seems to respond not only to the recent kidnappings of European tourists, but also to a European perception that Sahelian countries cannot deal with the problem themselves. A sub-theme of a recent AFP article, “Mali kidnappings highlight poor regional cooperation,” is European frustration:

A total of nine hostages are now being held in the Sahel region and the pressure is on from European governments for local authorities to play their part in securing their release.

As AFP points out, European pressure or intervention can rouse negative feelings in the region, for example in Algeria. Additionally, as I’ve written before, incentives for cooperation sometimes run into regional tensions that limit trust. A larger European security presence in the Sahel could help reduce kidnappings or rescue hostages, but it could also contribute to the region’s complicated politics.

A final point is that the new European police force will be only one part of a constantly evolving strategy against AQIM. In Mauritania, for example, “A group of financial workers gathered in Nouakchott last week to learn how to effectively fight money laundering and stem terror funding.” This experimentation speaks to the seriousness of the problems associated with terrorism, but measures like the financial training could also help change the character of the fight.

 - Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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