The Forgotten Maghreb-Sahel Nexus

In confronting the Sahel’s transnational security challenges, international actors would benefit from giving Maghreb states a role in stabilization and development.

On October 30, the UN Security Council discussed the nature and extent of UN support for the new French-backed Group of Five Sahel (G5 Sahel) Joint Force, which Washington had successfully prevented from getting a UN peacekeeping mandate and funding in June. The council again stopped short of offering this mandate, instead calling for multilateral and bilateral assistance. Yet recent U.S. casualties in Niger and signs of growing instability in the Sahel region have intensified this debate around security intervention in the region.

The initiative to form the G5 Sahel Force has spurred contradictory and competitive reactions from Morocco and Algeria, which both see the Sahara as a natural extension of their national territory. Morocco welcomed the French move, partly because it undermines Algeria’s own views on the Sahel, and offered to provide support in military training and border security. Algeria felt sidestepped by the French, who have criticized it for playing both sides with terrorist groups in the Sahara and have overlooked its attempts to play an important regional security role. France views both regional actors with suspicion, Algeria for its ambiguous dealings with terrorist groups in the region, and Morocco for its connections to the drug trafficking and migrant routes to the Sahel and West Africa.

As France seeks to reassert its influence in the region, President Emmanuel Macron warned in July that it would place new demands on Algeria and the Sahel states to be tougher on terrorist groups in the Sahara and Sahel, regardless of their own domestic political motivations. Yet Algeria quickly countered with a new initiative in the Sahel, including plans to resurrect its largely ineffective Sahel counterterrorism defense coordination cell run by the Joint Military Staff Committee (CEMOC). Algeria’s CEMOC initiative, launched in 2010, included Mali, Mauritania, and Niger but not Morocco, and its plan to set up a joint military base hosting a 70,000-strong joint Sahel force in the Algerian desert at Tamanrasset never materialized. Now Rabat can play the French-backed G5 Sahel Force against Algiers, which may hope that France incur high financial and political costs for its intervention that may push it back out of the Sahel.

The security environment in West and North Africa has seen a gradual change toward increasing conflicts involving non-state actors. The conflict over Western Sahara was a main security concern in the Sahara-Sahel region between 1975 and 1990, as were the clashes between Libya and Chad over the Aouzou strip in eastern Sahara. Today, insurgencies and state disintegration have allowed non-state actors to flourish. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has taken hold in large ungovernable areas, particularly in Mali, as has Boko Haram in Nigeria and Chad. These groups exploit political instability and local ethnic grievances and are financed by trafficking in arms, humans, and drugs. The porous geography between the Sahel and North and Central Africa has enabled armed groups to proliferate. They are extremely versatile, able to split across national borders and regroup along ethnic and socioeconomic lines. The lack of effective military regional cooperation allows these groups to asymmetrically challenge states’ forces and their international supporters in the region.

In the Sahel, the United States focuses on containing violent extremism, while the European Union prioritizes stemming the flow of migrants. Yet despite these different security interests, the Sahel’s multilevel challenges require a stabilization and development strategy in which Maghreb states play an important role. The region has seen many initiatives and plans to assist Sahel states on issues prioritized by external actors, whether terrorism, transnational crime, migration, or development—yet these plans do not consistently include wider regional actors such as Morocco, Algeria, or Nigeria.

Both Morocco and Algeria have a long history of interaction with the Sahel, both to compete for influence and build on their narratives of national identity. It would be practical to include them in the renewed French and U.S. efforts to provide heightened stabilization and security assistance to Sahel states. The French-backed G5 Sahel Force—planned to include 5,000 soldiers from Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad—is expected to reinforce the fight against terrorism and transnational crime in the region and supplement France’s own cash-strapped intervention force, Operation Barkhane, as well as the moderately successful UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). Likewise, the United States is providing critical logistical and intelligence support to Operation Barkhane and security coordination assistance to the African-led Multinational Joint Task Force—which includes Niger, Chad, Nigeria, Benin, and Cameroon—fighting against Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin.

The Arab Maghreb Union (AMU)—a trade and political bloc consisting of Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia that is widely considered to be ineffective—could provide an interface for Sahel initiatives like the G5 Force. But due to disagreements between Algiers and Rabat over Western Sahara and whether to look toward the EU for trade (as Morocco and Tunisia do) or toward the Arab world (as Algeria does), the AMU never took off economically, let alone politically. With Libya in chaos, Tunisia in fragile transition, Mauritania with a shaky regime, and Algeria and Morocco competing to expand influence and trade south of the Sahara, the AMU may not be ready for full cooperation with the Sahel states, though some cooperation within specific sectors is possible. Alternatively, Algeria could be persuaded to join the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD), a regional economic bloc that is also mandated to coordinate on regional security, in particular counterterrorism and organized crime, and includes 29 states from West, North, and East Africa.

Persuading Maghreb states, in particular Morocco and Algeria, to participate in efforts for sustainable development and lasting stabilization of the Sahel is not only in the long-term security interests of key external actors like France and the United States. It would also reduce the short-term risk that a potential spoiler like Algeria or free-rider like Morocco could use counterterrorism and stabilization efforts for their own competitive objectives in and south of the Sahel.

Jacques Roussellier teaches international relations at American Military University and is co-editor of the book Perspectives on Western Sahara: Myths, Nationalism and Geopolitics (Rowman & Littlefield: New York, 2014).