Monthly Archives: March 2011

The Genesis of Terrorism in the Sahara: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

Posted by Yvan Guichaoua

Yvan Guichoua

In January 2011, a terrorist group self-branded Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) kidnapped a young French NGO worker and his visiting friend in one of the poshest restaurants of Niamey, Niger’s state capital. En route to a probable hideout in Mali’s mountainous north, the kidnappers and their hostages were stopped by the military intervention of French troops during which the two Frenchmen eventually died. This episode is so far the most spectacular action carried out by AQIM which stunningly demonstrated its capacity to hit any target in the vast Saharan zone it has been roaming for years.

The group is now considered a major terrorist threat in the area. Presently, it still holds five European hostages (four French workers of the multinational AREVA kidnapped in the northern Niger mining town Arlit and an Italian tourist abducted near Djanet in Algeria) and shows no hurry to release them. Many more Europeans have been detained by AQIM since January 2007, the group’s official birth date. One of them was executed, another one died in obscure circumstances but most of them have been released against the payment of generous ransoms. Crucially though, most of AQIM’s victims are nationals of the countries where the armed outfit operates: Algeria, Mali, Niger, and Mauritania.

AQIM’s operational capacity in the Sahara today is the outcome of a gradual encroachment in a territory to which it did not originally belong. AQIM is the outgrowth of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), created by Islamist radicals during the Algerian civil war and repelled southward by Algerian security forces. Historically, it had little social support base it could rely on in the desert. It had little following, too (a few hundred men at most). The core of its combatants is composed of Jihadist fighters trained in Afghanistan and sharing a strong warlike ethos.

How can a violent group sustain itself in a region it is largely alien to? The hardly controllable Saharan terrain might be an enabling factor but does not constitute the sole explanation: AQIM didn’t fill in a political void. I would argue that the GSPC, which became AQIM in 2007, managed to gain a foothold in Algeria’s bordering Saharan countries through a combination of smart business strategies, astute efforts to foster a modus vivendi with local populations and, indirectly, permissive circumstances engendered by regional central governments’ policies. Importantly, too, taking the name Al Qaeda in the first place was a far from benign move: it almost magically upgraded the disparate gathering of Jihadists to the status of unitary transnational threat, making the fetishism of acronym work at full steam among the western diplomacies and media.

The economic and consequently logistical consolidation of AQIM was permitted by the bonanza of ransoms paid by the hostages’ home countries but also a deep involvement of the Salafist group in cross border trafficking. All sorts of commodities travel the desert illegally: food, electrical appliances, cigarettes but also stolen cars, drugs and arms. Another bountiful trans-Saharan business also consists in transporting human “loads” – as local drivers put it – of African migrants back and forth. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, one of AQIM’s most prominent figures, is said to control significant shares of these pervasive traffics and to extort taxes from other smugglers. Anecdotally, when I asked young inhabitants of Tamanrasset what they knew about AQIM in 2009, the first answers that came up pointed to their reputation as big traffickers and the mechanical excellence of their cars. It is worth noting that AQIM, while probably a big player, does not fully control cross-border smuggling which flourishes throughout West Africa and rapidly becomes institutionalised, reaching state circles. In the same way, ransom extortion does not just benefit AQIM but also intermediaries and negotiations brokers connected to states.

Along with carving out a sizeable space in the local political economy, AQIM chiefs built alliances with some local Tuareg leaders, involving sufficient collaboration to let AQIM’s activities prosper. Such alliances are by no means the rule and might only be temporary. They owe little to religious or ideological connections (although AQIM figures might have a fanbase among the region’s disenfranchised youths) and, more likely, a lot to the micro-politics of parochial and economic rivalries in the area. Some background circumstances also enabled them: for decades now, sections of the economically and politically marginalized Tuareg society have been taking up arms against the central governments of Niamey and Bamako without achieving much in developmental or political terms. Protracted low intensity insurgency in Mali and Niger’s respective northern provinces was not only accompanied by reluctance among some Tuaregs to cooperate with their national central authorities but it has also facilitated the proliferation of banditry in the region, providing AQIM with enthusiastic potential subcontractors. Many of the latest kidnappings claimed by AQIM were actually not perpetrated by AQIM members but by local criminals selling back their catches to the Salafist outfit.

Confronted by AQIM’s growing influence in the Sahara, the national authorities of the region  and their military backers, France and the United States, have provided discordant responses. The US seem to collaborate actively with Algeria, which has been infuriated by European governments’ proneness to cede to AQIM’s demands in exchange of the liberation of their hostages. Similarly, Algerian authorities point accusing fingers to the alleged incompetence of the Malian military. Meanwhile, France has developed privileged security cooperation with Mauritania, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, which is not welcomed by Algeria, and whose results remain to be seen. One does not need to endorse conspiracy theories to realise that the countries supposedly involved in the counter-terrorist effort have differing agendas and views over the strategies to follow and their timing.

The spectacular rise of a secular revolutionary movement in Arab countries in the past weeks is certainly not good news for Al Qaeda on a global level. As far as AQIM is concerned though, there is much more to consider than just the weakening of an ideology. The criminalisation of the Sahel’s political economy might cause more enduring damage than the Jihad.

This article originally appeared in the openDemocracy Security section.


Darfur: In search of durable solutions

Posted by Chiara Altare.

While the world’s attention has turned to south Sudan and its preparation for independence on 9th July, life is going on in the region of Darfur, which has been affected by conflict since 2003. The question is: how are people managing to make a living?

In the past eight years of violence, the majority of the Darfur population has been somehow affected by the conflict, violence and displacement, either directly or indirectly. 2 to 300,000 people have died, some 3 million people have been displaced, livelihood opportunities have changed and people have adapted their livelihoods to the new situation.

Although violence has significantly decreased and humanitarian assistance has been provided, the overall situation has improved less than expected and desired: global acute malnutrition among children under the age of 5 has been decreasing since 2003 in many of the areas from which data is available, especially in West and South Darfur. However, it has not gone below the internationally recognized threshold for emergency (10%) indicating that the situation remains precarious.

In North Darfur, malnutrition and food insecurity remain high, which, in a situation of limited humanitarian access, can easily become a new emergency. The biggest improvement can be seen in mortality (both among adults and children), which has significantly decreased, thanks to both a reduction in violence and an increased provision of medical assistance. Both the crude mortality rate and under 5 mortality rate are well below emergency level.

This applies however only to the areas where humanitarian assistance is possible: unfortunately several regions are not accessible to any humanitarian assistance and therefore not covered with medical and nutrition programmes. This implies that the severity of the situation in these areas is unknown.  

Long term prospects do not promise any clear improvement: the current peace consultations in Doha are not reaching the expected agreement among the numerous actors involved and therefore no peace agreement seems possible in the near future. In addition, recent escalating attacks of the army and rebel groups on the civilian population caused new displacement in North Darfur where around 15,000 people moved to Zamzam camp (between December 2010 and February 2011), making living conditions in the already crowded camp even more critical. Assistance to the civilian population therefore remains limited due to both insecurity and governmental restrictions for humanitarian and peacekeeping interventions. 

In the meantime, the Darfur population is showing an extreme ability to adapt: through diversification of economic activities, adaptation to the urban setting, changing food and life habits, and accepting humanitarian assistance. However, how sustainable can this be? What are the real chances for the population living in camps or in the camp periphery or among the host communities? Which opportunities are available for those who may plan to return to their place of origin in rural areas?

The search for durable solutions is one of the key priorities of the government of Sudan as presented in the Humanitarian Assistance Strategy in Darfur (November 2010) which stresses the need for a shift from emergency assistance to recovery and long term interventions. This reorientation however has to be carefully planned so as to ensure that humanitarian needs are not underestimated. The call is for a contiguum approach, in which humanitarian interventions occur simultaneously with developmental interventions according to the different needs of the population throughout the large and diverse region of Darfur.

In this context, two of the MICROCON partners (IDS and CRED) together with the Ahfad University for Women (Omdurman, Sudan) have started a study on livelihoods, nutrition and public health in Darfur. The study is funded by the European Commission and involves the FAO, UNICEF, the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, the Federal Ministry of Health as well as the Humanitarian Assistance Commission. The study aims at investigating how livelihoods have changed since 2003 and how this has affected the health and nutrition status of the household members.

There are two innovations in this study: first, it combines information on both livelihoods, and nutritional/health characteristics of the Darfur households. Only by bringing together these two sets of information will it be possible to better understand the underlying causes of malnutrition and identify which types of households are more vulnerable. This will facilitate targeting specific population groups who are more at risk.

Second, the study will gather both qualitative and quantitative data. A household survey is currently being prepared: demographic, social, economic information will be collected, together with anthropometric measurement and data on feeding and care practices. With this tool, we aim to capture important information from a representative sample which will provide us with a comprehensive understanding of livelihoods in Darfur. Qualitative data will complement this information and provide a deeper insight into how lives have been affected by the conflict and what are the expectations of the population for the coming years. 

The results of the study will be available towards the end of this year and will be used by the Sudanese government and the international community for readdressing their interventions in Darfur.

Interculturalism: Between the Twin Hazards of Multiculturalism and Assimilation

Posted by Michael Emerson

Michael Emerson
The simmering debate in Europe about multiculturalism versus assimilation has now ‘exploded’. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, famously stated in November 2010 that ‘multiculturalism in Germany (‘Multikulti’) had failed, completely failed’. On behalf of Belgium, Prime Minister Yves Leterme immediately agreed with her. In February 2011 both Prime Minister David Cameron and President Nicholas Sarkozy could be heard also declaring that multiculturalism was a failure, although only the French President endorsed assimilation as the alternative. Professor Olivier Roy, an eminent French scholar of contemporary Islam, has broadened the critique, declaring that ‘both assimilation and multiculturalism have failed’.

How should one interpret the overall trend in policy making in this broad field where there are multiple policy mechanisms that represent different paradigms, which are being executed through multiple tiers of governance (EU, national and sub-national governments)? Some things are clear. The legal rights-based non-discrimination paradigm is strongly installed at the level of EU and thence national law, as confirmed now through the Lisbon Treaty in the Charter for Fundamental Rights (Article 21). This in itself can be described either as a passive liberal multiculturalism, or support for assimilation.

But active multiculturalist policies on the part of member states are on the wane in those countries such as the Netherlands and the UK where they were most explicit, and elsewhere as in France and Germany such policies are being explicitly rejected at the highest political level. The big terrorist acts of the last decade and securitisation of multicultural relations have had an impact, pushing in favour of active integration policies incorporating obligations alongside rights, while at the same time underlining the importance of organisations representative of Muslim minorities.

Immigration and citizenship policies have become more restrictive and more conditional on positive integration criteria and tests, which means movement in the assimilationist direction. On the other hand some extreme exclusionary provisions have been moderated in favour of general rights (e.g. the shift in German citizenship law). Moreover the Charter for Fundamental Rights also requires that the Union ‘shall respect cultural, religious and linguistic diversity’ (Article 22). Overall this is looking like a political landscape favouring a compromise middle ground between the polar opposites of assimilation versus multiculturalism, driven by experience and comparisons, based on a combination of rights, obligations and active policies, and which for want of a better term may be called ‘interculturalism’.

Still there is clearly a powerful movement of public opinion and political action continuing to push the policy set more towards assimilation and further away from multiculturalism. But this movement is so far only a partial tendency, with hybrid interculturalism occupying space between the two polar types. The movement towards assimilationist regimes aiming at better integration is certainly understandable, but it is also a movement full of dangers for European politics and society.

European centre-right parties in government see themselves competing for support with extreme right wing parties that have racist and therefore undemocratic agendas. This is witnessed in both political discourse (Chancellor Merkel’s statement about the failure of multiculturalism) and selective actions (President Sarkozy’s campaign against the Roma, and proposals for withdrawal of citizenship). Analogous positions can be observed in the politics of the Netherlands, Flemish Belgium and Italy. Some writers are sounding the alarm bell, interpreting these current developments in European politics in more fundamental terms .

For Slavoj Žižek the old political competition between centre-right and centre-left policies is giving way to a new configuration, in which a broad amorphous centre finds itself in competition with an extreme right on the rise. The governing class of the centre is sliding into increasing acquiescence towards moderate versions of the agenda of the extreme right on matters of immigration and citizenship policy. It is debatable how far this argument should be taken, yet it has sufficient credibility at least to reinforce the crucial need, as regards policies towards Europe’s minorities and especially the Muslims, for discourse and practice to coalesce around an intercultural compromise.

If the European extreme right gains further support for racist and exclusionary policies (the French National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, is now ahead of President Sarkozy in the polls) the scene is set for the most fundamental challenge to European political values since the Second World War. Ominously, these movements towards the extreme right are common now to virtually the whole of the old core Europe, or the founding states of the European Union (France, Germany, Belgian Flanders, the Netherlands and Italy).

Even so, the ‘explosion’ of the internal European debate about multiculturalism looks relatively gentle compared to the revolutionary implosion of authoritarian regimes of the Arab world. These two seemingly independent political movements are in fact deeply interconnected. Both are products of the inability of the North African states and even Turkey to have provided adequate living standards and opportunities to their peoples, leading to the masses of population that have resorted to migration, or would like to do so, as the escape.

The North African peoples are now insisting on democratic change, which is a movement that Europe wants to see succeed. The EU now debates how it can best encourage and help Arab democracy. But if the EU at home develops increasingly exclusionary or populist assimilation policies towards the diaspora communities of these same countries it will find itself entangled with a dreadful web of political contradictions and hypocrisy over its declared values. The promotion of an ‘intercultural’ compromise or model, with this term to be used as label for a careful and complex blend of policy instruments, becomes an urgent imperative.

The EU’s adoption through the Lisbon Treaty of the Charter of Fundamental Rights reinforces its legal and political bulwark against the slide towards racism and exclusion. But in addition the leadership of the European Union institutions – President Van Rompuy, President Barroso, High Representative Ashton and Commissioner Waldstrom – have an important role to play here in elaborating a coherent European political discourse overarching both internal and external spheres.


Posted by Julie Litchfield

Julie Litchfield

This year’s World Development Report on conflict, to which some of MICROCON’s researchers have contributed, promises to place a renewed emphasis of the role of “grievances” in conflict, and not just in the extreme conflict scenarios of civil wars. One of the background papers, by John-Andrew McNeish of CMI Norway, stresses this in the context of natural resources, discussing the importance of the involvement of civil society, and of bargaining, which may be confrontational, in order to secure robust agreements about how resources should be managed and how resource rents should be fairly distributed. McNeish draws largely on lessons from the experience of managing non-renewable natural resources, but also highlights lessons we can learn from, for example, community forests and participatory water management.

Fairness is a principle that seems to underlie many of our everyday social and economic interactions.  An understanding of risk-aversion, information asymmetries  and costly monitoring of waged labour help us understand why share-cropping exists and persists as a common land tenancy arrangement in many parts of the developing world[1],  but it doesn’t help us understand why so many of these arrangements are based on roughly equal sharing of output and input costs. Indeed if the terms of these arrangements were based solely on these economic factors, we would expect to see variations in the sharing rule by such factors as land quality or the length of time that the tenant and landlord have worked together. Instead, the equality of sharing seems to be implicit in all these arrangements.  Another example is the Ultimatum game, often used in Economics class-rooms, that illustrates that fairness, or at least our desire to be seen as behaving fairly, is a commonly held value.

Some of us in MICROCON are working on understanding perceptions of fairness around land reform in Kyrgyzstan[2].  Secure access to land is widely regarded as being a crucial ingredient in contributing to economic growth and stability, as well as peace, and even land reforms with progressive aims can be highly contentious. Kyrgyzstan was one of the first former Soviet Union countries to embark on a land reform process, and remains the only one of the central Asian Economics to do so. Beginning in 1991 and over a period of more than a decade, land that had until then been farmed by state farms and by peasant collectives, was re-distributed to households. The very early stages of the land reform seems to be characterised by ad hoc  agreements involving local land commissions and land shares were often not well documented, but by 1994 the government enshrined a principle of fairness in the land reform policy, stating that every person had an equal right to an equal share. Even that though seems to have been open to interpretation, with farm workers taking precedence over other workers, and women reporting that they received smaller shares than men.

In 2006, a survey conducted by our partner, Roman Mogilevsky, asked households about their experiences of the land reform, and in particular whether or not they thought the reform was fair, and in 2010 we re-surveyed these households with a follow-up questionnaire. The data allows us to explore hypotheses around the features of the land reform that positively or negatively influence fairness. For example, are perceptions of fairness higher among those who received more land, or in villages and communities where land was indeed distributed more equally? Are perceptions of fairness influenced by the specific institutional arrangements that were applied at the time the household received their land share? Does receipt of the full set of formal documentation influence fairness perceptions? Are there gender differences in perceptions of fairness, and if so, are these related to, for example, the economic status of women at the time of the land share allocation? These are just some of the ideas we are currently exploring.

So far, we have observed variations in perceptions of fairness across regions of Kyrgyzstan, and also by the date on which households received their land share. Surprisingly, perceptions of fairness do not seem to be related to how much land a household received, in either an absolute sense or a relative sense. This might not yet tell us what does explain perceptions of fairness, but greed doesn’t seem to be a factor here. 

[1] See Stiglitz, J (1986) “The New Development EconomicsWorld Development, 14(2): 257-65 for a seminal contribution to the literature on share-cropping.

[2] This work involves Elodie Douarin, Julie Litchfield (both from the Department of Economics at the University of Sussex), Rachel Sabates-Wheeler  (Institute of Development Studies) and Roman Mogilevsky (CASE-Kyrgyzstan).