The recent attack by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb-affiliates on Algeria’s Ain Aminas energy facility brings attention to the presence of militant groups in North and West Africa. Most countries of North and West Africa are confronted by militant, rebel or armed groups. It is thus critical to distinguish the geopolitically significant groups from those that do not impact international or regional concerns.
Porous borders and vast, largely uninhabited spaces have enabled some militants, such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a degree of sanctuary beyond the reach of most of the region’s governments. Other militant groups, such as Nigeria’s Boko Haram or the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, are empowered by local politicians desiring rebel strife to achieve internal political goals. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, while geographically limited to Nigeria’s oil-producing region, has conducted kidnapping and oil pipeline attacks that have disrupted international oil markets.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb operates in two principal theaters. One is the mountainous Kabylie region of northeastern Algeria, where its leadership resides and coordinates attacks against the Algerian state. The second theater for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is in the Sahel region that stretches across the desert spaces of Mauritania, Mali and Niger.
The Sahel command of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb secured control of northern Mali in 2012, from which it planned and conducted transnational attacks. However, the French military intervention in Mali prevented further expansion by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. West African ground forces being mobilized for Mali will aim, together with the French and Malians, to degrade, disrupt and drive al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb from northern Mali.
Also in the Sahel region, principally in Mali but found in Niger to a lesser extent, are ethnic Tuareg militias fighting for indigenous rights and representation. The Tuareg alone do not present a transnational threat and rather are a rival for political control in their northern areas of their respective countries. They are a national threat, however, when reinforced by manpower, materiel and tactics supported by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Morocco is confronted by Ansar al-Shariah, an Islamist militant threat. But Rabat’s pervasive internal security apparatus has been effective at dismantling terrorist cells before they have evolved into a significant threat. Morocco’s borders, with Algeria to the east and with Mauritania to the southeast, are closed and protected by a militarized barrier that interdicts the flow of people and goods.
Libya faces several armed groups, some of which Tripoli has tried — to little success so far — to incorporate into a national army, notably the Benghazi-located Rafallah al-Sahati and the Libyan Shield militants, itself an umbrella of militias in the Benghazi area. It is not clear the popular support for Libya’s militant Islamists, who also use the Ansar al-Shariah label, who are suspected of participating in the September 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.
These countries remain constrained in their ability to fully neutralize militant threats, given their vast geographies of little central government presence, where loose borders are ineffectually patrolled, where intelligence and security is weak, and where weapons are in abundant supply.