A: It would be wrong to suggest that the US is shifting its counterterrorism policy from the Middle East to North Africa, as the US has always regarded the two areas as interlinked through its Near East Department and associated policies. Indeed, lets not forget that some of the 9/11 attackers were from Egypt – in North Africa. What is interesting about the two operations the US undertook was that it returned to a rendition policy that was highly unpopular under President George W. Bush. At one level it sends a strong message that the US is willing to “hunt down” these terrorists no matter what time frame has passed, but it also signals a move away from using “Drones” to carryout extrajudicial killings. This extrajudicial killing policy has been the most controversial dimension of the Obama foreign policy, as it goes against current human rights conventions and demonstrates a duplicity on the part of the US.
Q. As far as you’re concerned, in recent years, has terrorism in North Africa gotten so much rampant that it disattracts US’ attention from other issues?
A. The US is capable of pursuing more than one issue at a time, so I don’t think its counter-terrorism policy in North Africa is a distraction. However, the way the policy is framed does distract the US from paying attention to the domestic nature of the problems. Terrorism in North Africa should be seen like a business as much as a political phenomenon. For example, terrorist organisations like Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) make millions of dollars through drug trafficking and kidnaps. Dealing with these local and regional problems requires a local and regional strategy. However, with the Arab Spring and the removal of Gaddafi, the West has lost an ally, albeit brutally authoritarian, that was willing to take more regional responsibility for countering terrorism. That is to say that fighting organisations like Al Qaeda in the Maghreb was in Gaddafi’s interest, which is why in 2009 Libyan security leaders met with their counter-parts from Algeria, Mali, Nigeria and Mauritania in the Algerian city Tamanrasset to formulate a regional terrorism strategy. When Gaddafi was removed, the Tamanrasset agreement fell apart, removing the regional ability to deal with a growing counter-terrorism threat. This however, is more of an issue for Europe than for the US.
For my other thoughts on Extremism in North Africa see mine and Elizabeth Iskander’s submission to the UK House of Lord Select Committee looking into the issue (here).