Terrorism in North Africa

I was asked to provide comments for Sanlian LifeWeek Magazine in China today, and thought I would blog my responses in English …
Q:With regards to the two operations in Africa, does this demonstrate that the US is shifting its counter-terriorism battlefield from the Middle East to North Africa, while others argue that US is just sending a strong message to the world that the they will spare no effort to hold terrorists accountable, no matter where they hide or how long they evade justice?

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).


Talking book in Warsaw …

For those of you who are interested in my latest book and current research, this is a video link may be useful : Vimeo

Thanks again to Thomas Carothers at Carnegie for reviewing the book saying “Skillfully navigating ideologically-infested waters, Hassan arrives at valuable insights and persuasive, dispassionate conclusions about U.S. policy under both Bush and Obama relating to Arab political change. A fine example of rigorous, reflective scholarship applied to current policy issues of considerable importance and controversy.”

The books called Constructing America’s Freedom Agenda for the Middle East: Democracy or Domination (Routledge Studies in US Foreign Policy), and sales are doing well in the US, so thanks to everyone who has bought it.

About the Transatlantic Interests Project …

This project evaluates how the Arab Spring has affected US and EU policy towards regional allies in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The events in one country after another were viewed from across the West with a mixture of awe and hope. There was great respect for the bravery of individual citizens who seemed to be willing to risk everything for a chance to topple existing authoritarian regimes, and this was coupled with a genuine desire to see personal political freedom extended to those people who had previously enjoyed very little of it. At the same time, though, as the wider population in the West was watching with great anticipation the efforts of indigenous democracy campaigns to cast off their existing political shackles, it must be noted that the Arab Spring itself serves as direct repudiation of the democratisation policy previously being conducted in the region by both the US and EU.

The project seeks to understand this tension by exploring how strategic calculations which attempt to balance democracy promotion by external actors with the security of other interests in the region are being transformed by events. Encouraging democratic transition in the MENA has been the stated aim of US and EU policy-makers since September 11 2001 in the name of national security at home, on the assumption that the socialisation of individuals to democratic norms will lessen the chances of the MENA becoming a breeding ground for terrorist organisations. Significantly, though, the one model of democracy promotion which does not appear to have been on the agenda of policy-makers in Washington and Brussels was the type of bottom-up demand for democracy from civil society groups which animated the Arab Spring. Western policy-makers instead have always preferred a policy of gradualism which tried to work with the region’s existing autocratic regimes. The Arab Spring challenges such a strategy in the most dramatic way imaginable, as it does the assumption that autocratic regimes will provide regional stability. This has fatally undermined existing policy, leaving US and EU foreign policy establishments struggling to create a new grand strategy of engagement with the region. The project explores this gulf in policy making, charting: (i) the new initiatives which have emerged from Washington and Brussels to replace the now largely defunct policy which dominated before the Arab Spring; and (ii) the tensions which remain from the failure so far to remove all remaining vestiges of the original policy.

Arguably the biggest challenge which continues to face Western policy-makers is the need for the US and EU to discover whether they have the foreign policy-making capacity to cope with the new regional realities on the ground. In particular, this might mean having to challenge the vested interests which have become embedded in their own security cultures if they are to promote that capacity successfully. The debate is currently in a continual process of reframing, as events are ongoing. This project seeks to trace that process of reframing in an attempt to show just how flexible the US and EU might now be to respond successfully to upcoming developments in the transition movements which were first activated during the Arab Spring. After all, it is not clear what the region will transform into: will the end result of the uprisings be more peaceful and stable democracies, a reversion back to autocratic rule after a temporary pro-democracy hiatus, the seizure of power by Islamist-dominated governments that are openly hostile to the “West”, or a complex combination of all three when viewing the region as a whole?