Morocco’s Role in Confronting Security Threats in Africa’s Sahel Region: Premises, Challenges and Prospects

EPC | 31 Dec 2020

Morocco's interest in the African Sahel (Coast) region is attributable to the successive crises in the region, especially the Malian crisis, in addition to the growing activity of terrorist groups, as well as the threat of transnational organised crime which takes many forms, perhaps the most prominent of which are drug smuggling, human and arms trafficking, and kidnapping. This was confirmed by the latest Global Terrorism Index 2020 issued by the Sydney-based Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP).

Given those circumstances, Morocco’s national security is exposed to many risks and challenges. Its geographical borders are in direct contact with the Sahel region, which constitutes an area for the extension of those threats. This forces Morocco to play a fundamental role, in coordination with the countries of the region, in order to achieve stability and enhance development opportunities.

This paper sheds light on the nature of the security dilemma in the Sahel region, the content of the Moroccan approach to confronting the growing threats in this region, the challenges it faces, and the future of this role in the light of recent changes.

The security dilemma in the African Sahel

The Sahel region has an obvious strategic importance. It is located in a semi-arid area between the Sahara Desert in the north and savannah in the south. It extends from Senegal in the west, through Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, northern Nigeria, Chad, and Sudan, to Ethiopia in the east. It boasts important resources such as oil, natural gas and uranium. The strategic dimension of the Sahel region is evidenced by the increase in international interest (especially by major countries such as the US and France) in this region that is experiencing an increase in terrorist threats.

The Sahel region has for several decades suffered from instability, internal conflicts, and constant violence, which have led to the deterioration of the economic and social conditions, making it one of Africa's biggest hosts of international terrorism, and a fertile ground for armed groups. The fragile borders between those countries played a role in encouraging many terrorist organisations to carry out their criminal operations and control some desert areas of their territories, so that those groups were able to spread and expand, given the porous geographic nature between the Sahel and North and Central Africa. The absence of coordination and weak regional military cooperation have allowed the continuity and increase of security threats.

In this context, the Community of Sahel–Saharan States (CEN-SAD) witnessed a major transformation in 2013, namely the shift from a “grouping to combat desertification, drought and climate change” to a group dedicated to promoting cooperation, sustainable development, preserving and consolidating peace, security and stability, enhancing political dialogue, and combating transnational organised crime in all its forms. The heads of the five countries (Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad) decided, in February 2014 in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott, to create the Group of Five for the Sahel (G5 Sahel), which came in the context of the Libyan and financial crises, and is one of the few initiatives that received external support, namely the European support led by France. The Group succeeded in forming a joint military force (FC-G5S) in 2017.

However, despite regional and international initiatives, the Sahel region is still classified among the regions most exposed to terrorist risks, with the exception of Mauritania that did not record any terrorist act during 2020. This was explained by the annual report on the 2020 Global Terrorism Index which revealed that the African continent has suffered, during the period from 2007 to 2019, terrorism losses amounting to 171.7 billion dollars.[1] According to the report of the African Centre for Research and Studies on Terrorism (ACSRT), in 2019, the continent recorded 78 terrorist attacks. Statistics indicate that the number of operations carried out by terrorist organiations in the CEN-SAD region increased from 90 in 2016 to 194 in 2017, then the number increased to 465 in 2018. Those attacks resulted in hundreds of victims.[2]

The significant increase in the frequency of terrorist attacks is attributable to the merger of the most prominent armed groups operating in the African Sahel in 2017 under the name Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM, Support Group for Islam and Muslims), led by the Malian Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Ghali, namely: the Ansar al-Din (AAD) Group (Advocates of the [Islamic] Religion) (founded in 2012 by Iyad Ag Ghali ), the Macina Liberation Front (MLF, also Movement)[3] (founded by Amadou Kouffa in 2015), and the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) organisation (led by Abdelmalek Droukdel, who was killed in June 2020 in northern Mali by French forces).

The JNIM has been keen to form strong relations with the organised crime gangs that exist in that region, in order to achieve two goals:

1. Expanding the range of funding sources that it uses in carrying out its terrorist operations;

2. Strengthening its position in the face of rival terrorist organisations which refuse to join it.[4]

After the killing of the leader of AQIM, three figures became the leaders of terrorist activities in the Sahel, namely: Iyad Ag Ghali and Amadou Kouffa of al-Qaeda, and Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi,[5] who was a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario), of Daesh (Islamic State, ISIS, ISIL). According to the views of analysts, this highlights the relationship of the Polisario with some forms of security threats in the region.

In general, the presence of armed groups in the Sahel region, most of which belong to the al-Qaeda organisation, remains a security threat, and the terrorist threat persists,[6] despite the regional initiatives and the military presence in the region to confront terrorism.

Moroccan interests and goals in the Sahel region

In the light of the major transformations taking place in the regional and global contexts, the stakes faced by Morocco in the Sahel region are reflected in the following political, security and economic aspects:

A. At the political level:

  • Defending Morocco's territorial integrity and increasing the number of ​​African countries that support the issue of the Moroccan Sahara, with a view to reaching a final settlement to the conflict over its southern provinces;
  • Reducing the Algerian impact and influence in the region. These are seen by Rabat as aiming to exhaust it, weaken it, and threaten its strategic interests;
  • Contributing to supporting the internal political dialogue in the countries of the African Sahel and enhancing Morocco’s soft power.

B. At the security level:

  • Containing transnational threats such as the issues of asylum and migration, drug and weapons smuggling, human trafficking networks, armed groups and movements that threaten regional and international peace, and climate issues;
  • Combating religious extremism and adopting a preventive approach based on responding to the intellectual roots of terrorism;
  • Contributing to strengthening the capabilities of the Sahel and Saharan countries to counter the dangers arising from armed and separatist movements.

C. At the economic level:

  • Seeking to build fruitful economic relations and sign a set of trade agreements with the Sahel countries;
  • Seeking to diversify the economic partners and mitigate in the long term the impact of relying on European partnership only to market Moroccan products, given that the Sahel and West Africa have become an important consumer market;
  • Morocco, which is located at the crossroads of global markets, aspires to become a regional platform directed towards Africa. In this context, the Casablanca Finance City (CFC) Project was carried out in order to consolidate Morocco's role as a facilitator of global trade and financial exchanges with Africa.[7] That is, the main objective of establishing this financial centre is to attract investments to the African continent, including the Sahel region.

The content of the Moroccan security approach to confront threats in the Sahel

Morocco has adopted a multidimensional strategy to confront security threats. This comprehensive strategy, whose implementation began in 2004, includes a security axis, an international cooperation axis, and a socio-economic axis, through the launch of the National Human Development Initiative (INDH) in 2005, in addition to the axis of restructuring the religious field with the aim of protecting Morocco from extremism and terrorism, and preserving its identity based on the foundations of moderation, openness and tolerance.

Efforts to reform the religious field were reflected by the establishment of the Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams, Mourchidines and Mourchidates (male and female guides) in 2014, whose training benefits imams (worship leaders) from Tunisia, Mali, Guinea, Côte d'Ivoire and France, in addition to the creation of the Mohammed VI Foundation for African Oulema (Islamic Scholars) in 2015, which aims to unify and coordinate the efforts of Muslim Oulema in Morocco and other African States to make known the values of a tolerant Islam, to disseminate them and to reinforce them and consolidate historical relations between Morocco and the other African States, and foster their development.[8]

Unlike international approaches that are dominated by a focus on the security and military aspects of the African Sahel, Morocco has sought to develop integrated measures to face security challenges based on proactivity, through the following:

  • Reducing forms of poverty and improving the conditions of vulnerable groups;
  • Organising the religious domain and spreading a culture of tolerance and peace;
  • Establishing security governance to understand, monitor and confront the threats of terrorist groups as part of a proactive plan;
  • Calling for coordination of regional cooperation between the Sahel states and their neighbouring countries in order to achieve operational consensus in the field.

In recognition of Morocco’s achievements in this regard, and the effectiveness of its proactive security strategy, the United Nations (UN) Organisation agreed with Morocco in October 2020 to establish a headquarters for the Programme Office for Counter-Terrorism and Training in Africa of the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT).

The Moroccan role in the Sahel region reflects the foreign policy priorities of Rabat, and is in line with international efforts aimed at achieving stability and development. This fact confirms the confidence in Morocco of Paris and Washington, which are considered the most prominent international actors in the region.

Moroccan diplomacy played a key role in the Malian crisis. Rabat was quick to condemn the coup d'état in northern Mali on 22 March 2012, and called for respect of the elected institutions within the framework of the principle of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Mali. As a non-permanent member of the UNSC in 2012-2013, Morocco supported the UNSC Resolution 2056 of 3 July 2012. In the same year, Morocco, which was chairing the UNSC in December, supported Resolution 2085, which was adopted unanimously by the UNSC, authorising the deployment of an African-led international support mission in Mali for an initial period of one year to reduce the threat of terrorist organisations, including the al-Qaeda and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA, also Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO)).

On the initiative of Morocco, the Group of Friends Against Terrorism was launched in 2015 at the UN headquarters in New York, headed by the permanent representative of Morocco at the international organisation. This group consists of 30 countries, including the five permanent members of the UNSC, and aims to coordinate all the initiatives that have been adopted within the UN framework, and strengthen international cooperation in the field of combating terrorism, through exchanging experiences and organising round tables and seminars on the various dimensions of the phenomenon of terrorism, and creating an interactive atmosphere with civil society, academia and think tanks to confront this phenomenon.[9] In this context, Morocco proposed, during the 33rd Summit of the African Union (AU) on 10 February 2020, to create a think tank on peace and security that would be affiliated with the AU in order to prepare reports on crucial issues.[10]

In order to strengthen AU action in the face of the illicit flow of light and small weapons and the renewal of conflicts, Morocco participated in the special session of the AU Executive Council, which was held on 3 December 2020 via video conferencing, under the slogan: "Silencing the Guns in Africa by 2022", where it suggested three main axes:

1. Stopping the growth of terrorism by combating extremism through activating the three mechanisms (prevention, education, and development);

2. Combating the illicit flow of light and small weapons by strengthening national monitoring systems and exchanging information between the agencies and neighbouring countries concerned;

3. Preparing a clear and precise policy for the AU peace support operations.[11]

At the same time, Morocco stressed the need to pay special attention to the refugee issue when dealing with ways to silence the weapons, stressing that this would not be achievable in the light of the continued existence of militarised refugee camps in a number of regions in Africa, including the Tindouf camp (southwest of Algeria).

With regard to the Sahel region, Morocco affirmed its support for the creation of the G5 Sahel Defence College in Nouakchott. Morocco allocates 203 seats for training sessions each year within the Moroccan military institutions.[12]

In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, Morocco had sent medical aid to more than 20 African countries, including countries from the African Sahel (Chad, Mauritania, Senegal, Burkina Faso, and Niger), in fulfilment of its permanent commitment to Africa.[13] This solidarity work falls within the framework of the activation of the initiative launched by King Mohammed VI on 13 April 2020 as a pragmatic and action-oriented approach in favour of African countries that enables the sharing of experiences and best practices. This aid reflects Rabat's strong commitment to and effective solidarity with African countries within the framework of the South-South cooperation.

With regard to the issue of migration, Morocco presented, at the 33rd AU Ordinary Summit held in Addis Ababa in 2020, a report on the activation of the African Migration Observatory (AMO), which is an AU institution whose functions are centred on three important axes: understanding, anticipation, and action. The AMO headquarters was inaugurated in Rabat on 18 December 2020, and its activities would allow for the acquisition of accurate knowledge on the phenomenon of migration, drawing an African picture thereof, and working to unify an effective policy thereon.

Challenges facing Morocco's role in the Sahel

Moroccan efforts in this region face many difficulties and challenges, the most important of which are the following:

  • The growing terrorist threat and organised crime, climate changes and their impact on water resources, population growth, and migrant smuggling;
  • The fragility of borders between the Sahel states due to the incapacity of central governments, the expansion of internal and ethnic conflicts, and the weakness of institutions for joint African action;
  • The reduction of foreign military forces in the Sahel region or their withdrawal therefrom and the lack of coordination between international actors will be reflected in the security situation. According to military sources, France intends to reduce the number of its military forces, which number 5,100, in the region to make way for reinforcements from other European countries.[14]
  • Intensifying competition with Algeria over Moroccan initiatives in the region weakens coordination mechanisms aimed at supporting the Sahel countries' capability to guarantee their security. It should be noted here that King Mohammed VI confirmed in late 2018 his country's readiness to engage in a direct and frank dialogue with Algeria, in order to overcome current and substantive differences. To this end, he proposed to Algeria the creation of a joint political mechanism for dialogue and consultation.[15]

The future of the Moroccan role in the African Sahel in the light of recent changes

The stakes and challenges raised by the increase in terrorist and criminal risks in the Sahel, and their direct and indirect repercussions for Morocco, require cooperation and exchange of experiences between countries of the region. This was expressed by Morocco during the first ministerial meeting of the International Coalition for the Sahel (ICFS), held on 12 June 2020. The ICFS, which includes nearly 40 countries and regional organisations, aims to coordinate military and development efforts, as well as help countries regain their prestige.

The announcement by the US on 10 December 2020 of the recognition of Morocco's sovereignty over its southern provinces and opening a consulate in the city of Dakhla constitutes express support for Morocco's policy in the region as a regional power. It would likely lead to strengthening the strategic partnership between the two countries and drive many countries to open consulates and diplomatic missions in Morocco’s southern provinces, as they constitute an important trade meeting point between Morocco and its African depth, and a distinct pole of South-South cooperation. This development came on the heels of a crisis that Morocco accused the Polisario elements of fabricating, against the background of their obstruction of movement at the Guerguerat border crossing, which is the only land corridor linking Morocco with Mauritania and Sub-Saharan Africa. The crisis ended with the action by the Moroccan forces and the re-establishment of civil and commercial freedom of movement.

The US move was preceded by the decision of the UAE to open a consulate general in the city of Laayoune on 27 October 2020, which confirms the strength of the strategic and historic partnership between the two countries and reflects the UAE's firm position in defending Morocco's legitimate rights and just causes. In this context, King Mohammed VI praised his country's distinguished relationship with the UAE, citing the description by the late King Hassan II thereof as being: “above fraternal relations and above human relations. It is the relationship of twins, separated only by geographical distance”.[16] At the economic level, UAE investments are ranked first at the Arab level, with a total value of 15 billion dollars.[17]

The UAE's investments in the Moroccan Sahara are expected to expand, in line with the development approach in the southern provinces that is being adopted by Morocco to strengthen its position as a gateway to Africa.

Conclusions and expectations

  • Morocco's external activity increased in the Sahel and Sahara region, which witnessed a state of instability after 2011, after Rabat contributed to reaching a political solution to the region’s crises, especially the situations in Mali and Libya. This led to the establishment of Morocco's position as a neutral mediator and diplomatic partner.
  • The preventive policy adopted by Rabat in the field of combating terrorism and violent extremism resulted in positive results that enabled putting an end to terrorist groups and made this experience the focus of attention of African and European countries. Morocco looks forward to exporting a model of moderate Islam, aided by the special spiritual ties rooted in history between Morocco and West Africa.
  • Opportunities for partnership between Morocco and the Sahel countries are expected to open wide horizons and reinforce Morocco’s new position within Africa. It can be said that the most likely gain that Morocco can achieve from its engagement with the countries of the Sahel is joining the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in the future, given that Morocco formally applied for its membership in February 2017, shortly after its return to the AU.
  • The growing security threats in the Sahel are expected to disrupt Moroccan interests and delay the implementation of major projects, such as the project to build a gas pipeline from Nigeria to Morocco, passing through West African countries, after Rabat and Abuja signed an agreement to extend a natural gas pipeline between the two countries at the end of 2016. Therefore, the Sahel states and their neighbouring countries, including Morocco and Algeria, as well as international partners, must work together in a spirit of responsibility to address security threats and meet the aspirations of their populations for stability and development.

References

[1] Global Terrorism Index 2020: Measuring the Impact of Terrorism, Institute for Economics & Peace, Sydney, November 2020, P 34.

[2] Belghit Abdellah, “New Security Threats: A Reading in African Privacy”, Qiraat African, April 2020, p. 49

[3] The Macina Liberation Front (MLF), which is affiliated with al-Qaeda, is considered among the armed terrorist organisations widely spread in the African Sahel. It was founded by Amadou Kouffa who was designated by the US as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) in 2019. Most of its members belong to the Fulani minority, which is spread in the countries of West and Central Africa and the African Sahel.

[4] “An ongoing dilemma: Why have not the attacks of the Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen not abated in Mali?”, Future for Advanced Research and Studies (FARAS), 9 September 2019. Available at: https://bit.ly/2WDzzUw

[5] The name of Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi has been included in the sanctions list imposed on the Islamic State (Daesh, ISIL) and al-Qaeda, pursuant to paragraphs 2 and 4 of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2368 (2017), as a person associated with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant or al-Qaeda organisation, and because of "participating in the financing . . . of acts or activities . . . thereof”.

[6] Mohamed Benhamou, “Terrorism can only be defeated by collective action”, BAB Magazine, Issue 5, December 2020, Agence Marocaine de Presse (MAP)

[7] “The Moroccan Strategy for Africa: A Comprehensive and Integrated Vision”, Ministry of Economy, Finance and Administration Reform publications, Department of Treasury and External Finance, Rabat, 2014, p. 7 (Arabic).

[8] Article 4 of Dahir (Decree) No. 1-15-75 of the 7 Ramadan 1436 (24 June 2015).

[9] Alkhidru Abdul Baaq, “Collective confrontation: assessing regional and international efforts to fight ‘Boko Haram’", Future for Advanced Research and Studies (FARAS), Trending Events, Issue 9, April 2015, pp 77-78.

[10] “Morocco: A constructive contribution for a stable and prosperous Africa”, official website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, African Cooperation and Moroccan Expatriates. Available at: www.diplomatie.ma

[11] Remarks of Mohcine Jazouli, Minister of Foreign Affairs, African Cooperation and Moroccan Expatriates, during the extraordinary session of the African Union Executive Council, held by video conference under the slogan “Silencing the Guns in Africa by 2022", 3 December 2020.

[12] “Morocco has always been on all fronts with the Sahel and for the Sahel”, Agence Marocaine de Presse (MAP), 12 June 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/37U9jf4

[13] Remarks of Mohcine Jazouli, Minister of Foreign Affairs, African Cooperation and Moroccan Expatriates, during the 37th session of the African Union Executive Council, held on 13 October 2020 by video conference.

[14] Sahel: la France compte réduire sa présence militaire à la faveur de l’entrée en jeu des forces européennes, https://www.agenceecofin.com/actualites/0911-82208-sahel-la-france-compte-reduire-sa-presence-militaire-a-la-faveur-de-l-entree-en-jeu-des-forces-europeennes, 24/12/2020.

[15] Extract from King Mohammed VI's speech on the occasion of the 43rd anniversary of the Green March, 6 November 2018.

[16] A royal message to the participants in the seminar "Sheikh Zayed and his role in building Moroccan-Emirati relations", in commemoration of the first centenary of the birth of the late His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Academy of the Kingdom of Morocco, Rabat, 27 November 2018.

[17] “Morocco and the Emirates: Distinguished relations and solid partnership”. Available at: https://ar.lesiteinfo.com/maroc/447789.html. Visited on 23 December 2020.

 

Latest Featured Topics