The Sahel region is a North African climatological transition area between the arid and barren Sahara Desert to the north and the more humid, wooded savannah regions to the south. It is a cross-border region that traverses 10 separate African nations, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea (Senegal and Mauritania on the west, through Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, N Nigeria, Chad, and Sudan, to Ethiopia and Eritrea in the east). While historically it has been the home to several rich kingdoms, in the modern period it has been a mostly undeveloped, periphery region in the world system.
Although the Sahel has been demarcated on the map and carved up among the 10 states mentioned above, very few of these states exercise any actual governmental authority or control across large swaths of the Sahel. Such un-governed spaces are the natural havens for terrorists, criminal gangs, pirates and other non-state actors. Dr. Francis Galgano published a detailed explication of ungoverned spaces a few years ago that is must-reading for anyone interested in the security and geostrategic implications of such regions. In addition to specifying a number of critical un-governed spaces around the globe and creating a classification system for understanding them, Galgano noted specifically that:
There are three principal threats to U.S., European, and regional security interests in Western Africa and the Sahel: 1) the emergence of radical, al Qaeda-linked extremist groups in Nigeria and Niger; 2) the existence of a thriving terror-financing network involved in the purchase and sale of diamonds in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo which fund Hezbollah and al-Qaeda; and 3) the migration of the al-Qaeda-linked Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) into the Sahel.
These concerns are proving prescient today. Arms and warriors have flooded into the Sahel following the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, further destabilizing the region. In Mali, a coup earlier this year saw the military upend a nominally democratic regime. However, the US and France are allying with the military government in a growing proxy war against al Qaeda and ultra-orthodox Islamist groups who have aligned with Touareg nationalist rebels in the un-governed north of that country. For now, the Franco-American efforts are focusing on an Algerian-led initiative, but Western forces may yet participated directly – France has already moved special forces and surveillance drones into Mali, and has maintained a fairly extensive military presence in Africa throughout the post-colonial period.
All of this comes as the US African Command (AFRICOM) receives a new commander – Gen. David Rodriguez, who boasts extensive combat experience at every level of command, from Panama through both Iraq Wars and Afghanistan. While most eyes are still on Syria, and with events still unfolding in Libya, watch for the Sahel, especially Mali, to be the next open front in the Terror Wars.