CEN-SAD against terrorism
The Sahel and Sahara Counter-terrorism Centre in Cairo was officially inaugurated on 4 November in a ceremony attended by Major General Mohamed Salah, assistant minister of defence for foreign relations. Egyptian army spokesperson Colonel Gharib Abdel-Hafez described the centre as “one of the most important components and mechanisms of the Sahel and Sahara community”.
The purpose of the centre is “to coordinate the efforts of the members of the Community of Sahel-Saharan [CEN-SAD] states and to exchange information that will help these 20 countries confront terrorism” said Salah at the ceremony.
In a speech during the inauguration, Major General Mohamed Abdel-Baset, director-general of the new centre, explained how CEN-SAD states had developed social, economic and development activities in a way that serves the wider African community, and then expanded their mandate to cover security and the fight against terrorism.
CEN-SAD Executive Secretary Abdel-Rahim Al-Kadiri also spoke at the event, saying the principles on which the new centre is founded include “solidarity, strengthening the spirit of brotherhood between peoples, and the need to fight collectively and effectively against terrorism”.
The centre will host and organise CEN-SAD’s counter-terrorism training. Egypt has already conducted a joint military exercise in the CEN-SAD framework and is providing 1,000 military studies grants to candidates from member states.
Cairo attaches great importance to the fight against transnational terrorism in the Sahel-Sahara region and a major aim of the centre is to promote the exchange intelligence related to counter-terrorism.
Following the military defeat of the Islamic State (IS), the region saw an influx of terrorist operatives from the Levant. Cairo is determined to reduce the influence of Al-Qaeda affiliates across North Africa, groups such as Mourabitoun, a faction which operated in Libya under the command of the Egyptian Hisham Ashmawi who was arrested in Libya and subsequently executed.
Cairo’s prioritisation of counter-terrorism in the region stems from a recognition that Egypt’s own national security is inextricably linked with the collective security needs of the Sahel-Sahara community.
The surge in terrorist activity since IS took control of Boko Haram in the summer of 2021 is of particular concern. IS affiliates have taken advantage of the anarchy, porous borders and security breakdown in conflict zones to expand their activities from Central to West Africa, and have reappeared in southern Libya where they have carried out attacks in Sabha and Brak.
The symbiotic relationship between terrorist organisations and human trafficking, arms smuggling and other organised crime networks that also capitalise on chaos and lack of security in southern Libya and elsewhere, is well documented, lending urgency to CEN-SAD’s battle against terrorism.
Cairo recently hosted Libya’s southern neighbours — Chad, Niger and Sudan — together with the Libyan 5+5 Joint Military Commission (JMC) which has been working to develop strategies and mechanisms to remove foreign fighters and mercenaries from Libya. A large portion of the militia groups active in southern Libya are from the three neighbouring countries and they contribute to an environment favourable to terrorist groups with connections to the main IS or Al-Qaeda affiliates in western Africa.
The recent death of President Idriss Deby, and the decline of the French role in the Sahel region, has severely impacted the security situation. The late Chadian president was a formidable leader in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel and his death expanded the margin of manoeuvrability for terrorist groups.
Closer intelligence coordination among CEN-SAD countries will require international support, especially from France. It was France, after all, that launched the Barkhane counterterrorist operation, in coordination with several Sahel nations. Although France announced plans to end the operation, it has since affirmed that it will continue its efforts to fight terrorism in the Sahel. US Africa Command (AFRICOM) is also expected to be willing to help CEN-SAD’s intelligence efforts. AFRICOM has launched strikes against Al-Qaeda operatives in Libya and it has helped hunt down other terrorist groups in the area.
The establishment of the COM-SAD Counter-terrorist Centre in Egypt adds further value to Egypt’s regional role in the war against terrorism, and the coordinating mechanisms that Egypt will help put into place will bring Cairo closer to the many African nations that share its concerns over terrorism in the Sahel-Sahara region. The fight against these ruthless, predatory groups is complex, and multilateral efforts are needed to defeat them.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly