As radical jihadists slowly and systematically lose control of Iraq and conditions improve in Somalia, it’s clear where they’re fleeing to: the deserts of Africa.
From eastern and northern Mali to western Niger radical jihadism is on the rise. This is the very southern fringe of the great Sahara. The dynamic is accelerated by Nigeria’s successful campaign against jihadists, both militarily and diplomatically.
Why now, and why the desert?
Radical jihadism reached its peak with the ISIS expansion in the Levant around 2013-2014 marked by their supreme victory over Mosul in June, 2014. They ruled Iraq’s second largest city pretty much unhassled for a year. Then, NATO and the U.S. – and finally with the coordination of the Kurds, Sunni militias and the Iraqi army – began taking territory back.
It’s been downhill ever since, all the way down to the desert.
The scenario is nearly identical to what happened to al-Qaeda. Routed from Afghanistan and impeded from any greater toehold in Pakistan by the great Bush Wars, Al-Qaeda ran to a welcoming place pretty near by: Somalia.
Somalia was ripe about a decade ago for control, having been abandoned by the international community and more or less pieced together by feuding warlords. And the great world recession made al-Qaeda’s tiptoe into Somalia even less noticed.
By the end of the Bush administration al-Qaeda was firmly in control of al-Shabaab, and al-Shabaab was firmly in control of Somalia.
Somalia then – like eastern Mali, western Niger and northern Nigeria, today – is a pretty forsaken place even in the best of times. Mostly desert, climate change has wrecked havoc on a place already forlorn.
The desertification of much of Africa has been going on for a century, and just as emerging African nations and global initiatives started to get a handle on what to do, climate change accelerated faster than any predicted. People who live there are stressed more than ever, and more than ever predicted.
Desert peoples have always been rebels: they have to be. Sand thieves and caravan attack gangs have existed since Biblical times. Their real allegiances go not much further than the county-size warlords that ruled Somali for nearly two decades, essentially extended family units.
They are easily persuaded by goods, arms and money to do anything. There’s absolutely nothing new about this. Where the desert meets the sea they become pirates. The infamous pirates of Somalia were no different in cause of persuasion than the Barbary pirates that provoked America’s first foreign aggression.
You would think, of course, that developing society would figure ways to integrate these hooligans into civilized society, and as matter of fact we had. The end of the last century was splendid with successful attempts to integrate the Tuaregs of Mali, the Polisario of the Spanish Sahara, the Fulani-Hausa of northeastern Nigeria (that later become Boko Haram), among others.
But it all unraveled starting with the Gulf Wars that provoked 9/11 and then America’s over-reaction to 9/11 and then the Bush Wars, and then the crowning blow, the Great World Recession. Throw in really accelerating climate change and you’ve got an incredible mess.
And don’t forget: You can’t expect to prop up a few dictatorial Arab families as absolute potentates and trust them with control of the world’s main power source (oil) without irritating a few educated Arab outsiders who among other jihadists became al-Qaeda.
So we made a major mistake last century creating and supporting the Mideast as it exists today. No standing army could defeat this civilized fabrication. So jihadism became the vehicle of dissent and terrorism their principal weapon.
Well, for better or worse, the tide is turning. It’s better for the short haul, but I worry about the long haul. Terrorism actually kills but a fraction, a tiny tiny fraction of the people that a war does, and as the world comes to understand this, terrorism loses some of its oomph.
But the Arab potentates are still potent and they remain in power for no other reason than because the consumers of their precious oil keep them there. So as the world uses less and less oil the exiled jihadists lost today in Africa’s great deserts are certain to return.