Egypt reaches out to Sahel and Sahara region to help contain terrorism threat

Many terrorist groups thrive in the Sahel and Sahara, feeding off rampant poverty and corruption and the inefficiency of local militaries in securing borders.
Sunday 01/07/2018
Rising up to the challenges. Egyptian Army soldiers stand guard outside a polling station during last day of the presidential election in Cairo, on March 28. (Reuters)
Rising up to the challenges. Egyptian Army soldiers stand guard outside a polling station during last day of the presidential election in Cairo, on March 28. (Reuters)

CAIRO - Egypt is reaching out to countries in the Sahara and Sahel as the region becomes a dangerous sanctuary for international terrorism.

A high-level delegation from the Egyptian Ministry of Defence met with ministers of defence of the Sahel and Sahara states in Nigeria, showing Cairo’s desire to cooperate with African countries to counter terrorist threats.

Many terrorist groups thrive in the Sahel and Sahara, feeding off rampant poverty and corruption, growing public discontent at economic conditions and the inefficiency of local militaries in securing borders.

The Islamic State (ISIS) is becoming a threat in the Sahel and Sahara. Small local groups, which swore allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2015, are joining other terrorist groups, including some affiliated with al-Qaeda, in turning the area into a concentration point for terrorist organisations

Egypt’s main fear is that the terrorist groups use porous borders in the region and merge with other organisations in North Africa, especially in Libya.

“This will be a doomsday scenario, not only for Egypt but also for Europe and other parts of the world,” said security analyst Khaled Okasha. “Sahel and Sahara countries need to get support from other members of the international community to help them rise up to the challenges they are facing.”

A prime example is Libya where years of chaos following the 2011 ouster of Muammar Qaddafi turned the country into fertile ground for terrorism.

ISIS is already a main player in Libya. There are reports of mergers between terrorist groups in Libya and other parts of Africa, including the Sahel and Sahara. The Libyan National Army, commanded by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, announced the capture of numerous terrorists from Africa.

Deteriorating security conditions in Libya have a direct effect on Egypt, where officials say arms, explosives and militants are being smuggled into the country through the Western Desert.

Gunmen affiliated with ISIS in the Sahel and Sahara ambushed and killed nine US and Nigerian servicemen on patrol in northern Nigeria. In May, the US State Department formally designated the ISIS branch operating in the region, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, as a “foreign terrorist organisation.”

The same organisation has attacked sites in Burkina Faso and Niger. Together with a long list of other terrorist groups in the region, ISIS’s presence is the main reason Egypt is looking to cooperate with Sahel and Sahara countries to counter terrorism.

Training is one area in which Egypt can help, military analysts said.

“Military personnel in the Sahel and Sahara countries are badly in need of this training, especially in guerrilla warfare,” said retired army General Gamal Eddin Mazloum. “They are also in need of technical support, something Egypt can easily provide.”

The Egyptian Army has great experience in guerrilla warfare, having been fighting ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula for several years. Egypt has a major training centre on the outskirts of Cairo for military personnel from the Sahel and Sahara countries. At the Sahel and Sahara defence ministers conference, Egyptian Assistant Defence Minister Mohamed al-Kishki said his country would invite 1,000 servicemen from the region for training at the centre.

“We will work to offer support to the countries of the region,” Kishki said. “We will also cooperate with these countries until they are able to bring about the aspired security and stability.”

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