The storm brewing in the Sahara desert

The storm brewing in the Sahara desert

Chaos in Libya is threatening to destabilize the Sahel region, a development which would have grave implications for European security. France has taken the lead in raising the alarm.

Libya is being torn apart by warring factions. With the post-Gadhafi state breaking down and losing the little control it ever had of its southern border, instability could spill across the vast Saharan and sub-Saharan spaces, where the lines drawn in the sand by colonial powers have never been effectively controlled.

With forces involved in the stabilization of Mali and the Central African Republic, France is on the front line in the fight against terrorism.

Minister of Defense Jean-Yves Le Drian warns that southern Libya is now a “hub” used by terrorists to “resupply and reorganize.” Amid the mayhem caused by the intensifying struggle for territory and resources, the area is becoming an operational base from where jihadism could spread across the Sahara-Sahel band (Mauritania to Eritrea).

The 2013 French-led intervention in Mali forced Islamist groups to retreat, but instability has lingered. Violence has repeatedly flared up in the north, highlighting inter alia that the lack of effective control over vast swathes of desert and porous borders remain a key concern.

As Libya disintegrates into a patchwork of feuding fiefdoms the risk is very real that some of the surface-to-air missiles missing from the army’s arsenal find their way into the hands of al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists.

The crash of the Air Algeria flight in northern Mali last July revived the fear that dormant cells may already have the capability to strike commercial airliners. Experts invoke bad weather conditions as the probable cause for the accident, but the nightmare scenario of a kind of “no flight zone” being imposed from the lawless desert cannot be discarded.   

To address the security vacuum left in southern Libya the Sahel region has been militarized.  

In partnership with Mauritania, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mali, France has since August repositioned its forces in a dozen small forward bases (Operation Barkhane). The U.S. has also deployed drones and special forces. China has become more active by contributing personnel to the MINUSMA (Mali).

While all European eyes are focused on the ongoing crises in Ukraine and Iraq, France has turned the spotlight on Libya, stepping up diplomatic initiatives to persuade the U.N. to address the deteriorating situation.

At the EU level, its diplomats have renewed efforts to muster more concrete support under the Common Security and Defense Policy.

The 2011 Strategy for Security and Development in the Sahel set out a regional approach and a framework for joint-actions. Since 2013 Europe’s military mission in Mali (EUTM) has been helping train and reform its armed forces, an essential first step if the country’s territorial integrity is to be restored (HDN, May 20, 2013). The EUCAP Sahel Niger civilian mission launched in 2012 has assisted local security actors with capacity building to tackle terrorism and organized crime.

These are steps in the right direction. However, while member states agree support should be extended to the states of one of the poorest and most geographically challenging regions of the world, most are not prepared to commit fighting troops.

With security stakes rising in the Sahel region, France will no doubt be reminding its partners that burden-sharing must also translate into more fighting “boots” in the desert sand.