Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

CEN-SAD unites against terror

Last week’s meeting of the Community of Sahel-Saharan States in Sharm El-Sheikh was a triumph of Egyptian organisation and a landmark in the fight against terrorism on the African continent, writes Galal Nassar

Al-Ahram Weekly

Defence ministers and delegations from 27 members of the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD) headed home from the South Sinai resort of Sharm El-Sheikh last weekend carrying in their briefcases the Sharm El-Sheikh Declaration, unanimously approved after four days of closed-door discussions at the expert and then defence minister level.

Also on hand were delegations from the five European states of France, Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Spain, and representatives of the UN, African Union and Arab League.

The countries of the Sahel and Sahara agreed to strengthen cooperation in the field of anti-terrorism and to strengthen their relations through military and security cooperation, Sedky Sobhy, commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces and Egyptian minister of defence, said in his speech to the closing session of the fifth CEN-SAD defence ministers meeting.

 “The meeting seeks to enhance border security between member states and encourage cooperation in countries where crises, conflicts or foreign interventions threaten their territorial integrity,” Sobhy said.

He condemned all terrorist attacks against the capitals of CEN-SAD states and in Europe, the most recent being the Brussels bombings on 22 March. He said that the Egyptian Armed Forces are proud of their affiliation with their African brothers and that Egypt and other African nations are bound by a single fate. He expressed his gratitude to Chad, which currently chairs CEN-SAD, for reactivating the regional association.

 “This meeting comes at a critical moment in the history of the association, a meeting that calls for the development of mechanisms for joint action across the CEN-SAD region for the sake of sustainable development in the countries of the Sahel and Sahara,” Sobhy said.

He stressed the challenges obstructing progress in sustainable development, foremost among which is the “great threat facing all countries of the region, namely terrorism and terrorist organisations which derive their ideas from a single source”.

 “Terrorism hampers development and poses a powerful threat whose repercussions are felt around the world, threatening innocent civilians. This requires the cooperation of all,” he said. Sobhy added that Egypt, which condemns all terrorist attacks wherever they occur, is convinced of the need to join forces and unify the drive to fight terrorism on the basis of an approach that makes no exception of any terrorist organisation, and that operates not only at the security level but also extends to developmental efforts and religious discourse.

 “Egypt is always prepared to offer support and assistance to CEN-SAD member states. Our political leadership has a great desire to confront the challenges that face CEN-SAD countries,” Sobhy said. He noted that Egypt has much to contribute to the association, since in addition to the capacities and expertise of the Egyptian Armed Forces there is Egyptian know-how in peacekeeping and conflict resolution. In addition, Egypt’s membership of the African Peace and Security Council and the UN Security Council helps martial support for the CEN-SAD countries.

Sobhy underscored Egypt’s commitment to all the resolutions adopted by the CEN-SAD members.


A REGIONAL COUNTER-TERRORISM CENTRE: The 27 defence ministers from the African and Arab countries agreed on 17 points, which made up the body of the closing statement of this year’s CEN-SAD meeting.

Perhaps the most important was the decision to create a regional counter-terrorism centre for CEN-SAD states with its headquarters in Egypt. The ministers also agreed to operate patrols along the border areas of member countries that are experiencing turmoil in order to combat terrorism, tighten border security and prevent crime.

After reading the resolutions, Sobhy, who chaired the meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh, said that they will be submitted to the leaderships of member states for discussion and ratification at a meeting to be held in Morocco in the second half of this year.

CEN-SAD Secretary-General Ibrahim Sani Abani of Nigeria said that the meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh had focussed on creating a mechanism to avert, manage and settle conflicts. The security situation in the Sahara-Sahel region “has become extremely worrisome, especially due to the proliferation of illicit weapons, drug smuggling and terrorism,” he said.

Abani added that the defence ministers had discussed what he termed “project agreements” which will now be submitted for consideration to the heads of state of CEN-SAD member countries.

He stressed that “terrorism does not recognise boundaries” between states. Referring to the major terrorist groups, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Shabab in Somalia, Boko Haram group in Nigeria and Islamic State (IS), Abani said, “No country can confront this on its own. It requires agreed-upon coordinated action.” He added, “We must create mechanisms to prevent and resolve conflicts. This is the essence of this meeting.”

In the closing session, held on Friday morning, the participants approved a 17-point CEN-SAD Declaration in which they expressed their commitment to cooperating in the field of counter-terrorism and creating a counter-terrorism centre with its headquarters in Egypt.

The participants also approved a revised draft for a conflict prevention, management and resolution mechanism for CEN-SAD. A draft protocol for the establishment and operation of the Permanent Peace and Security Council of CEN-SAD and its bylaws will be ratified after being studied by the executive council at its next periodic meeting.

The defence ministers vowed to strengthen border security between member states, and plan to organise joint patrols of border zones in response to the threats of terrorism and transboundary crime. They also intend to boost existing mechanisms for strengthening military and security cooperation, especially in the realms of intelligence-sharing, building the capacities of the defence and security forces of member states, and developing comprehensive programmes for training and the exchange of expertise to strengthen their abilities to fight terrorism.

Participants in Sharm El-Sheikh simultaneously underscored the need to prohibit all forms of political intervention in the internal affairs of member states and to respect their sovereignty and territorial integrity. They rejected any form of support for separatist groups or insurrectionist movements in member countries.

In this regard, the defence ministers pledged to encourage solidarity with member states afflicted by crises and conflict, or by foreign interventions threatening their territorial integrity. They will also work to support strategies for regional cooperation, including the creation of joint mechanisms to facilitate the rapid exchange of intelligence on terrorist groups and activities at the regional and international levels.

In addition, they agreed to work more closely to stem the main sources of funding for terrorist organisations. Towards this end, they plan to create mechanisms to coordinate and collaborate in the fight against transboundary crime, especially drug trafficking, arms smuggling, human trafficking and money laundering.

CEN-SAD efforts to “harmonise and coordinate” measures to prevent and combat terrorism will include efforts to increase awareness of the role played by modern information and communications technologies in the strategies of terrorist groups and to devise the necessary measures to counter these strategies.

In this framework, the defence ministers approved communications strategies that seek to protect youth from the deviant ideas and practices of extremists. The strategies will include awareness-raising campaigns and other actions needed to bolster the concept of conflict prevention and the dissemination of a culture of peace and dialogue instead of conflict as a means to resolve disputes.

They underscored the need to take into account the economic and social demands of local populations and the needs of the more vulnerable segments of society in particular, so as to prevent them from falling into the clutches of terrorist movements.


MAIN ACHIEVEMENTS: According to Mohamed Abu Bakr, Egypt’s permanent envoy to CEN-SAD, the most important achievement of this year’s meeting was the progress made toward the creation of a CEN-SAD Peace and Security Council.

The participants succeeded in overcoming outstanding differences on this matter and approving a mechanism for conflict resolution and a regional counter-terrorism centre with its headquarters in Cairo. “This reflects Cairo’s vigorous return to exercising its historic, vital and important role in one of the most important spheres of Egyptian national security, namely the African sphere,” Abu Bakr said in an interview with the Al-Ahram Weekly.

 “This will give Egypt the opportunity to act together with its fellow members in CEN-SAD in the face of any terrorist threat, in any part of the CEN-SAD region, in accordance with what the leadership deems necessary, appropriate and in its immediate interests, and in coordination with international powers that truly seek to help,” he said.

 “It will mean not having to wait for countries that are not prepared to lend a helping hand and that do not regard the terrorist attacks that afflict CEN-SAD members with the same degree of importance as terrorist attacks elsewhere in the world, despite the magnitude of the suffering and horror that the countries and peoples of CEN-SAD have sustained at the hands of terrorism.”

Abu Bakr explained that the counter-terrorism centre, as envisioned by the defence ministers, will work to facilitate the exchange of intelligence, develop plans to remedy specific crisis in African countries, and coordinate with organisations involved in the fight against terrorism. He added that the draft protocol for the centre will be submitted to the CEN-SAD summit to be held in Morocco in the second half of the year.

Amgad Abdel-Ghaffar, Egypt’s assistant foreign minister for African cooperation, noted that the defence ministers at the CEN-SAD meeting represented half of the members of the African Union. In an interview with the Weekly he said that the aim of participants at the meeting was to “strengthen the military and security cooperation of CEN-SAD member states and to complement the work of all other African associations and organisations”.

He stressed that Egypt “is determined to be an effective part of every African association so as to serve Egyptian interests, as well as to promote the peace and security of all quarters of Africa and to achieve growth and prosperity for their peoples who have suffered from international neglect of their concerns, foremost among which is the problem of terrorism.”

In interviews with the Weekly, many heads and members of the participant delegations warmly welcomed Egypt’s robust return to Africa. They were especially pleased by the fact that President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi had personally received them and had offered 1,000 grants to soldiers from CEN-SAD countries to study at Egyptian military academies and institutes. They were also looking forward to opportunities for joint training with Egyptian support and assistance.


AFRICAN ASSISTANCE: Mali is one of the CEN-SAD members that has been directly engaged in a fierce war against one of the most brutal terrorist organisations.

Mustafa Touré, deputy chief of staff of the Mali armed forces, told the Weekly that President Al-Sisi’s offer to train 1,000 African troops in order to increase their combat efficacy was reminiscent of the role that the former Soviet Union had played when it helped train and build African armies.

 “The Egyptian decision to train African soldiers is a practical step on the ground. African armies have been missing this kind of advanced training since the breakup of the Soviet Union at the outset of the 1990s,” Touré told the Weekly.

 “This decision contributes greatly to unifying the combat strategy with which African armies will confront the surrounding dangers which involve not only terrorism but also arms smuggling, drug trafficking and halting conflict in areas of turmoil.” He added, “The Egyptian decision to train African soldiers proves that Egypt has become an active leader for the sake of a safer Africa.”

Touré said that he, along with other African participants at Sharm El-Sheikh, had been greatly impressed by how well organised the conference was, especially in terms of the precision of the scheduling and the excellent preparation of the activities. He added that the excellent organisation was only a matter of form, however, and that what counted more was the substance, with regard to which Egypt had “succeeded in reawakening the CEN-SAD organisation, which has slumbered for many years in spite of the mounting challenges facing the region.”

Touré also held that the conference had succeeded in delivering a message to the world to the effect that “terrorism has become a plague that strikes all nations and is no longer restricted to any particular continent.”

On Western double standards in the fight against terrorism and the discrepancies between Western attitudes when terrorism strikes in the West, as opposed to when it strikes in developing countries, Touré said, “It is most regrettable that the West handles terrorism purely in a manner that suits it and secures its own borders. It was not surprising that African countries should accuse the international community of not taking the fight against terrorism in Africa seriously enough.”

In Touré’s opinion, the attitude of the international community has contributed to a considerable extent to the proliferation of terrorism in many African countries, making it difficult to control the extensive desert borders between Sahel and Saharan states, many of which are also grappling with the repercussions of conflicts and disputes that have been forced on them.

Yati Banji, commander of intervention operations in conflict zones in the office of the armed forces chiefs of staff in Central Africa, also lauded the excellent organisation of the CEN-SAD Conference, which he said reflected Egypt’s greatness. He praised the precision of the scheduling, the attention to the smallest details, and the agenda packed with issues of vital concern to African armed forces. The excellent organisation had affected the topics under discussion as it had helped participants reach very important decisions, ranging from training African troops in Cairo to the creation of a counter-terrorism centre with its headquarters in Cairo, he said.

Echoing the belief that the conference conveyed the message to the international community that terrorism is a plague that affects everyone, Banji stressed that African countries have resolved to stand up against terrorism because it obstructs development throughout the continent.

He also held that the Sharm El-Sheikh Conference had breathed fresh life into CEN-SAD and set in motion the process of developing a unified strategy in the fight against terrorism and in interventions to restore security in conflict zones in Africa.

As for Sharm El-Sheikh itself, Banji described it as an extremely beautiful city that “truly merits being called a tourist capital”. He expressed the hope that the city will soon overcome the effects of the tragic crash of the Russian plane, and he called on all CEN-SAD members to stand by Egypt and set their sights on the road ahead.

Jibo Taher, the head of the Niger delegation, said, “It is rare to find a conference that has been so perfectly organised.” He was so impressed that he inquired as to the firm that had been hired to do the organising and was surprised to learn that it was not a private firm but the Egyptian Armed Forces.

Moreover, the army had undertaken 90 per cent of the costs, which would have had to be drawn from the national treasury if a private firm had been contracted for the purpose. “This means that the Egyptian army is as cost effective an organiser as it is a highly professional combat force,” Taher said.

Taher was also impressed with the results of the conference. The African delegations left Sharm El-Sheikh thoroughly satisfied with the results, he said. The conference had succeeded in reviving the Sahel-Saharan association after many years of stagnation. “The Sharm El-Sheikh Conference gave the association a powerful push forwards with regard to the need to forge a unified military strategy against terrorism,” he said.

He was asked about cooperation with Egypt on counter-terrorism in Libya, as both Egypt and Niger have borders with Libya. Terrorist groups have proliferated and acquired control over significant portions of the country due to the failures of the Libyan armed forces and large influxes of smuggled arms.

Taher said that this important subject had been discussed at the conference and that participants had agreed that it was crucial for all countries, especially those that shared borders with Libya, to work together to halt the flow of arms and money to terrorist groups. He called on countries that help weapons to reach terrorists to cease such complicity.

 “Terrorism knows no borders, and those who believe they can benefit from terrorism today will become its victims tomorrow,” he said, adding that proof of this was to be found in the terrorist attacks against Paris in November and against Brussels only a few days ago.

Taher noted that the conference had also warned of the dangers of the alliance between arms and drug smugglers and terrorist groups. “This alliance grew stronger when arms and drug smugglers and those bent on disseminating chaos in African countries by fabricating military conflicts realised that terrorism was the best means to create the environment conducive to their destructive activities,” he said.

 “Anarchy works to undermine the stability of central national governments and facilitates the activities of all those who operate outside the law.”


ALGERIAN ABSENCE: Noticeable for its absence from the CEN-SAD Conference was Algeria. Many observers were surprised since Algeria is clearly concerned by terrorism, especially as it is a neighbour of Libya where terrorist groups have proliferated.

However, it seems that Algeria felt it should remain aloof. Perhaps this had to do with calls by the international community for Algeria to intervene militarily in Libya. Algeria’s foreign minister, Ramtane Lamamra, has stressed that his country remains committed to a peaceful negotiated solution in Libya and refuses to send its forces into its eastern neighbour.

Algeria also refused to sign up to the Saudi-led coalition that is currently intervening in Yemen, and Algerian President Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika also refused to support the Saudi initiative to create an Islamic anti-terrorism coalition in December 2015.

One observer who spoke to the Weekly on condition of anonymity maintained that Algeria has its own calculations concerning developments and events in the region. Algeria has also expressed its reservations on the resolution of the Arab Interior Ministers Council to brand the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah a terrorist organisation, holding that this is a domestic Lebanese concern.

Algeria’s refusal to join CEN-SAD stems from its refusal to send its troops abroad, engaging them in wars that Algeria can do without and that would drain its economy, which is linked to declining oil prices. The Algerian army is one of the few armies in the Arab world that is still intact. Algeria believes that to embroil its army in wars created by international and regional powers, and that have fuelled terrorism in the Middle East, would be to engage in proxy wars that serve the interests of those powers.

The source observed that Algeria had welcomed the CEN-SAD Conference in March 2010. The fact that it stayed away in 2016 meant that new factors have emerged in the Algerian situation. Among these are tensions between Algeria and Morocco. As Egypt’s permanent envoy to CEN-SAD mentioned, the next meeting of the CEN-SAD heads of state is to be held in Morocco later this year, and this does not please Algeria.

The observer also noted a recent remark made by former Moroccan education minister Abdullah Assaf to the effect that “only a thin thread” separates Morocco and Algeria from the language of arms. Algeria supports the rights of the Western Saharan people, and tensions between Algeria and Morocco intensified following UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s visit to the Western Sahara, where he stressed the people’s right to self-determination.

At the same time, Algeria cannot forget the support that Saudi Arabia has given to Morocco on the Western Saharan question. Therefore, the observer concluded, Algeria cannot enter any kind of coalition that includes either Morocco or Saudi Arabia.

At the end of their meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh, the CEN-SAD defence ministers agreed that their next regular meeting in 2017 will be held in Ivory Coast.

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