Terrorist Sanctuary in the Sahara: A Case Study

  • November 01, 2017
  • LTC Joseph C. Guido

The idea to deny sanctuary to terrorist groups lies at the heart of contemporary U.S. counterterrorism strategy. Violent extremist organizations in North Africa, most notably the group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), have used remote and sparsely populated areas in the Sahara for protection from security forces to perform a range of activities such as training, planning, and logistics in order to conduct terrorist operations like kidnapping, murder, and bombing. Even after 16 years since the September 11 attacks and the resources dedicated to efforts to deny sanctuary, the concept of sanctuary remains largely unexplored. To deny sanctuary requires an understanding of what sanctuary is as an object and how sanctuary is used by terrorist organizations. This monograph proposes a functional understanding of sanctuary and offers fresh ideas to control sanctuary using a detailed case study of the most notorious of the North African terrorists, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, from his arrival to Mali in the late 1990s until the French intervention in early 2012. This multi-disciplinary inquiry utilizes a wide range of open-source documents as well as anthropological, sociological, and political science research, including interviews with one-time Belmokhtar hostage, Ambassador Robert Fowler, in order to construct a picture of what a day in the life of sanctuary-seeking terrorists is like. Belmokhtar and other violent groups remain active and at large in the Sahara in spite of a large French military presence, a small U.S. military presence, and local security forces conducting counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations. Additionally, the Islamic State movement could be viewed as the emergence of mega sanctuaries for terrorists and other violent extremist organizations. These threats require a new strategy to isolate, contain, or defeat terrorists and violent extremists in their sanctuary areas.