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EU Sahel mission

Peter Hille/alAugust 1, 2012

The European Union's Capacity Building Mission, EUCAP, has sent an advisory team to Niger to help local authorities combat Islamist militants who are spreading in the Sahel region

Image: Getty Images/AFP

Wednesday August 1, 2012, marked the start of the European Union's 50-strong mission to help combat terrorism and criminal networks in the Sahel region of Africa. The team was sent to Niger's capital Niamey ahead of schedule after the EU learned that the security situation in the region was worsening.

The aim of the mission is to prevent Islamist militants from taking control of the Sahel region. The team is led by Colonel Francisco Espinoza from the Spanish Guardia Civil. "It is a civilian mission, we are not sending in troops with guns to fight," spokesman Michael Mann said in an interview with DW. However, some of the members of the mission will be working as military advisers.

Endless violence

Just a few months ago, Islamist groups in Mali took over the north of the country, an area the size of France. The Islamist groups Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) are forcefully implementing Islamic law in the region. Anyone who drinks alcohol is publicly punished. These groups are closely linked to regional terror organization al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Men with their faces covered, one of them is holding a gun
Islamist militants are operating in many countries in western and northern AfricaImage: Reuters

Jihad warriors are operating in a number of countries in western and northern Africa. They know no boundaries. They detonate bombs in Algeria, shoot at army posts in Mauritania and recruit new members in Chad.

"If it pleases God, we will take the holy war further to Niger," says terrorist leader Bilal Hicham.

Poverty, drugs, terrorism

That is what the government of Niger wants to avoid, with the help of the EU.

Men in security uniforms some sitting in a pickup ttuck and some standing on the ground
50 EU experts will train local security forcesImage: AP

"We have been asked by Niger's authorities if we can help them with a mission of some experts," said EU spokesman Mann. "We have to train their security personnel, to improve their security and fight terrorism."

That's why the EU is allocating 8.7 million euros ($10.7) for the first year of its mission in the Sahel. Apart from its headquarters in Niamey, it is also planning to open liaison offices in Bamako and Nouakchott.

Terrorism is not the only problem the EU mission will have to face. Countries like Mali, Mauritania and Niger have been heavily affected by drought, famine and a lack of poltitical stability, says Amelia Hadfield, Sahel expert and professor at the Free University of Brussels. "These are the most affected states with an extreme lack of state capacity." She says there is a complete lack of public services like water, electricity, education and health care.

Terror in the region has also resulted in poverty and food shortages.

Women standing with spades in their hands
Terrorism in the Sahel has increased poverty and caused food shortagesImage: Fatoumata Diabate/Oxfam

"The government and the people are simply not supported, not protected," Hadfield told DW. "That's why they are very vulnerable to threats from either local al-Qaeda organizations or low-level gun trafficking, drugs and corruption."

Need for preventive action

Instead of a military advisory mission, the EU should provide people in the Sahel region with more social assistance, says Niema Movassat, a parliamentarian with the German opposition Left Party.

"This mission can be the beginning of a military intervention, in which Germany would also become involved," Movassat said.

He wants the German government to provide more information about its participation in the Niger mission.

What is needed is rapid assistance and preventive action, he says. "We have to get away from the policy of putting out fires after they've started and take early preventive measures, if we want to stop this seed of terrorism from growing,"

In his view, it was military intervention by the West which increased the problems in the Sahel region. Movassat says it was the support of the military alliance NATO for the Libyan rebels which helped bring more weapons into the region.

Rule of law for all

The EU is planning to follow a so-called integrative approach in combating terrorism in the Sahel. That is the reason why they have sent not only police and army officers to the Sahel but also policy advisers and European legal experts.

Terror should not be fought with military might alone but also with the force of the law. The EU wants to ensure that terrorists and criminals in the Sahel region are also given a fair trial. The message is: Where the rule of law prevails, violence can be effectively prevented.