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Political Violence in North and West Africa: A Sustainable Security Response

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The recent military intervention in Mali has highlighted the growing links between marginalisation and the potential for large-scale political violence in West Africa. Over the past year, we have been warning about the danger of thinking that what is a fundamentally political problem in Mali can be solved by military means.

Following earlier evidence submitted to the Defence Select Committee on British defence policy, our Sustainable Security Programme team have expanded on this in both oral and written evidence for the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. The evidence focuses on the UK’s response to violence and extremism in North and West Africa and argues that

"a military-dominated approach that does not tackle the root causes of instability and conflict, will at best be unsuccessful, and at worst counterproductive."

In written evidence to the Committee, Ben Zala and Anna Alissa Hitzemann point out that

"The majority of commentary and debate about recent events in Mali have focused on the military dimension. However, the continued insecurity in spite of the military intervention highlights the need to go further and examine the political, socio-economic and cultural divisions that have sparked the instability."

The submission argues that

"The UK’s strategy to fight extremism and political instability needs to, among other things:

• Understand the international links that make it possible for terrorist groups to receive financial support.
• Help increase and provide economic opportunities for the majority of populations living on the margins.

The rise of Islamism in the West and North African region is not solely, perhaps not even mainly, linked to religious fundamentalism. Increasingly, networks such as AQIM and Boko Haram tap into social grievances and present themselves as champions of mainstream causes, such as unemployment, health care and education, in order to attract followers."

In separate written evidence, our Global Security Consultant, Professor Paul Rogers, highlighted the wider context in which specific episodes of Islamist-inspired violence in Mali, Nigeria and elsewhere,

"should also be seen in the context of the wider al-Qaida movement and its strong transnational perspective. While this movement was regarded until last year as being in serious retreat, this assumption should be treated with caution. Al-Qaida may no longer be a closely structured and integrated organisation but the idea is very much alive and retains a potency that may not be fully recognised."

In the submission and in a follow-up oral evidence session with the Committee, Paul Rogers stressed the need to counter the Islamist perspective by avoiding militarised responses to insecurity. In particular, Western states must understand the ways in which their actions are being portrayed by al-Qaida inspired groups:

"What is perhaps most important, and often least recognised, is that new social media and 24-hour TV news channels, make it possible for any actions in any one part of the Islamic world to be presented as yet further proof of a crusader conspiracy against Islam, with this powerful narrative persistently supported by apparently disparate events. Thus, an armed drone strike in Pakistan, a Nigerian Army massacre of villagers, plans for a new US drone base in Niger ,or joint US/Israeli military operations, are all seen as part of a wider pattern of western oppression, persistently spread through the new social media."

The full written submissions can be viewed on the Committee’s website here:

•Dr Ben Zala and Anna Alissa Hitzemann written evidence

•Prof Paul Rogers written evidence

Professor Paul Rogers’ oral evidence session can be viewed here:

•Prof Paul Rogers oral evidence

Read our earlier evidence submitted to the Defence Select Committee on British defence policy.