Eating soup with a knife: Confronting warfare in the Sahara

“Like eating soup with a knife”: Peter O Toole (right) portrays TE Lawrence, with Omar Sharif, in the 1962 film, “Lawrence of Arabia” ©Kobal/The Picture Desk/AFP

Insurgency is a cause of underdevelopment in large areas of West Africa, holding back the task of achieving social and economic progress. 

Combating an insurgency is never easy at the best of times, but in a desert, it is slow and messy. Indeed, to quote Thomas Edward Lawrence–known to many as Lawrence of Arabia–it is “like eating soup with a knife”. The enemy is shadowy, avoiding direct combat with regular forces. Mobility and speed allow him to strike anywhere, anytime, without apparent logic. Desert insurgents compensate for their small numbers by offering an elusive target. Their strength relies on their ability to control strategic cities and secure roads rather than on holding territory. Regular forces are often ineffective at combating such insurgents, argues Lawrence, because in the desert, “space is greater than the power of armies”.

Almost a century later, the general principles of irregular warfare formulated by Lawrence in the Middle East resonate surprisingly well with today’s security situation in the Sahara, the greatest desert of all. First, mobility and speed also characterise the Sahara situation today.

As shown in a recent paper, militants from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) have enjoyed a high level of trans-border activity over the last 10 years, travelling across many regions of Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger without much risk of being apprehended. Successive events chronologically connected through hypothetical lines between 2004 and 2011 indicate that terrorist attacks repeatedly occurred hundreds or thousands of kilometres apart, in different countries, and without apparent regularity (see map).

Click to enlarge

The military offensive of 2012, during which a temporary coalition of Islamist militants and secessionist rebels conquered northern Mali, also illustrates how quickly desert insurgents can move. Having left the Adrar des Ifoghas, a low-lying mountain range at the confines of Algeria, Mali and Niger in mid-January, the coalition had seized the cities of Tessalit, Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu by the end of March. As discussed in a recent SWAC/ OECD publication, they expelled the disorganised and poorly equipped Malian army, whose members fled, or quickly changed sides according to their tribal allegiances.

The French-led counteroffensive of 2013 also relied on a rapid and mobile response, placing considerable strain on air and land logistics. Following United Nations Security Council Resolution 2085 of 20 December 2012 and responding to appeals for help from the president of Mali, Operation Serval was able to regain control of the main cities in about two weeks, and pave the way for a United Nations mandate and the European Union Training Mission in Mali.

Special forces proved essential for conducting reconnaissance missions, securing distant airports before regular troops were deployed, tracking jihadist militants and destroying their weapons and food caches. The combined use of special forces and combat helicopters allowed Operation Serval to jeopardise the mobile strategies of jihadist militants when they threatened to invade the southern part of Mali and in the Adrar des Ifoghas, which they hoped to use as a safe haven. A limited number of drones were used in surveillance, reconnaissance and support of deployed troops.

A second point of convergence between the Arab Revolt and current Saharan warfare relates to the fact that in both situations capture of territory has widely been seen as pointless due to the impossibility of garrisoning it. However, control over territory is what motivated insurgents, and secessionist rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) claimed to hold a pretty big chunk of Malian territory–the Azawad. On the other hand, their actual military presence was limited to a number of key locations. As for the Islamists, their immediate objective in the conflict against the Malian state seems to have been more socio-political than strictly territorial. “All we want is the implementation of Sharia”, reportedly said a member of the Ansar Dine group. However, they had other interests too, since insurgents fought for the control of key cities in the Adrar des Ifoghas and in the Niger Belt, along which circulate drugs and arms, as a recent report shows.

A third similarity is that in both Arabia and the Sahara, desert insurgents often avoided direct confrontation with regular forces. During Operation Serval, Islamist militants and secessionist rebels often fled and disappeared rather than attempting to combat the numerically superior regular forces. Timbuktu was retaken without resistance. So was Gao. Even Kidal, the historical stronghold of many past Tuareg rebellions, was occupied without combat. The most common form of confrontation has been through suicide attacks and improvised explosive devices.

Operation Barkhane, the anti-terrorist operation that took over Operation Serval in August 2014, relies on highly mobile forces. Contrary to previous military engagements that targeted “one country, one crisis, and one theatre of operations”, Operation Barkhane explicitly addresses the regional and cross-border dimension of terrorism activities in the Sahel-Sahara region. The operation relies on three ports in the Gulf of Guinea, two main airports in the Sahel from which jet fighters and drones can be launched, and a series of Saharan outposts located at the extreme margins of Chad, Mali and Niger from which cross-border trafficking routes and terrorist networks can be disrupted. Considering that Algeria and Libya are out of the reach of the French military, Operation Barkhane is probably as regional as one can be at the moment.

Ultimately, T.E. Lawrence famously wrote, desert warfare is comparable to naval war in the sense that insurgents are mobile, ubiquitous, independent of military bases, and relatively indifferent to the constraints imposed by their environment. This is true, of course, of many irregular forces. What makes desert insurgents peculiar is that, like seafarers, they have developed a conception of space in which strategic areas, fixed directions and fixed points matter less than tribal allegiances, networks of cities and control of roads. The last century has not made these general principles obsolete. As during the Arab Revolt, a highly equipped force of the smallest size that possesses mobility, speed and knowledge of the country has faced a numerically stronger regular force in Mali and surrounding countries. But as Western armies and their African allies become more mobile and flexible in their regional responses to political violence, desert insurgency proves to be a double-edged sword which can also work against those who know the terrain best.

Contact the author at, @ojwalther

The SWAC is an international platform for policy dialogue and analysis devoted to regional issues in West Africa. For more information please visit our website:, @SWAC_OECD

The author thanks Antonin Tisseron for his useful comments on an earlier version of the paper.


Canadian Security Intelligence Service (2014), “Political stability and security in West and North Africa”, Cabinet Office, Ottawa.

Lawrence, T.E. (1920), “The evolution of a revolt”, Army Quaterly and Defense Journal, October.

OECD (2014), An Atlas of the Sahara-Sahel: Geography, Economics and Security, West African Studies, OECD Publishing.

Walther, Olivier and Christian Leuprecht (2015), “Mapping and deterring violent extremist networks in North-West Africa”, Department of Border Region Studies Working Paper Series, No 4. 

©OECD Observer No 303, September 2015

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