STATE DEPARTMENT — A prominent Islamic scholar says the war on terror focuses too much on religious extremists and not enough on the problem of weak central governments failing to serve rural populations.
French troops fighting al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists in Mali have helped restore order to areas overrun by an ethnic Tuareg rebellion. But local leaders, like Moussa Ag Oumeytta, say solving the crisis means improving the quality of rural life.
"What brought on all these problems is poverty and the lack of development in the north," he explained.
That's a challenge as the international community faces new threats in Africa, according to French President Francois Hollande.
"In the instability in the Sahel, there is a risk that all unresolved conflicts can fuel terrorism," he noted. "We need to work more urgently to resolve the suffering of the population over 30 years."
In his widely discussed book The Thistle And The Drone, Islamic scholar Akbar Ahmed examines the fight against terrorism from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Yemen and Somalia, from the southern Philippines to Mali and Nigeria.
"All of them reflect larger tribal groups which have problems with the central government," he explained. "All of them reflect areas where there are serious economic problems in terms of their natural resources. And all of them suggest that we are still misreading the relationship that they have with Islam."
In Nigeria's fight against Boko Haram militants, Ahmed says the government is focusing on Islamic fundamentalism to distract attention from its failures in development.
"Framing it in a different way, the central government is able then to draw in the United States and Europe with the result that it does become a kind of jihad, a kind of Crusades, a kind of confrontation between the West -- Christianity -- and Islam," the scholar said.
Ahmed said central governments too often make enemies of whole ethnic groups.
'When that happens, from say 100 or 500 or 5,000 criminally-inclined individuals, you are then including five or 10 or 15 million people of the tribe. And that's a disaster. It's a disaster for the nation," he added.
And the international community.
"Just when Afghanistan seems to be dying down, when Pakistan seems to be moving along the path of democracy with another election coming up in the country, you have now the United States and Europe being sucked into another war on terror," noted Ahmed. "And that whole cycle seems to be starting again in the Sahel."
Ahmed said breaking the cycle means rethinking the war on terror.
"If the problem is stemming from tribal culture and codes and customs, then surely the solution also lies in them, not in religion and looking at the verses of the Koran," he said.
Ahmed recommends efforts to resolve tensions between weak central governments in former colonies and minority ethnic groups at their peripheries.