Al-Qaeda's new front: terrorism meets crime in a lawless north African desert

Sat, Dec 11, 2010, 00:00

WITH ITS RUTTED sandy roads, low-rise skyline and small-town friendliness, Bamako feels less like a capital city than a compressed archipelago of villages. An air of provincial ease endures despite the choking traffic and big-city pressures. Bisected by the mighty Niger river as it runs through the heart of west Africa, Mali’s capital is one of the fastest-growing cities on the continent.

At the vast central market, goats stand tethered to wooden posts, men laze in the dry heat and women with children strapped to their backs with calico scarves move among the stalls.

Farther north the sense of isolation grows, as dirt roads lead to the fabled outpost of Timbuktu before the land opens out into the parched, scrubby Sahel region, a vast empty expanse, and the rolling dunes of the Sahara.

Mali makes for an unlikely flashing red light on the geostrategic map of Africa. But the country finds itself a focus of attention in western and regional capitals, its vast swathe of the Sahel – along with those of neighbouring Mauritania, Niger and Algeria – having grown into an intriguing link in the global anti- terrorism chain.

The Sahel’s problems have been in gestation for decades, but it has taken the kidnapping of up to 20 mainly western visitors since 2008 to attract European public attention. Last September seven foreigners – five French, a Togolese and a Madagascan – working at a French-owned nuclear facility in Arlit, northern Niger, were taken at gunpoint by a unit of the self-titled al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (Aqim), a group held responsible for kidnapping and killing Europeans in the region.

The ripples have been felt far and wide: official French warnings of an increased threat of terrorist attack in Europe have been linked to events in the Sahel and, reflecting a general intensification of diplomatic and military activity, units from western armies have been discreetly dispatched to the region. “Aqim’s aggressive acts have grown stronger and stronger over the past few years,” says one senior western diplomat in Bamako. “It’s not a question of opinion.”

The Sahel, a belt south of the Sahara that runs almost 4,000km from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Red Sea in the east, contains some of the world’s most forbidding terrain. It covers an area of more than three million square kilometres, much of it uninhabited desert or grassland, where state authority is nominal and illicit smuggling has been a mainstay of local economies for decades.

Twenty years ago it was tobacco and cannabis. Today the Mali-Niger-Mauritania corridor is one of the busiest supply routes for cocaine, arms and illegal migrants heading to Europe. “The introduction of cocaine, as far as we can judge probably around five years ago, has exponentially increased the profits to be made,” says another local diplomat. “You’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars worth of merchandise now.”

Much of the supply originates in South America, whose drug cartels provide a cut to Tuareg tribal leaders in the Sahel to ensure the safe passage of their cargo. Last December the burnt-out wreckage of a Boeing 727 was found abandoned in remote northern Mali having brought a cargo of several tonnes of cocaine from Venezuela undetected. The aircraft is thought to have made the journey many times before a technical fault prevented its crew from taking off. Into this lawless hinterland came Aqim.

IN EUROPEAN CAPITALS,officials privately accuse Bamako of doing too little to stymie Aqim in the north. The president of Mali, Amadou Toumani Touré, ordered a major attack on the militants in July 2009, but that ended in an ambush and a serious reversal for the ill-equipped government forces. Some outsiders suggest a tacit non-aggression pact is in place between Bamako and the Islamist groups: so long as the militants don’t attack Malian interests, the state won’t take the fight to them.

“There is a capacity issue, but there is also a will issue, very clearly,” says one western official in Bamako. “It’s a rock they don’t want to lift up because all sorts of creepy-crawlies will come out if they do.”

The Malian government resents the accusation. On a hot Saturday morning in the elegant presidential palace on a hill above Bamako, Mali’s head of state points to the country’s firm counter-terrorism policies, which stress not only military action but also reinstating a state presence in the north through schools, health centres and other services.

The key lies with the local population, Touré says, who help Aqim not out of ideological fervour but because it pays well in a desperately poor region. “Take this year,” he says. “They lost more than 50 per cent of their livestock due to drought, so people are even poorer than they were last year. The security response is one aspect. But the long-term and radical solution, we’re convinced, is local development and the response we can give to the essential needs of these populations.”

The Sahelian drama has revealed tensions between regional and western governments, and at times between western capitals themselves. There are acute sensitivities at play between France and its former colonies, for example, and The Irish Times understands that when Paris sought permission to deploy operational units in Mali earlier this year, Bamako flatly refused, forcing the French to station their troops in two neighbouring countries instead.

Last July a joint Franco-Mauritanian commando raid was carried out near Timbuktu in an attempt to liberate Michel Germaneau, a 78-year-old French hostage. Six Aqim militants were killed, but the soldiers found no trace of Germaneau, whose death was announced several days later.

When I ask Touré if he had given advance approval for the raid on Malian soil, he pauses for a few seconds before answering. “No. We were surprised by the raid,” he says. (Touré was at the Elysée Palace in Paris with President Nicolas Sarkozy and the Mauritanian president for Bastille Day celebrations just days earlier.) The Mauritanians could claim to have been using a “hot pursuit” protocol agreed between regional leaders, but what about the French? “I think the controversy is such that it’s difficult to know the truth,” Touré replies.

A former military commander re-elected in an open ballot in 2007 with more than two-thirds of the vote, Touré is keen to point out that Aqim is not a Malian problem but a regional one. Its leaders are not Malian and their brand of Islam is alien to his country’s “humane” and “open” Muslim tradition.

He says there has been no contact between Bamako and “the Salafists” holding the seven Arlit nuclear-plant hostages, but intelligence channels are open via intermediaries in the desert. He adds that he is “absolutely certain” the hostages are not on Malian territory as we speak. “The desert has one characteristic,” he says. “You don’t see anyone, but everything that happens in the desert is known about. It’s a paradox.”

THE MALIAN TOURISTseason is usually at its peak in November and December, but this year the industry is virtually dormant. Last month, citing a “worsening of the terrorist threat”, the French government extended its travel warning and urged its citizens in the north and east of the country to leave the area immediately.

The no-go area now includes Timbuktu and all the most popular tourist destinations. Some foreign analysts suggest that Paris may be trying to cut off the tourist industry to exert political pressure on the Malian government, but others say the new warning was based on firm intelligence that Aqim was looking for hostages farther south.

Debate continues on how great a threat Aqim poses, and how it might be contained. At a meeting of senior US and European officials in Paris in September last year, an account of which was released by Wikileaks this week, one of Sarkozy’s Africa advisers is quoted as having said, “We feel we are losing the battle between improved development in these countries and the increasing security threats in the region.”

Others see tentative cause for optimism. Regional co-operation is improving, and Algeria, the local powerhouse that has awkward relations with many countries, has declared its desire to see the problem resolved. A joint command centre was established recently in Algeria’s southern desert to monitor Aqim in the Sahel.

“By and large, Aqim poses more of a security threat than a political one,” wrote Jean-Pierre Filiu, a Sahel specialist at Sciences Po university in Paris, in a recent paper. He argues that Aqim’s criminal exchanges – hostages for cash, drugs for weapons – are crucial to its survival and operation, but this generates an image problem that hurts it in winning political support, particularly from religiously-inclined groups. “Aqim is, at the end of the day, an opportunistic network, whose aggressiveness is largely fuelled by the rivalry between its two field commanders in the Sahara, Belmokhtar and Abu Zeid,” Filiu wrote.

Over several days of discussions with western and Malian officials, the spectrum of options seemed to vary wildly, from radically increasing development aid to “whacking them good and hard”, as one diplomat put it. Yet a clear consensus has formed around the belief that Aqim can only be defeated if regional governments, supported by discreet western training and development aid, can commit to a co-ordinated long-haul effort.

The stakes are high. During a discussion on security with the US ambassador and the head of US African command in Bamako last December, Touré was quoted by the embassy recalling a childhood memory of the “dance of death” from the village in which he grew up. If you dance too far ahead, he explained, you die. If you dance too far behind, you die. If you do not dance at all, you die. “That is the way it is in the fight against the Salafists,” he said. “We have no choice but to move ahead together.”

Agile, well armed and well financed  Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (Aqim) emerged in 2007 from a ruthless Algerian guerrilla outfit called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, better known by its French initialism, GSPC. A crackdown by the Algerian security forces pushed the militants south, where they now take advantage of porous borders to roam the deserts of Mali, Mauritania and Niger. Malian officials estimate Aqim’s membership at between 200 and 250, but the group is agile, heavily armed and, thanks partly to ransom payments, well financed.

In the Sahel, Aqim is split into two factions operating under the command of Abdelmalek Droukdal, a 40-year-old Algerian based near Algiers who has pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden. The first group is led by Abu Zeid, a wiry Algerian seen as the more radical and ruthless of the two leaders. One Mali-based diplomat describes him as a “genuine nutcase”, and he is believed to have ordered the killing of Edwin Dyer, a British tourist, who was captured last year. The second faction is led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, another Algerian with impeccable jihadi credentials whose involvement in the cigarette-smuggling trade earned him the pejorative nickname Mr Marlboro. “He’s a wheeler-dealer,” says a European source. “He’s definitely an arms dealer, probably takes cuts on everything else that goes on, and probably was the first to realise that kidnapping for ransom was a lucrative side business.”

Western governments say the Islamists play a similar role to the smugglers, paying “taxes” to clan elders for permission to cross their territories. But the security vacuum has given Aqim an ideal sanctuary.

Next weekRuadhán Mac Cormaic reports, in the Foreign pages of The Irish Times, on the effects of the global crisis on north Africa

Monday: Migration Why the flow of irregular migrants from Africa to Europe has fallen sharply

Tuesday: Trade How Mali’s cotton producers are dealing with the drop in global demand for clothes

Wednesday: Hunger How uncertainty around Ireland’s bailout in November directly affected Senegal

Thursday:Energy The “North African miracle”, and how Morocco has largely resisted the worst of the crisis