Thursday, February 12, 2009

United Against Islamists? by Olivier Guitt

On Jan. 22, four European tourists - two Swiss, one Briton and one German - were kidnapped at the border of Mali and Niger. The major terrorist group in the region, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), is very likely behind this operation. This should not come as a surprise.

I had warned about this worrisome new strategy. In fact, North Africa has become in the past two years a major front in the war against radical Islam. While Algeria has witnessed regular attacks and has been in the news a lot, its neighbors have also not been spared by Islamist terrorism. Indeed, Morocco, Tunisia and more recently Mauritania have suffered terror attacks.

AQIM's original intention was to federate all the Islamist terror groups of the region. In fact by putting together resources and attacking what they call "infidel" regimes, AQIM thinks it can recreate a portion of the Caliphate.

AQIM is using this to its advantage the porous and virtually uncontrollable borders in the region. The group is actually following the advice given in the early 2000s by a Yemeni representative of Osama bin Laden to GSPC's (AQIM's former name) then leader, Amir Hassan Hattab, to use the Sahara as its fallback base. Since then, the Sahel has become a haven for jihadist groups more or less linked to AQIM.

The West knows about it and tries to do something about it. For example a French Breguet Atlantique airplane, based in Dakar, flies over the area regularly, an operation that is tantamount to finding a needle in a sand dune. The United States has a training center in Gao, in Northern Mali, where it trains Malian military in anti-terror combat.

In fact, in 2005, after the AQIM-led attack against Mauritanian soldiers that killed 15 and injured 17, the FBI dispatched a team to Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital.

Since then, the Americans, like the French, make incursions in the north of the country and train the Mauritanian police. During his visit to Nouakchott in February 2008, Bernard Kouchner, France's foreign minister, hinted that France helps the authorities to monitor their long border with Mali.

But this has changed since the bloodless military coup of August 6 in Mauritania. In fact, most countries in the region and in the West decided to more or less cut-off ties with the new regime. For instance both the United States and France suspended their non-humanitarian help that actually included financial support to fight the war against radical Islam. Interestingly enough, one of the reasons behind the coup was to unseat President Sheikh Sidi Ould Abdallahi who was viewed as weak against the Islamists.

Overall cooperation on counterterrorism between the West and North Africa is quite good (behind the scenes), even with countries such as Libya. But a few clouds are hanging in this sky. After the Austrian government paid 5 million euros (about $6.5 million) for the release in November of its nationals who had been kidnapped by AQIM in February, the Algerian minister for Maghrebi and African affairs, Abdel Kader Messahel harshly criticized Austria. Indeed he said that by giving in to blackmail and to the demands of hostage takers, the governments in question encouraged terrorist organizations to continue these tactics and implicitly financed terrorism. He added, "The payment of ransoms to terrorist groups to obtain the release of hostages is an act condemned by international bodies."

But that is not all: cooperation between the countries of that region is at best poor. The animosity between most countries makes it sometimes difficult to sustain a real cooperative relationship. For instance, Morocco and Algeria have had a very rocky relationship in the past 30 years and this does not favor the exchange of information between the two countries. On the opposite, each country has a tendency to accuse the other one of being too lax on terrorism, letting dangerous fighters cross into the border of the other one.

There is also the competition aspect: none of the countries in the region want to recognize they have a terrorism problem, because of the impact such a perception could have on both tourism and foreign investment. So, for example when the two Austrian tourists were kidnapped in February in Tunisia by AQIM, the Tunisian authorities claimed that they had been abducted in Algeria and not in their "very safe" country.

National interest is still the priority for each nation, notwithstanding the war against common enemies. As long as this will last, terror groups such as AQIM will thrive.

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