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Of course, AQIM has already been a frequent buyer on the Libyan black arms market, having used the money it has earned from drug trafficking and kidnapping throughout North Africa to purchase a large armory of weapons looted from Gaddafi’s arsenals.
Those weapons include a stockpile of SA-7, SA-14 and SA-24 shoulder-fired missiles called MANPADs. Highly accurate, these heat seeking missiles are easily launched from a shoulder or a truck bed and are able to take down low flying aircraft. The missiles, according to a European Union counter-terrorism expert, were smuggled to AQIM strongholds in Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Algeria.
Of course, the loss of such weapons isn’t a new story. In April 2011, General Carter Ham stated that most of Gaddafi’s arsenal of 20,000 MANPADs were feared missing. Ham’s assessment was echoed by the president of Chad, Idriss Deby Itno, who said, “The Islamists of al-Qaeda took advantage of the pillaging of arsenals in the rebel zone to acquire arms, including surface-to-air missiles, which were then smuggled into their desert sanctuaries.”
Unfortunately, US officials have recently conceded that despite sending in two international teams of weapon disposal experts at a cost of $3 million dollars, they have been able to locate and destroy only a “handful” of MANPADs.
Now, it appears that AQIM may be on the cusp of actually utilizing those weapons. Specifically, the State Department has recently warned the US Embassy in Algeria that AQIM was reportedly planning to target civilian planes chartered by oil companies in the Algeria Mahreb region with shoulder-fired missiles.
That Algeria should be a focal point of an AQIM attack should be of little surprise, given that AQIM, before it pledged its fealty to al-Qaeda in 2006, originally grew out of a Salafist group that waged war with the Algerian government during the 1990s.
To that end, AQIM has stepped up its assault on Algeria with a spate of three suicide bombings since July, the most recent coming in August when a suicide bomber killed over 30 people at a military academy west of the Algerian capital of Algiers.
So, it wasn’t surprising, then, that those attacks spurred Algeria to play host to a recent two-day conference in Algiers on security in the Sahel. Unfortunately, that meeting produced no concrete plan for combating the problem other than a general call for a higher profile joint military presence from Algeria, Mali, Niger and Mauritania.
As one French intelligence official noted, the meeting was nothing more than “diplomatic posturing” and only served to highlight the lack of cooperation in combating the al-Qaeda threat to the region.
That regional threat was perhaps best expressed by Niger’s president, Mahamadou Issoufou, who has lamented, “We were already exposed to the fundamentalist threat, to the menace of criminal organizations, drug traffickers, arms traffickers … Today all those problems have increased.”
Unfortunately, if al-Qaeda’s joint African terrorist partnership is any indication, those problems are almost assuredly going to get even worse.
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