An underestimated -- but deadly -- enclave.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), aided by a flood of weapons and mercenaries from Libya, has turned the Sahara into the newest epicenter of terrorist activity, one that threatens to produce a new wave of terror in North Africa and beyond.
For years, the nations of the African Sahel -- the Sub-Saharan stretch of desert that includes Niger, Mali and Mauritania -- have been plagued by rampant terrorist attacks, arms dealing, drug trafficking, and kidnapping by AQIM’s Islamic militants.
Now, AQIM has expanded its terrorist network through an alliance with Africa’s two other al-Qaeda linked terror groups: Somalia’s al-Shabab and Nigeria’s Boko Haram.
General Carter Ham, head of the US Africa Command, recently claimed the three al-Qaeda terrorist organizations had linked up to coordinate their terrorist activities. As Ham noted, “We’ve definitely seen a cross-pollination, certainly of ... techniques, tactics and procedures across the organizations.” According to Ham, such a terrorist partnership not only presented a “significant” regional threat, but also a serious threat to the West in general and the United States in particular.
Evidence of the terrorist tripartite agreement has already been on full, bloody display in Nigeria, as Boko Haram has carried out two suicide bombings in the Nigerian capital of Abuja. The attacks were launched against Nigeria’s national police headquarters and a UN building, the latter of which killed 23 people and wounded 76. Nigerian officials noted that those who were arrested in connection with both bombing attacks were graduates of AQIM training camps in Mali and al-Shabab training camps in Somalia.
In addition to its Nigerian terror outreach efforts, AQIM’s reach has extended into other West African countries as well. According to a report by the African Center of Terrorism Research, AQIM has been recruiting heavily in West Africa and has already developed “sleeper cells in Senegal and Guinea-Bissau.”
Unfortunately for the impoverished countries of the Sahel, the prospect of fighting a triple al-Qaeda threat has been acutely exacerbated by the influx of former mercenaries and looted weapons from Libya into the region.
Among the mercenaries fleeing Libya are the notorious Tuareg, a collection of brutal, disaffected and impoverished nomadic tribesmen from Morocco, Algeria, Niger and Mali. Hired by Gaddafi as personal enforcers during the Libyan uprising, the Tuareg is facing certain reprisals from Libyan rebel forces, a situation that undoubtedly hastened their departure from Libya.
Unfortunately for the states of the Sahel, the Tuareg’s arrival back home portends bad news, in particular for Niger and Mali, nations with which the Tuareg have, since the mid-1990s, sporadically engaged in sectarian warfare. According to one analyst, “The direction of Tuareg military commanders and their followers… will play an essential role in determining the security future of the region.”
If recent reports are any indication, the Tuareg seem intent on creating a role as the region’s major arms broker. Before he was killed in August, Tuareg rebel chieftain Ibrahim Ag Bahanga was reported to have shipped large quantities of weapons back to Mali for his tribal allies, arms which, according to one analyst, “would certainly be of interest to buys from AQIM.”
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.