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POLITICS: Sahel Leaders Meet on al Qaeda Threat

Charles Fromm

WASHINGTON, Mar 16 2010 (IPS) - Representatives from seven North African and Sahelian states convened in Algiers on Tuesday to discuss the growing threat of al Qaeda’s North African affiliate in the region.

Government delegates from Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger assembled to formulate a cohesive strategy to fight the extremist group, which is generally held responsible for a variety of attacks and kidnappings throughout the region.

In Washington, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State P. J. Crowley called the effort “collective action against groups that seek to exploit territories of these countries and launch attacks against innocent civilians.”

The meeting is the first of its kind between these states, and after a full day of private discussions, officials seemed to reach a mutual understanding. “We have reached a full consensus to tackle terrorism in the region,” Abdelkader Messahel, Algeria’s Minister Delegate for African and Maghreb Affairs, told reporters on Tuesday afternoon in Algiers.

According to Messahel, officials decided to re-convene in the Algerian capital next month to clarify specifics. “We will go for action and one step is a meeting between military and anti-terror specialists of the region in Algiers in April,” he said.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), whose leadership is based in southern Algeria, has claimed responsibility for a series of suicide bombings, attacks and kidnappings in the North African and Saharan region over the past few years.

AQIM was previously known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (SGPC), an Algerian rebel group started by Hassan Hattab, a former Armed Islamic Group commander. The Armed Islamic Group was a main faction in Algeria’s bloody civil war that spanned most of the 1990s, when a coalition of Islamist insurgents challenged the central government’s rule after disputed elections.

However, in 2006, al Qaeda’s second in command, Ayman al-Zawahri, announced the union of SGPC with al Qaeda in a video released on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, followed by a formal statement made by SGPC, in which they pledged allegiance to al Qaeda’s central leadership and adopted the AQIM moniker.

AQIM has been held responsible for the killings of many civilians, particularly aid workers and tourists, as well as the December 2007 twin bombings of the United Nations offices and a court building in Algiers that claimed 41 lives.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a press release on Tuesday calling on AQIM to stop targeting civilians and release its remaining hostages. The New York-based group also called on the foreign officials meeting in Algiers to “categorically denounce AQIM’s attacks against civilians.”

Kidnappings are also a main component of AQIM’s repertoire. Last week, they released one of the three Spanish aid workers they had held since last year. On Feb. 23, they released a French aid worker, Pierre Camatte, whom they had taken hostage on Nov. 25, 2009, after Mali’s government released four AQIM prisoners (two of whom were Algerian and one Mauritanian), sparking a diplomatic row between the three countries.

Some believe the presence of Mali at the conference could signal a warming of ties between the Malian officials and their Mauritanian and Algerian contemporaries.

“The prisoner release took place largely because Mali was unwilling to let a French hostage die,” said Alex Thurston, a PhD candidate at Northwestern University who also authors, a blog that analyses religion, politics and news in the Sahel (Saharan) region and the Horn of Africa.

“As for Algeria and Mauritania, inviting Mali to the summit suggests that the benefits of cooperation have outweighed anger over the prisoner release,” Thurston told IPS.

Western governments have long worried that the vast ungoverned spaces between these neighbouring countries could be exploited by international terrorist organisations. Indeed, it is believed AQIM has retained its connections to cross-border smuggling, protection rackets and money laundering in these areas, which it has relied upon for funding since its days as the SGPC. Their practice of holding hostages for ransom also dates back to before the name change.

Now, in addition to these practices, the group is believed to have expanded into facilitating the transport of multi-tonne cocaine shipments across the Sahara desert in order to continue to fund their operations.

In December 2009, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration arrested three men in connection with an alleged transnational drug conspiracy, linking the Colombian rebel group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), al Qaeda and AQIM.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), because of increased border security between the U.S. and Mexico, South American narcotics trafficking organisations have shifted their focus to the burgeoning markets of Europe and especially Britain, which has seen a recent resurgence in cocaine use, according to the U.K’s National Treatment Agency.

According to the report and to U.N. officials, large quantities of the drug are flown or ferried across the Atlantic Ocean and then transported through the Sahara in West Africa and across the Mediterranean Sea to be sold in Europe. AQIM is said to charge a fee for ensuring the safe passage and security of the desert leg of this journey.

To authorities, this “reflect[s] the emergence of a worrisome alliance between al Qaeda and trans-national narcotics traffickers,” U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement.

But other analysts believe this reflects a much more ad-hoc relationship of convenience than anything else.

“There’s a real danger in looking at the drug smuggling in terms of AQIM,” said the author of, a well-read blog about politics and diplomacy in North Africa, who asked not to be identified. He contends that the emergence of the drug trade in the region is just a symptom of a broken system, which is often neglected by the rest of the world.

“The drug smuggling represents a whole series of structural problems. We need to change the way we engage with the region as a whole. If we only look to these countries and this region when there is a summit going on, that’s a problem,” he told IPS.

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