The North Africa Journal : It's been a busy period for Al Qaeda Maghreb (AQMI). Its latest [published in April, 2009] targets have been European tourists and two Canadian diplomats still missing, despite the release of their driver. These latest strikes occurred at the eve of regional summit on security and peace in the Sahel region.
And so part of the motivations behind these strikes is to send a message to those who are combating that AQMI can strike any time, anywhere in the region. The latest from the Malian capital Bamako was that the summit has been postponed since unnamed leaders of the represented countries (Mali, Algeria, Niger, Libya, Burkina Faso and Chad) had scheduling conflicts. The reality is that such summit could not have happened after such a coup from Al Qaeda.
It is unsure how the abduction of the diplomats occurred. A consensus has emerged that the two men and their driver were first kidnapped by Touareg rebels, who traded them to AQMI. The two Canadian diplomats and the four European tourists were kidnapped in a zone located between the border of Mali and Niger, on the Niger side of the border. An announcement via Al Jazeera TV was made by a spokesperson called Salah Abu Mohammed. The Canadians Robert Fowler, Louis Gay and their Nigerian driver Soumana Moukaila, were actually seen in mid-December 2008 in Western Niamey, Niger’s capital. On December 14, 2008 they went on a private visit to a gold mine in Samira, operated by a Canadian mining company. As for the European tourists, they were officially kidnapped on January 22, 2009 also along the Mali-Niger border.
In reviewing some of the available details, it is worth noting that it is the first time AQMI or a terror organization manages such a daring operation on the Niger territory. Niger is clearly becoming a hotbed of illegal activity. It is also clear that Al Qaeda was seeking to make itself known and acknowledged as the heads of Sahel based governments were preparing to meet to discuss regional security. And while officials in Mali, the summit host country, claim that scheduling conflicts arose, AQMI’s latest strikes are likely the reasons behind the postponement of the conference. The attention of western governments, who also had a stake in participating in the summit, focused on the emerging crisis with their citizens and diplomats in the hands of Al Qaeda, an had little appetite for a forum.
This is not the first time Al Qaeda strikes in the Sahara. The latest such kidnappings happened last year when AQMI militants kidnapped two Austrian tourists in southern Tunisia desert. AQMI managed to elude the Tunisian authorities and escaped to Mali by traveling through the treacherous Algerian desert. After several months of intermittent talks, the Austrian government gave in to the demands of the kidnapers and ended up paying a ransom to free its nationals.
Germany also followed a similar move to free other hostages, a situation that has been a source of contention and displeasure in the region’s capitals, including Algiers. These countries argue that paying ransom money is equivalent to funding terrorism in affected regions. Algeria’s highest ranking officer in the ministry of foreign affairs in charge of Maghreb and African affairs, Abdelkader Messahel is one of the top officials that made statements linking ransom payments to terror financing, while acknowledging the difficulty in controlling or monitoring the vast Sahel region as challenging. With an uncontrolled and vast territory, with growing money from ransoms and an abundance of weapons in the region’s black markets, AQMI is looking to benefit from such environment to establish a strong base from which it can manage its operations up north. The distracting Touareg conflict affecting the Sahara is creating another opportunity for AQMI to benefit from the confusion.
Unless there is a more cohesive regional strategy, involving with the participation of Western governments on issues around kidnapping and ransoms, AQMI will continue to operate in the region unchallenged. The incentives to build a base in the Sahel are more real than elsewhere. In addition to the expected continuation of their kidnapping strategy as a source of funding, coupled with the availability of weapons in that part of Africa, AQMI’s northern presence has been substantially eroded by sustained enforcement and military operations in the populated urban centers and rural areas. As Algeria, Morocco and other countries continue to crack down on insurgents, so it seems logical that the theater of operations would move in scarcely populated areas and in the vast desert. Until a cohesive approach is put in place, strengthened with real resources, technology and man power, AQMI will continue to execute on its plans to terrorize the region.