West Africa’s Growing Terrorist Threat: Confronting AQIM’s Sahelian Strategy

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Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has undertaken increasingly frequent and effective attacks in the past year, posing a dangerous and growing threat in Africa’s Sahel region. Reversing this trend presents a particularly complex challenge as AQIM has simultaneously strengthened ties to local communities and regional criminal networks. Efforts to counter AQIM will require collaborative region-wide strategies that feature complementary security and development initiatives.

A sustained upsurge in the frequency of kidnappings, attacks, arrests, and bombings in the Sahel in the past several years has heightened concerns that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is gaining traction in West Africa.

Indeed, AQIM now has a substantial presence over vast stretches of the Sahel. A low-intensity terrorist threat that once lingered on the margins is now worsening at an escalating rate. Previous AQIM attacks largely consisted of opportunistic kidnappings of tourists and nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers in the Sahel. Recent attacks, however, have demonstrated a greater degree of sophistication and intelligence-gathering capability.

For example, the September 2010 over-night raids by AQIM in Arlit, Niger, resulting in the kidnapping of seven employees and family members from the compound of the French multinational nuclear services firm Areva, benefited from “excellent information” inside the company, according to its security consultants. Recent attacks also reflect growing operational capacity.

Just days after the Niger kidnappings, but approximately 1,200 kilometers to the west, Mauritanian troops engaged AQIM militants and pursued a highly mobile convoy for several days into northern Mali. Weeks before this operation, a suicide bomber’s truck exploded into a military barracks wounding several soldiers in Nema, Mauritania. The attack was notable in that it was carried out farther from sites of previous AQIM operations and in the center of a relatively large Mauritanian town.

In January 2011, a Tunisian gunman linked to AQIM threw a homemade bomb at the French embassy in Bamako, Mali. This was followed days later by the kidnapping of two French nationals from a restaurant in Niamey, Niger. The two were later found dead following a failed rescue attempt near the Malian border.

In early February 2011, three suspected terrorists were killed and eight Mauritanian troops wounded when two explosivesladen trucks detonated in Nouakchott.

Their objective: to assassinate the Mauritanian president. Previously believed to be relatively weak and isolated, AQIM’s advances are the results of a patient effort to cultivate deeper roots in remote regions of the Sahel. AQIM is now increasingly well integrated with local Sahelian communities and many AQIM leaders have established direct collusive associations with government and security officials.

Most ominously, AQIM groups are developing cooperative relationships with regional drug traffickers, criminal organizations, and rebel groups to augment their resources and financing. As a result, AQIM can not only more ably confront and resist government security services but also undermine Sahelian states from within.If more energetic steps are not taken to confront AQIM’s new Sahelian strategy, the eventual establishment of sanctuaries, mini “Waziristans,” in the region is a real possibility.

AQIM already operates across a region of several hundred thousand square kilometers. Northern Mali, in particular, is becoming a central redoubt. AQIM’s attacks and presence have threatened vital economic activity. Once a popular tourist destination, this region is now largely off limits to foreigners given the risk of kidnapping.

Unfortunately, efforts to confront Islamic terrorist groups in West Africa are uneven, uncoordinated, and short lived. A combination of security sector adjustments, development engagement, and international partnerships is needed to comprehensively counter AQIM’s strategy and uproot its expanding connections to Sahelian communities.


Read the whole of this strategic study in PDF, provided by AfricaCenter.org.

West Africa’s Growing Terrorist Threat: Confronting AQIM’s Sahelian Strategy (BY MODIBO GOÏTA)

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