Four Sahara desert states will today open a joint command headquarters in the south of Algeria to coordinate efforts to counter a growing threat from al Qaeda, the Algerian Defence Ministry says.
Western countries say that unless the region’s fractious governments join forces to fight the insurgents, al Qaeda could turn the Sahara desert into a safe haven along the lines of Yemen and Somalia and use it to launch large-scale attacks.
The announcement of the new base followed a ground-breaking meeting last month of senior officials from the region’s neighbouring governments that was praised by the United States as a step towards collectively confronting al Qaeda.
The command headquarters will be in the town of Tamanrasset, in the Saharan desert about 2000 km (1250 miles) south of the Algerian capital, the ministry said in a statement.
“The Joint Military Staff Committee of Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger will be established on Wednesday in Tamanrasset to reinforce military and security cooperation among these countries,” the statement said.
The ministry did not give details about what powers the joint headquarters would have. But a senior military source in Niger said Saharan states had decided to move towards running joint operations against al Qaeda.
“We have decided to strengthen our intelligence cooperation against all forms of insecurity and, therefore, plan to move towards joint military operations against terrorism, kidnappings and the trafficking of drugs and weapons,” the source said.
Security experts say better regional cooperation is key to containing al Qaeda in the Sahara because insurgents often evade capture by slipping from one country into another.
Greater cooperation could also mean a larger role for Algeria, the region’s biggest economic and military power — a development Western diplomats say they are keen to see.
The insurgents last year killed a British man, Edwin Dyer, who was kidnapped on the border between Niger and Mali.
They also shot dead a US aid worker in Mauritania’s capital in June last year, and carried out a suicide bombing on the French embassy there in August that injured three people.
Two Spaniards are believed to be in insurgent hands after they disappeared in November last year from a humanitarian aid convoy in Mauritania. An Italian husband and wife also seized in Mauritania last year were last week freed in Mali.
One Algerian security analyst said the success of the command headquarters depended on whether regional governments could steer clear of the conflicts and rivalries that have in the past derailed attempts at cooperation.
“Joint cooperation needs to be efficient if it is to be successful against al Qaeda,” Salima Tlemcani, security commentator with Algeria’s El Watan newspaper, told Reuters.