Moves by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to forge links with Nigerian Islamic radicals represent a serious threat, say analysts in Mauritania, Algeria and Europe.
The leader of AQIM, the Algerian Abou Moussab Abdel Wadoud, also known as Abdelmalek Droukdal, dreams of spreading his zone of operation to the south.
He has worked to establish ties with the radical Nigerian Islamists of the “Taliban”, a violent group clashes regularly with the Nigerian authorities.
Abdel Wadoud launched an Internet appeal to “Muslims in Nigeria” in February.
“We are ready to train your sons on how to handle weapons, and will give them all the help they need – men, weapons, ammunition and equipment – to enable them to defend our people and push back the Crusaders,” he said.
“The decision to contact the Nigerian Taliban has been made,” said a Nouakchott-based magistrate specialising in this field, who asked to remain anonymous.
“And for AQIM fighters in the Sahel, moving around the region – particularly from Niger to the north of Nigeria – is easy,” he added.
“Don’t forget, in western Africa, borders don’t exist.”
One Western diplomat in Nouakchott said: “We have seen tentative contacts, people talking to each other. As far as we know, it’s mostly conversation at this point, not more.”
But one thing was clear, the diplomat added: “It’s valuable for the Taliban, the Al-Qaeda franchise. It’s a bigger organisation that can claim to have had some successes.”
It was a Nigerian extremist, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up a US-bound flight on December 25 last year, even if he had no known links with extremists in Nigeria, having been in Britain and then Yemen.
But the movement in Nigeria is very real.
The Nigerian “Taliban” was formed in the mainly Muslim north of the country in 2002, two years after Osama bin Laden called on the country’s Muslims to rise up.
Nigeria’s population is split between Christians and Muslims. The movement called itself Boko Haram, which translates as “Western education is a sin”.
In July 2009, the Nigerian army defeated the group in their stronghold of Maiduguri in the northeast of the country after five days of fighting that left at least 800 people dead, including the group’s leader.
According to one Lagos-based specialist however, the group was not completely eradicated but had gone underground.
French researcher Jean-Pierre Filiu took the threat of a link up between the two groups seriously, addressing the question in a report for the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “Could Al-Qaeda turn African in the Sahel?”
In it, he wrote: “Even if sectarian violence in Nigeria is fuelled locally, not imported, Droukdal’s offer to support Nigerian Muslims nurtured the perception that Nigeria had moved to the top of Al-Qaeda’s agenda.”
For now, Filiu judged, only a few hard-core individuals had joined AQIM from Nigeria, and they were generally drawn from criminal or delinquent backgrounds rather than ideologically committed activists.
Nevertheless, a link-up between AQIM and the Nigerian radicals, if achieved, could become a serious danger, said Algerian journalist Mohamed Mokeddem, a specialist in jihadism and author of the book “The Algerian Afghans”.
“This alliance, if it becomes a reality in the weeks or months ahead, could mess up the region,” he said.
“There has already been contact. The Nigerians have manpower and money. If they can form a real alliance, it would represent an immense danger.”