Al-Qaeda’s Sahara wing has raised its profile with hostage-takings and cocaine smuggling, threatening already weak West African states with crippling criminality but not large-scale terror attacks.
Revenues from ransoms and involvement in the drugs trade in countries like Mauritania, Mali and Niger are providing funds and could lure recruits from among poverty-stricken populations at a time the group’s leadership is under pressure in Algeria.
But the main fall-out from the group’s activities is likely to be a spike in violent organised crime in regions with burgeoning resource projects as opposed to ideologically driven attacks designed to grab headlines and kill scores.
“(AQIM’s) strength is that the states are weak. The states are often thinking about political survival rather than strategy,” said Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga, a former Malian defence minister now working as a security consultant.
“This is a zone that will become increasingly very important,” he added, referring to significant oil, gas and mining potential in the region.
Hostages and cocaine
Currently holding six Western hostages and linked to the multi-million dollar trans-Sahara cocaine trade, the southern branch of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, has risen up the security agenda in recent months.
“If you calculate it at potentially three million Euros a head, that is a lot of cash. They have got that in the past for hostages,” Richard Barrett, head of the United Nations committee monitoring al-Qaeda and the Taliban, told Reuters.
Analysts say the hostages are often seized by local groups, who then pass them on to Islamists in the region. Negotiations involve a mix of public jihad-linked demands and, more importantly, private ransom requests for millions of dollars.
All but one Briton executed last year have been freed.
AQIM’s southern wing is also heavily involved in smuggling weapons, cigarettes and, most recently, cocaine, which has become the most lucrative good passing through a vast desert zone that has a colourful history of contraband activity.
A recent drugs sting operation by US agents, who arrested three Malians in Ghana claiming to belong to AQIM, has fuelled fears that the group will make the lucrative trade its own, and drawn comparisons and links to Colombian right-wing FARC rebels.
AQIM under pressure
But the Saharan reality is more nuanced, with the Islamists just one piece in a complex jigsaw of local tribal and criminal networks with whom they must collaborate and compete.
“These are temporary alliances. There is a very subtle game and routes are divided up between groups,” said Alain Antil, head of the Sub-Sahara programme at Paris-based IFRI think tank.
Citing a decline in AQIM activity in Algeria after a spectacular launch in 2007, analysts say increased revenues from West African operations will be boon at a time the group is under pressure from both Algerian forces and al Qaeda central, which wants attacks in return for the global branding.
Regional governments are struggling to come up with a response, and a security summit has been repeatedly postponed. Analysts also say Algeria is frustrated its robust military approach has not been matched by southern neighbours.
Jonathan Wood from Control Risks says there is clearly increased threat in terms of travel-risk but investors are not likely to be deterred from the region.
The lack of sympathy for extremist ideology will also limit support for the Algerian-dominated group as local grievances rather than global jihad are the priority, he added.
The deeper, more serious impact of AQIM’s involvement in the criminal and rebel circles of the Sahara will be an intensification of competition over smuggling, more extreme corruption and yet weaker states.
Political risk analyst David Gutelius warned the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations last year that AQIM was adept at positioning itself in the region, but the threat was indirect.
“The threat of instability in the Sahel is real, but the source of that threat is more directly linked to economic desperation, criminality, and differential access to political and economic control rather than al-Qaeda or Salafist ideology.”
Pic: Taureg rebel from Mali