Trouble in fighting Sahara Qaeda

A JOINT French-Mauritanian raid may indicate a hardening of resolve against the Saharan band of al Qaeda’s North African wing, but it also underscores cracks in regional coordination and risks fuelling anti-Western rhetoric.

The operation failed to free a French hostage, whom Islamists say they have since executed. In the fallout, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has vowed to punish the killers and extended travel warnings for the region for fear of further attacks.

Andre LeSage, senior research fellow for Africa at the National Defence University in the United States, said the raid showed how seriously the Islamist threat was being taken. “Direct military support — not just training and the provision of equipment –– is now being considered by some actors.”
A spike in Islamist activity in Mauritania, Mali and Niger, mostly kidnappings resulting in multi-million dollar ransom payments, has led to an increase in international support for countries fighting the al Qaeda-linked group, known as Aqim.

Led by France and the United States, which in May dispatched hundreds of Special Forces soldiers to train regional armies, the West has increased its own involvement and, in turn, called for better regional coordination from an often fractious group of countries.

“(But) despite international efforts to build military capacity, promote regional intelligence sharing and develop political will in the region, there has been little coordinated action by Sahelian countries against Aqim,” LeSage added.

Mali, on whose territory the raid took place, is widely perceived to be the weak link in the fight against al Qaeda due to reported connections between some authorities and the Islamists.

Officials there said they were not informed about the raid and one senior official in the Defence ministry accused Mauritania of conducting war on its land. Mauritania’s Defence minister has visited Mali in an apparent attempt to smooth relations.

Algeria, which has claimed regional leadership in the fight against Aqim, has not made a statement but officials have privately expressed annoyance.
While happier a more robust approach is being taken after Mali earlier released Islamists in exchange for a previous French hostage, Algerians are likely to be bristling over an intervention by its former colonial power on its patch.

Algeria hosts a regional military headquarters for fighting Aqim. Richard Barrett, head of the UN’s al Qaeda monitoring team, said regional cooperation would take time, and a few successes to bolster confidence between the actors.

But Wolfram Lacher, head of the Middle East and North Africa desk at Control Risks, said the exclusion of Mali and Algeria pointed to problems in the process. “In sum, the operation does not suggest that the obstacles to regional cooperation to counter Aqim are being overcome — quite to the contrary.

“This is important, in that the threat posed by Aqim necessarily has to be tackled by a regional approach,” he added.
Spanish media said Madrid, which has two hostages held by an Aqim faction, was also angered at the lack of consultation.

Western nations are treading a fine line in their efforts to help mostly poor nations with weak armies try and stamp their authority on vast, desert zones, where smugglers, rebels and bandits often hold more sway than the central government.

France carries the burden of having ruled most nations as colonies while the US has had to back away from setting up a permanent base on the continent.

“Western nations need to be very careful that their direct involvement in the Sahel does not bolster or give justifications to Aqim propaganda,” LeSage said.

Hardline Algerian Islamists, the group’s initial core, are already lambasting Mauritania for calling on France for help.

Anneli Botha, senior terrorism researcher at the South African-based Institute for Security Studies, said France was probably eager to convince its domestic audience it was taking action, but also said dispatching its army to hunt terrorists in the desert risked playing into the hands of extremists.
“They should take a more criminal approach. It isn’t always the easiest but it is the most effective in the long term.”

Sarkozy dispatched his foreign minister to visit Mauritania, Mali and Niger on Monday.
“France is obviously already under a threat from Aqim” said Claude Moniquet, CEO of European Strategic Intelligence and Security Centre (ESISC).
“Nevertheless, I think that the support of the French army to the attack by the Mauritanian forces against Aqim, last week increases the risk,” Moniquet added, saying the main risks were diplomats and other citizens in Africa’s Sahel-Sahara region, although an attack in Europe could not be ruled out.
Analysts say Aqim’s push south is a result of its failure to take its campaign to Europe, as well as Algerian pressure.

France’s Areva has major mining interests in Niger, though much further to the east than most al Qaeda-linked activity. —  Reuters.