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Experts Say al-Qaida Center May Shift to Sahara, Sahel


Terrorism experts say the world has every reason to be concerned about terrorism in 2011 and beyond. They say al-Qaida may be slowly dying in Afghanistan, but its tentacles around the world live on in very remote areas. They also say frustration among the poor in the Middle East and Africa could lead to new ethnic and political conflicts. The turmoil, they say, could embolden al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb popularly known as AQIM in that region.

Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb grew out of an Islamist insurgency movement in Algeria, merging with al-Qaida in 2006 and spreading through the Sahara and the Sahel region.

Ronald Noble, secretary-general of the police organization Interpol, has said those portions of Africa along with Somalia may become the next Afghanistan for al-Qaida.

Former CIA official and counter-terrorism expert Charles Allen says the recent turmoil in the Sahara and Sahel could further embolden al-Qaida, because it could see the unrest as a result of its own campaign.

"They have appealed continuously, whether it is in Yemen or in North Africa, that there are impoverished communities and then there are wealthy oligarchs who control the masses. This is a long standard ideological campaign that has been relatively effective," he said.

He says al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM, along with its affiliates in Yemen and Somalia, has been using this region as a breeding ground for its activities.

"It functions as an umbrella organization for a disparate collection of Sunni Muslim terrorist elements determined to attack what they see as apostate regimes in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania and Morocco. The bulk of AQIM forces are located in southern Algeria, northern Mali and Mauritania," he said.

Morocco’s ambassador to Washington, Aziz Mekouar is more concerned about the Sahara region in particular because it is now being used by drug traffickers to smuggle drugs to Europe. He says AQIM is trying to take advantage of the situation.

"We see these Colombian and Mexican drug traffickers using West Africa and the Sahara region to covey drugs to the European markets. That is very dangerous. You will see in the future a combination of al-Qaida, drug traffickers, and human traffickers," he said.

He says the countries of the region should come together to stop this activity and prevent al-Qaida from exploiting the situation.

Last year, Algeria, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger set up a joint headquarters in southern Algeria to coordinate anti-terrorism efforts. The four countries' army chiefs met to establish a joint strategy against al-Qaida.

Allen says the focus in 2011 should be to make it more difficult for the al-Qaida leaders to recruit the unemployed and frustrated youth. That, he says, will require cooperation on a global scale to push for political and social reforms and poverty reduction. It will also require, he says, a global effort to educate the younger generation what he calls the real Islam that he says teaches that killing one person means killing all of humanity.

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