The Mauritanian government says it has arrested seven leaders of a terrorist cell, which the US military has linked to al-Qaida. But, one analyst says that Mauritanian President Maaouiya Ould Taya is using the threat of terrorism to crack down on his political rivals.
The Mauritanian government says the men are members of an Algerian-led terrorist group, called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. The arrests were made in the Mauritanian capital, Noukachott.
The minister of communications, Hamoud Ould Abdi, speaking from Mauritania, said that he believes more men are in militant training camps in the desert.
Mr. Abdi says 20 terrorists left Mauritania carrying sensitive information to the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. The 20 guerrillas are said to have been sent to a camp for training. The seven reportedly were arrested on their return.
The announcement of the arrests drew criticism from Mauritania's political opposition, which says the government has used the threat of terrorism to crack down on the Islamist opposition in the past.
An opposition Islamist political leader, Mohammed Gemil Ould, who is wanted by the Mauritanian government for his Islamist political activities, says the Islamists in the country are not extremists and just want democracy.
Mr. Ould says that the government is arresting people in order to strengthen ties with the United States and other Western countries. He says Islamists in the country have no connection with the Salafist group or Al-Qaida.
Richard Reeve, a London-based analyst with Jane's military group, says the situation in Mauritania is complex because of the political divide between the secular government and Islamic opposition in the Muslim country.
"The purges of Islamic elements within Mauritanian society and politics began really in early 2003," said Richard Reeve. "Part of the opposition within Mauritanian is opposed particularly to the kind of secular government the president has got and particularly the recognition of Israel ."
Mr. Reeve says it is likely that President Ould Taya is using terrorism as an excuse to intimidate his Islamist political rivals.
The Muslim extremist Salafist group, originally based in Algeria, is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, and has been linked to al-Qaida. U.S. Defense officials have expressed concern about the Salafist group recruiting in the region. U.S. Army Special Forces troops last year conducted a counter-terrorism training program with military units in Mali, Mauritania, Chad and Niger, called the Pan-Sahel initiative.
Kamal Beyoghlow, an analyst with the Washington-based Africa Center for Strategic Studies, part of the National Defense University, says he believes al-Qaida is setting up cells or what he calls franchises all over Africa, taking advantage of its political and economic weaknesses.
"We're very much concerned about these franchise systems, and we think, essentially in the long term, it's going to give al-Qaida an ability to establish a foothold in Africa, given the fact that Africa continues to have tremendous vulnerabilities," said Kamal Beyoghlow.
The U.S. government has been particularly worried about armed groups, which are able to move freely through the Sahara crossing the borders of Mauritania, Chad and Mali. Three years ago, the Salafists kidnapped 32 European tourists in southern Algeria and held them for ransom.