Tragically, a group that appears to be affiliated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has announced the execution of a British citizen, Edwin Dyer. Dyer was kidnapped along with three other European tourists while attending a cultural festival in January in western Niger, but the execution took place across the border in Mali. The group earlier demanded the release of Jordanian militant leader Abu Qatada, held in Britain since 2005, and threatened to kill Dyer if the demand went unmet.
The tragedy has once again focused attention on issues of terrorism and militancy in North Africa and the Sahel. The Christian Science Monitor has a compilation of links concerning kidnappings and attacks by AQIM in recent months. In their view, ties between Sahelian groups and transnational terrorists are strong.
At The Guardian, Jason Burke offers a contrasting view, calling AQIM a largely local problem.
The AQIM formed in January 2007. It is effectively a retread of the Algerian GSPC or Salafist Group for Combat and Preaching with a few bolted-on elements from splinter groups in other countries along the African Mediterranean coast. It is a fragmented network of semi-criminal Islamic militant factions operating across the western Sahel, the vast tract of desert and dirt poor towns that stretches from the eastern borders of Mauritania through to the Sudan.
The GSPC was itself the remnants of the GIA or Islamic Armed Group which had fought in Algeria from the early 1990s through to about 1998 when it effectively imploded in a spate of internecine violence and state assassinations. Because virtually none of its root causes that led to its emergence in the first place have been addressed, it was always inevitable that with new radicalism in the post-9/11 world, militancy in Algeria would re-emerge. It was also inevitable that al-Qaida’s leadership would take an interest in the renewed activity in the Maghreb and would renew attempts to bring groups there into its network as another al-Qaida affiliate. Algerian groups had previously resisted such attempts but, short of funds and legitimacy, the battered GSPC accepted. The result is AQIM.
However, it is a long way from Pakistan to Mali and the al-Qaida leadership’s direct involvement on the ground is negligible. Instead veterans of the war in Afghanistan or the training camps established there in the late 1990s mix with local extremists and bandits to form a violent and unpredictable militant coalition. American forces and local ones trained, armed and aided by the US are keeping pressure on these small bands of militants but have not succeeded, as recent events appear tragically to have shown, in entirely stemming the threat.
What to do about AQIM? British Prime Minister Gordon Brown condemned the execution of Dyer and vowed that Britain would pursue all terrorists, but local and European governments, along with the United States, do not seem to have a well-developed policy regarding militancy in this part of the world. Mali and Algeria began preparations for joint military operations against AQIM earlier this month. The trajectory of terrorism in the Sahel, however, to my mind depends just as much on the trajectory of Algerian politics as it does on the outcome of specific military operations. So long as Algeria remains destabilized, terrorist networks – local more than transnationl, perhaps – will likely continue to operate there and in surrounding countries.