Terrorist violence is escalating in Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Algeria, but so are counterterrorist efforts by the governments of those countries. These efforts may yield positive results, but terrorism and crimes of opportunity are unlikely to go away without sustained attention to political tensions and the problems of inadequate governance.
Assessing terrorist activities, the Wall Street Journal reports that AQIM is “gain[ing] strength in the Sahara.”
Though still dominated by the veterans of Algeria’s civil war, this Saharan insurgency has grown deep local roots. Armed bands roaming the desert include hundreds of recruits from Mauritania, Mali and Niger — vast and impoverished countries that straddle the Arab world and black West Africa, and that relied on the now-collapsed tourism industry as the key source of foreign exchange.
“What had started out as an Algerian problem is now engulfing Mali and Mauritania. They are the weak link,” says Zakaria Ould Ahmed Salem, a specialist on political Islam at the University of Nouakchott.
As Saharan governments fight back, regional cooperation could bring about real progress. Last week, representatives of Mali, Mauritania, and Niger met with Algerian officials to discuss a strategy against AQIM. The Wall Street Journal and an FBI agent quoted by the Christian Science Monitor (see above link) suggest that outside help may be necessary to support the counterterrorism campaign, but I see the increased communication as a positive step in and of itself.
Kal, in fact, warns that external financial support can help, but that injections of foreign troops might create more problems than they would solve. Given what he says about strong popular feeling in Mauritania against AQIM, and consensus among regional governments that AQIM is a problem, it also seems to me that high-profile western involvement might work against the current regional and local political goodwill on the issue. In other words, the best scenario would be for local authorities to spearhead counterterrorist efforts.
At the same time, though, and as I have said before, I think that terrorist activities and the crimes of opportunity that are linked with terrorism – kidnappings, smuggling, etc – will continue in the Sahara so long as Algeria’s political tensions endure and so long as zones in northern Mali and Niger remain outside of government control. I am not as conversant with the current situation in Algeria as I would like to be, but it seems that, pace WSJ, much of AQIM’s activity still represents a spillover from the civil war. Western governments concerned about AQIM would be well-advised to devote even greater resources to answering the question of how Algeria might resolve its domestic conflicts.