PARIS, France — The Sahel — this vast semi-arid region of North Africa south of the Sahara desert — is viewed by some experts as a “second Afghanistan.” This might be a stretch, but it is true that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is very active in the area, especially in Mali.
Mali enjoys a very good reputation around the world. It boasts a vibrant democracy with a multi-party system, a market economy and a tradition of a moderate Islam. But things might be changing: Since 2001, worrying signs have emerged— for example, the proliferation of Osama bin Laden's photo in stalls at the Bamako market and the exponential increase of radio stations preaching radical Islam.
AQIM has organized numerous kidnappings of Western citizens in the region. Interestingly, kidnapped hostages from all over the region usually end up in northern Mali. AQIM has been using northern Mali (in particular Timbuktu and Kidal) as a sanctuary for three reasons: first, it is a very inhospitable area with a difficult terrain making it tough for nations to monitor it; second, some Arab tribes are located there; and finally, the Malian regime is weak and has almost no financial resources.
AQIM’s charm offensive — which includes distributing antibiotics when children are sick and buying goats for double the going rate — has won the hearts and minds of many locals in the Sahel. AQIM buys off local tribes and forms alliances with them, often through marriage.
To make matters more complicated, the area is home to the Tuaregs, a Berber group composed of 200,000 people, who are motivated by territorial claims and bad blood with the Malian authorities to side with AQIM.
The first reported example of cooperation between the Tuaregs and AQIM occurred in 2003, when a group of 32 European tourists, mostly Germans, was kidnapped by the GSPC, AQIM’s predecessor. Germany allegedly paid about $7.3 million in ransom to have them freed. The operation mastermind, GSPC's Abderrazak El Para, affirmed that he gave part of that ransom money to one of the mediators involved, who was a Tuareg leader. El Para added that he started investing the ransom money in the area.
The partnership has proven tenuous. It lasted while the ransom money was flowing, but the Tuaregs felt that their reputation was suffering as a result of their association with AQIM. In 2006, the Tuaregs decided to turn on their former allies. They ambushed AQIM operatives, killing the No. 2 of the Sahelian branch.
But, still, AQIM thrives in the area. The situation is ambiguous at best, and, clearly, an alliance remains.
Interestingly, the Tuaregs note that the Malians do not want to die fighting Al Qaeda because they see it as an Arab-Western issue.
Yet another factor must be taken into account. Cooperation with AQIM might not be limited to the Tuareg community. Indeed, AQIM has entered the very lucrative narco-business and has therefore attracted many recruits. For example, three alleged AQIM Malian associates were charged in December 2009 in New York with conspiring to smuggle cocaine through Africa and on to Europe.
According to the complaint, AQIM finances itself in part by protecting and moving loads along smuggling corridors that run through Morocco into Spain and through Libya and Algeria into Italy. One of the defendants, Harouna Toure, said that among other things he provided AQIM with gasoline and food. He said he “collects taxes from many rich Malian people throughout the region on Al Qaeda’s behalf.”
Another possible actor playing a troubled game is the Malian regime itself. For example, Algerian official media explains that AQIM kidnaps foreign citizens in other countries, and brings them right away to Mali where negotiations begin with the Amani Amadou Toure's government. The same media affirms that AQIM terrorists are protected by Malian authorities, like some Algerian extremists from the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) and the GIA (Islamic Armed Group) have been in the past.
There are examples of Malian authorities treating arrested AQIM members with leniency. For example, one of the leading emirs in the Sahel, Osama el Merdaci, was arrested in Timbuktu en route to Somalia in 2008. Since then, Malian authorities have refused to extradite him or even try him, while two Libyan terrorists were arrested and extradited almost right away.
Mali is viewed as a haven because AQIM seems untouched there and its leader in the region, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, has sealed alliances with four different tribes thanks to four separate marriages. In fact, part of the deal that got the hostages released in 2003 included the granting of asylum status for Mokhtar Belmokhtar — AQIM's emir for the Sahara — in Mali. Belmokhtar promised not to perpetrate any hostile actions on Malian soil, and the Malian authorities agreed to leave him alone.
Mali is very much at risk of losing its image of neutrality. Years of hard work and good governance could go up in smoke unless the current regime implements a true, cohesive counterterrorism policy.
Olivier Guitta is a security and geopolitical consultant based in Europe. He is also an Adjunct Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. You can view his latest work at www.thecroissant.com/about.html