Faced with a growing threat from al Qaeda, Sahara desert states have been meeting to try to hammer out a joint plan of action against the insurgents. Foreign Ministers held talks in Algeria, heralding greater cross-border cooperation in tackling terrorism.
Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci said: “To begin with, it is incumbent on us to evalute the terrorist threat which is developing dangerously and taking on a new dimension, with increasingly strong ties to organised crime and the trafficking of drugs and weapons.”
Emerging from Algerian terrorism during its civil war in the 1990s, al Qaeda’s North African wing is now a regional issue. Burkina Faso, Chad, Libya, Mali, Mauritania and Niger are all concerned.
During the war, it is thought Algeria had up to 28,000 insurgents. Counter-terrorism efforts and an amnesty offered to Islamists helped cut that number. Today, membership of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb as it calls itself is estimated at several hundred in Africa’s Sahel region, one of the poorest in the world.
Initially, Islamists were allowed to flex their political muscle in Algeria. But when they looked set to take power in 1992 after an election, parliament was dissolved sparking angry protests.
Violence followed, with militants unleashing a wave of terror in a bid to establish an Islamic State. One faction that emerged was the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat.
Swearing allegiance to Osama bin Laden’s network it gained recognition from al Qaeda and changed its name accordingly. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan helped encourage new recruits.
The targets were often foreigners, including the United Nations. One suicide attack in Algiers in 2007 killed around 40 people, 17 of them UN staff.
Kidnappings too are a key part of the insurgents’ campaign. Shifting a large part of their activities south to the Sahara desert, they have seized hostages in sparsely-populated areas.
Western governments are now anxious about the militants’ impact on global security. As they increase their own vigilance, they are eager for Saharan states to work more closely together to combat the al Qaeda threat.