North Africa's Sahel: The Next Terrorism Hot Spot?

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A video allegedly released by the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram shows two members standing against a background of a Google Earth shot of the northern Nigerian city of Bauchi

With a gigantic cache of advanced antiaircraft rockets missing from a raided storage space in Tripoli this week, concerns rose that the Gaddafi regime's weapons had been smuggled into neighboring Niger, Mali or Mauritania by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the terrorist network's quickly growing arm in the Sahel, a sunbaked region of the Sahara that has, in recent years, become an ungoverned haven for militant activity. Though there's no way to be sure, it's "probable" that the rockets — highly coveted by terrorist groups for their ability to shoot down low-flying aircraft — have made their way into AQIM's hands, says Nasser Weddady, the civil rights outreach director at the American Islamic Congress who focuses on Mauritania. "The only networks that have the financial capability [to purchase these looted weapons] are AQIM or well-established arms-smuggling networks in region, namely in Niger and Chad. AQIM is flush with ransom money, and they're the most likely to buy them."

Long seen as a fringe branch of the global terrorist operation, AQIM — with the revelation that it might have control of what Weddady calls "the perfect terrorist weapon" — can "no longer be looked at as just a local menace. This problem isn't local," he says. "We're going to see AQIM become more assertive, taking over entire areas and consolidating its presence. And we'll see more armed actions against the Mauritanians, Algerians, Mali and Niger." The missing weapons are the most advanced Russian surface-to-air missile, the SA-24, and an earlier version called the SA-7. Highly accurate, the heat-seeking weapons are easily launched from a shoulder or a truck bed and are able to take down low-flying aircraft. In 2002, al-Qaeda used SA-7s in a failed attempt to bring down an Israeli passenger plane over Mombasa, Kenya.

Now the group might seek to use them in a similar capacity several thousand miles to the west, in the impoverished Sahel. A jumble of weak governance, rampant drug smuggling and deep-seated economic frustration, the region has long been a powder keg waiting for this kind of match. Last week, rumors circulated that Gaddafi was considering an escape to Burkina Faso or Niger and that his security detail had been spotted in the latter — and it's easy to see how the region's vast deserts and rugged, remote mountains, which have allowed AQIM to fuel its own steady growth, could provide shelter to even the most hunted man on the planet. For the past few years, the group has used hefty ransoms from the kidnapping of Westerners to build its nest egg and has focused on ingratiating itself financially with rural tribes who feel marginalized by their governments. On the streets of Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, a storekeeper said he was so poor that he would welcome Gaddafi "or anyone else who will give me money." Though the exact figure of AQIM's wealth is unknown, an average ransom runs in the millions. Last month, the group negotiated the release of two Spanish hostages for roughly $10 million.

The region "provides al-Qaeda the optimum conditions it has traditionally sought — weak states, vast areas outside the purview of the government and disaffected ethnic groups," says Barak Barfi, a New America Foundation fellow based in Libya. "It should come as no surprise AQIM has established bases in the area." Paul Melly, an analyst at the London-based think tank Chatham House who specializes in West Africa, says the group "has been able to operate with relative ease in the central Sahara," physically difficult for small, poorly equipped national armies to control. To squash AQIM would be a formidable task, even for stronger armies. The group's dominance in the region extends from its control of drug-smuggling routes across the Libyan border and throughout the region — which could potentially have been used to smuggle rockets too — and alliances with dangerous local terrorist organizations like Nigeria's radical Islamist sect, Boko Haram, whose operatives train with AQIM in the Mali mountains. AQIM has been allowed to move with relative ease throughout the Sahel and set up secure training bases, Barfi says. There has been "a tacit agreement between AQIM and Mali that the government would not move against [AQIM's] bases in the country if there were no attacks and kidnappings there."

The group is notorious for the explosive attacks favored by other branches of al-Qaeda. The U.S.-based security monitoring group Site reported this month that AQIM was responsible for 32 attacks on Algerian security forces between July 7 and Aug. 29 alone, killing and injuring more than 200. Most were unsophisticated suicide bombings. Possession of Gaddafi's weapons would strike fear into Mauritania and Algeria, which are the group's top targets and whose governments have long struggled to hamper its activity. Mauritanian forces in particular have been largely overpowered by AQIM. In late August, an AQIM bomber tried to ram a 4x4 filled with explosives into military barracks in Nema, a city near Mauritania's border with Mali. It was likely retaliation for the Mauritanian military's July crackdown on AQIM's Mali bases that included a botched attempt — backed by France — to free a 78-year-old French hostage who was killed by his captors during the rescue attempt. (Mali's military has periodically allowed Mauritanian troops to cross the border for their ambushes on AQIM camps — which the Mauritanians have reported fortified by trenches and land mines.) In the future, there's a "good chance more sophisticated weapons such as antiair guns and antitank canons will find their way to AQIM, allowing it to plan riskier attacks," Barfi says.

To that end, the possibility that such a group now has possession of hundreds of advanced rockets could scare Western governments into action — but it could be too little, too late. Weddady says the French military currently has a presence on the ground in Mauritania, though "they won't admit the extent of it," and that it's likely the French and the Algerian government are now searching those countries for the missing weapons. "The probability that they're on the ground now searching is very high. The Mauritanians would be most concerned because they've got a very limited air-force fleet made up of older Brazilian fighter planes. They're perfect to be shot down" by an SA-24, he says. In the fight against AQIM, Mauritania "is on the front line." So is France, whose sphere of influence encompasses the region. Its former colonies make up the Sahel, and French is still widely spoken throughout West Africa. It remains to be seen if this dusty region of oasis towns holds the missing rockets — or maybe, somewhere in the desert, Gaddafi himself.