Washington Possibly Examining Militancy Threat in West Africa

5 MINS READNov 14, 2002 | 15:53 GMT
U.S. intelligence sources have floated a report that al Qaeda now might represent a threat to U.S. interests in West Africa. The report could indicate growing concern in Washington that sparsely populated and obscure countries in the region could be a serious weakness in the global fight against Islamic militancy.
Citing unnamed U.S. intelligence sources, the Voice of America (VOA) reported Nov. 11 that an arms-smuggling network active in West Africa is suspected of supplying weapons to groups linked to al Qaeda. The sources also warned that fugitive al Qaeda leaders might seek sanctuary in the region. The report highlights a potentially serious geographic weakness for the United States and Europe in the fight against Islamic militants. Western intelligence operations are weak in Africa, particularly in strategically unimportant parts of northwest Africa, limiting the ability to monitor a rise in militant activity. The gravest concern might be that al Qaeda could seek to relocate training facilities in obscure, sparsely populated Muslim countries in Africa. By floating the report, Washington could be signaling that it will focus more closely on potential al Qaeda links in northwest Africa and intends to expand its presence and activity in the region. According to the VOA, anonymous U.S. intelligence sources claim that a former Algerian army colonel named Mokhtar Belmokhtar is operating the al Qaeda-linked arms-smuggling network known by the initials MBM in West Africa. The report noted that Belmokhtar operates in Algeria as well as in the large but lightly populated countries of Mali and Mauritania. MBM reportedly has cut arms deals with "various radical Islamic organizations," including Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (SGCP), which is headed by Hassan Hattab. Both Hattab and the SGCP — which has between 350 and 380 members and operates mainly in eastern Algeria — are rumored to have close ties to al Qaeda and have allegedly received funding directly from Osama bin Laden. The intelligence regarding the arms network run by Belmokhtar and MBM probably was the result of cooperation between the United States and Algeria. The fact that this bit of intelligence was leaked through the VOA, an organization that is considered largely a mouthpiece for Washington, shows that U.S. intelligence clearly wanted the story out there — the question is why? The likely answer is that Washington has legitimate concerns that northwest Africa is a weak link in its fight against Islamist militants. The region's vast swathes of uncontrolled desert territory are ideal not just for the illicit trade of arms, but also as a potential safe haven for al Qaeda leaders and new training camps. Islamic militants already are heavily active in Algeria's long-running civil war. Algerian nationals have popped up in training camps in Afghanistan and in suspected militant cells in Europe and North America. The Algerian threat has been known for some time, and the government is working with U.S. intelligence to try to contain the problem. Another lesser-known concern could lie southwest of Algeria in two large but obscure Muslim countries: Mauritania, which is a member of the Arab League, and Mali. Both are huge in landmass with small populations clustered in only a few western cities. The Sahara dominates the countries’ wide eastern portions, with vast areas of desert that have little to no official government presence or control. Neither country has significant economic or geopolitical power, even by African standards — Mauritania ranks 139th and Mali 153rd out of 162 countries on the U.N. Human Development Index. This makes them ideal avenues for gun running and other forms of illicit trade. With many of its traditional areas of operation under siege, al Qaeda is looking for new vectors for such activity. Al Qaeda could seek to take advantage of its connections in Algeria to expand its activity in West Africa. The region definitely has advantages for militants — so much of it is lawless, avenues for gun- and drug running already exist and the United States and Europe have only limited intelligence capabilities on the continent. Moreover, for al Qaeda members looking for a new safe haven, countries like Mali and Mauritania would look pretty attractive. Their location, obscurity, vastness and Muslim heritage could make them ideal candidates for the relocation of al Qaeda leaders and possibly the establishment of training camps. This possibility appears to be on the minds of U.S. intelligence officials, who told VOA that MBM might provide shelter to fugitive al Qaeda leaders. It should be noted that so far no hard evidence has emerged that al Qaeda is establishing itself in West Africa. At the same time, there very well might be sympathy for al Qaeda in these countries. For instance, last April Muslim leaders in Mali passed a motion of support for Palestinians and invoked a curse on Israeli and American leaders, Africa News Service reported. About the same time, thousands turned out for anti-Israeli street demonstrations in Mauritania. Despite the fairly obvious attempt by U.S. intelligence to float the West Africa story Nov. 11, few mainstream media sources bit the bait. As of Nov. 13, only Liberian daily The News and Deutsche Presse-Agentur appear to have picked up the report. The most logical reason is that Mali and Mauritania simply are not on the Western media's radar screens. If the VOA story is any indication, Washington might be seeking to change that.

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