Uniting against terrorism across the Sahara

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Seven governments in the Sahara-Sahel region are combining efforts to counter terrorist groupsSeven governments in the Sahara-Sahel region are combining efforts to counter terrorist groups, such as Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which took credit for bombing of the UN headquarters in Algiers in December 2007 (above), an act that claimed the lives of 17 UN personnel.
Photograph: UN / Evan Schneider

For countries bordering the Sahara Desert, terrorist attacks continue to pose “real threats,” says Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci. The menace, he adds, is compounded by the fact that terrorist groups often have ties with organized crime, including drug and arms traffickers who operate across the region’s remote and poorly controlled frontiers. To face the challenge, Mr. Medelci says, African countries must not only better coordinate their actions against terrorism and crime, but also improve the living conditions of the poorest people.

One sign of growing cooperation against terrorism among governments in the region was a 16 March meeting in Algiers between Mr. Medelci and the foreign ministers of a half dozen other countries — Burkina Faso, Chad, Libya, Mali, Mauritania and Niger — all of which border the Sahara and the semi-desert region to its south known as the Sahel. The following month, the military chiefs of the seven countries also met in Algiers, specifically to coordinate their security actions.

The ministers and generals were spurred on by fresh reminders in recent months of the seriousness of the problem: the seizure of several European and African hostages in Mauritania and Mali, an attack on a military post in Niger that cost the lives of five Nigerien soldiers and an ambush in the Kabylie region of Algeria that killed seven security guards. Most actions have been claimed by Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), known for its dramatic bombing of the UN offices in Algiers in December 2007. Although it is a predominantly Algerian dissident group, it also includes fighters from other countries and operates throughout the region.

Groups using terrorist methods have emerged elsewhere in Africa as well, including in East Africa and Somalia. Recognizing that terrorism has emerged as a continental problem, the African Union (AU) has developed a Plan of Action on the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism in Africa. In addition to law enforcement measures, it emphasizes the need for governments to reduce poverty, deprivation and marginalization, which can foster discontent and be used by terrorist groups to recruit followers and justify violence.

In late April, AU Commissioner for Peace and Security Ramtane Lamamra reaffirmed the organization’s commitment to the struggle against terrorism. Noting that AQIM and other groups have seized hostages and demanded money or political concessions for their release, he urged governments to refrain from paying ransoms, as it may encourage yet further kidnappings. Fighting terrorism, Mr. Lamamra said, must include “refusing to cede to the blackmail of terrorist groups.”

The issue of how to deal with hostage-taking has stirred some controversy. A couple weeks before the Algiers meeting, a court in Mali released four suspected AQIM fighters, prompting AQIM to free a French citizen who had earlier been kidnapped in northern Mali. Both Algeria and Mauritania protested the release of the AQIM suspects (two were Algerian and one was Mauritanian).

The Algiers meeting took up the topic. All seven governments agreed to abide by an AU decision in July 2009 to condemn the payment of ransom to terrorist groups, as well as to enforce a December 2009 UN Security Council resolution that criminalizes any payments to listed terrorist individuals and organizations.

The ministers recognized that terrorist activities, especially in conjunction with crossborder trafficking in drugs, arms and persons, are “a threat and a factor of instability for the entire region, and pose an obstacle to socio-economic development.” By acting together, they affirmed, it would be possible to “restore to the Sahelian-Saharan region its role as an area of trade, peace, stability and productive cooperation.”

The ministers agreed on action in a number of specific areas:

  • Strengthening bilateral and regional cooperation to maintain the region’s peace, security and socio-economic development,
  • Pursuing programmes for sustainable development to improve people’s living conditions, and especially to ensure the social and economic integration of young people,
  • Combating terrorism and criminality by winning the support of local populations,
  • Developing an integrated anti-terrorism approach by governments, regional organizations and the international community,
  • Bolstering judicial cooperation and the monitoring of illicit financial flows, and
  • Improving coordination among the military high commands of the seven countries.

In April, the Algerian army launched a major operation against several hundred suspected AQIM fighters in that country. Then on 13 April the military chiefs of the seven countries met in Algiers. According to General Ahmed Gaïd Salah, the Algerian army chief of staff, he and his counterparts agreed to establish a security information coordination centre in Tamanrasset in southern Algeria and to step up joint monitoring of their borders to crack down on terrorists, smugglers and drug traffickers.

By addressing the region’s security challenges, General Salah said, it would make it easier for “our respective political authorities to devote themselves to the task of economic and social development for the benefit of our peoples.”

– Africa Renewal online