In Africa's Sahel region, concerns deepen over Libya, Al Qaeda

At a gathering of regional military planners on Friday, analysts discussed how security conditions have deteriorated since the beginning of the Libyan conflict, and how Al Qaeda's affiliate has used the conflict to accumulate arms.

A French hostage of Al Qaeda's north African branch kidnapped in Niger in September is seen in this still image from a video released April 26, 2011 on Islamist internet forums by the group. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) released messages from the four French hostages, who called for France to respond to the militant group's demand that France withdraw troops from Afghanistan.

Osama bin Laden is dead, but Al Qaeda’s affiliates remain.

On Friday, senior military officers from Algeria, Mauritania, Mali, and Niger met in Bamako to discuss counterterrorism cooperation against Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

AQIM has carried out a number of kidnappings and attacks in North Africa and the Sahel in recent years, and Sahelian armies are increasingly working with Algeria to defeat the group.

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The latest meeting reflected growing concerns about AQIM in the context of the Libyan civil war. Algeria and its southern neighbors are worried that Libya’s crisis is offering an opportunity to AQIM:

Speaking after a meeting Friday between the four army heads, a Malian officer who attended said: “The situation in Libya is of great concern. There is a risk of destabilising the entire region.”

The meeting was to reinforce the fight against insecurity in a region threatened by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

“Moreover, because of the Libyan crisis, the security situation in the Sahel has deteriorated, so it is necessary to be careful. We are all on alert and we keep each other informed,” he added.

According to a document from one of the participating countries, seen by AFP, “there is now no doubt, several Al-Qaeda fighters are involved in the Libya fighting.”

Sahelian governments’ attention to Libya is not new:

In late March, Mali and Niger security sources said AQIM had taken advantage of the Libyan conflict to accumulate heavy weapons, such as anti-aircraft missiles, described as “a real danger for the whole area.”

In April, Algerian officials also warned about an AQIM presence in Libya:

Abdelkader Messahel, Algerian Deputy Foreign Minister said he was worried “particularly through the increasingly noticeable presence of AQIM (al Qaeda’s north African wing) in Libya and the increasingly noticeable circulation of weapons which can be exploited by terrorist groups”.

Addressing a news conference after meeting Britain’s Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt, Messahel said a prolonged conflict in Libya risked destabilising the Sahel region.

Friday’s meeting indicates that Sahelian and Algerian fears about Libya and AQIM are growing. In another sign of this concern, “Algeria’s foreign minister will visit Washington from Monday to discuss the continuing unrest across North Africa, in particular the conflict in Libya.” This trip continues ongoing exchanges between American and Algerian personnel who are seeking to enhance cooperation around, among other issues, AQIM. With Algeria playing the leading role in counterterrorism cooperation with its Sahelian neighbors, US-Algerian discussions are bound to affect counterterrorism efforts in the Sahara more broadly.

Time will tell how the Libyan civil war has affected AQIM’s fortunes, but clearly the governments of Algeria, Mauritania, Mali, and Niger are taking the matter very seriously. Expect more discussions and actions on this issue.

In the meantime, here is some further reading on Libya and AQIM from the BBC and al Wasat.

--- Alex Thurston blogs on the African Sahel region at Sahel Blog.

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