European concerns grow about Al Qaeda's presence in the Sahel

Financial support and political engagement from Spain and France could enhance counterterrorism efforts in Mali, Niger, and Mauritania as those nations take on Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Recently several European officials have visited the Sahel to discuss concerns about Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) with Sahelian governments.

These visits demonstrate European governments’ continued engagement with the issue of AQIM, particularly its kidnapping activities. Concerns about AQIM are intensifying in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death and the ongoing civil war in Libya.

Last week, Spanish secretary of state for security Antonio Camacho met with his counterparts in Mauritania, Mali, and Niger.

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In Mauritania, where Mr. Camacho also discussed illegal immigration, he made plans to enhance Spanish-Mauritanian security cooperation:

Camacho discussed ways to establish new forms of support, either bilaterally or multilaterally, so as to address the threats, stressing the strategic importance that Spain sees in co-operation with Mauritania.

Both sides agreed to create a “joint team for co-operation among police agencies in the fight against drug trafficking”. They also explored the possibility of tightening border control, promoting co-operation and development between the two countries, according to the statement.

Spain’s stake in the problem of AQIM increased after militants kidnapped three Spanish aid workers in 2009. The hostages were released last year “after the Spanish state reportedly paid 7 to 8 million euros ($10 to $12 million).”

This week, two French members of parliament are making a similar circuit of the Sahel:

Henri Pagnol, of the ruling UMP party, and Francois Loncle, of the opposition Socialist Party, said they were on their way back from the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott and would head for the Malian capital Bamako later in the day.

Loncle said the team, which also plans to visit Niger, Burkina Faso and Algeria in June, will assess the impact of the activities of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) on regional countries and “the role of France” in the fight against the extremist organisation.

In Nouakchott, the French MPs met with President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and several of his ministers as well as with opposition chief Ahmed Ould Daddah and French military officials.

France has a substantial stake in the problem, too.

A number of AQIM’s kidnapping victims have been French citizens, including two young men who died near the Niger-Mali border in January and four Frenchmen still held by AQIM. Some experts believe that Osama bin Laden’s death has increased the likelihood that the latter captives will come to harm if AQIM decides to commit an act of symbolic retaliation.

Whatever the case, negotiations over the hostages have so far come to naught, and clearly French politicians are worried about the hostages’ fate and the trajectory of AQIM in general.

These European visits come as Sahelian governments, who are themselves increasingly worried about AQIM, are pursuing greater cooperation amongst themselves and with Algeria. Financial support and political engagement on the part of Spain and France could enhance some of the Sahelian governments’ counterterrorism efforts, and could also draw European governments even more deeply into Sahelian affairs and politics.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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