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Eleven days ago, a firefight broke out in a remote corner of Mali, a sparsely populated desert nation in the heart of West Africa.
On one side of the battle were Mauritanian soldiers whose military has been trained by the United States. On the other: armed members of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a terrorist group inspired by Al Qaeda that’s developed a reputation for abducting and sometimes killing Westerners in the region.
Seventeen people died in the fighting, which lasted for several hours on the evening of June 24. The target of the raid – a heavily fortified terrorist camp – was obliterated, officials said.
It wasn’t the first time the two sides have come head to head. Regional governments have been targeting the terrorist group, which is known by its acronym, AQIM, for more than six years. But their efforts, which some critics say are lackluster, haven’t yet managed to cripple the terrorist group. Meanwhile, tourism in the region has evaporated and violence in Libya could be making AQIM stronger.
“What worries me is what’s happening today in Libya,” said Idriss Déby, the president of Chad – another country in which AQIM operates – in an interview with the magazine Jeune Afrique in March. “Al-Qaeda Islamists have looted arsenals in the rebel zone to equip themselves with arms, including surface-to-air missiles, which were then smuggled to their strongholds in the desert.”
“It’s very serious,” Mr. Déby added. “AQIM is about to become a veritable army, the best equipped in the region.”
The group, which grew out of the civil unrest that rocked Algeria in the 1990s, has been actively pursuing Westerners in Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Algeria since 2003. Although AQIM got some funding from Osama Bin Laden in its early days, the group is now self-financing, raising money by demanding ransoms for its captives and trafficking drugs and weapons across porous Saharan borders.
In the past 12 months, AQIM has kidnapped a dozen people, most of them European tourists, and executed at least three. The group has also claimed responsibility for three recent incidents in Mauritania: an armed attack at the French embassy and two attempted car bombings. Since 2003, AQIM fighters have kidnapped or murdered more than 50 people.
All of that activity has attracted the attention of the United States, which launched its Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership in 2005. The $500 million program, which operates in nine countries across the Sahara, offers training in counterterrorism techniques and seeks to strengthen the region’s military ties with the United States. But some say that area governments aren’t doing as much as they could to clamp down on AQIM.
“There is a capacity issue, but there is also a will issue, very clearly,” a Western official in Bamako, Mali’s capital, told The Irish Times in December. “It’s a rock they don’t want to lift up because all sorts of creepy-crawlies will come out if they do.”
Meanwhile, the tourism industry in Mali, which once drew nearly 100,000 visitors per year, is suffering badly. Storied attractions like Timbuktu, Dogon Country, and the Festival au Desert are largely devoid of Western tourists, as the United States and other Western governments are continuing to warn against travel outside the country’s capital.