West African Army commanders are concluding a two-day meeting Thursday in Tamanrasset, Algeria, to coordinate their efforts to fight terrorism.
Aiming to "reinforce military and security cooperation" between Mali, Mauritania, Algeria, and Niger, the summit comes at a time of escalating violence in the vast desert expanse that links these nations, known as the trans-Sahel region.
After a suicide bomber wounded three people at the French Embassy in Mauritania last week, Interior Minister Mohamed Ould R'Zeizime said in an interview with Radio France International that the attacker was a Mauritanian man recruited by Salafists who "trained in the camps in the open desert between Mauritania, Mali, and Algeria."
Numerous other security experts and government officials agree that the uptick in kidnappings, assassinations, and suicide bombings throughout more urban West African areas is traceable to new terrorism training camps in the trans-Sahel, where borders are obscure and laws unenforced. These camps, they argue, are fueling anti-Western attacks that often aim to raise money for groups with links to Al Qaeda.
"There seems to be a pretty coordinated effort across the trans-Sahel," says Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and West Point counterterrorism expert now working for Innovative Analytics and Training, a Washington security consulting firm. "To me, the increase in terrorist activities signals that there's some sort of long-range strategy, rather than just a bunch of bandits committing acts."
Indeed, since a 2006 merger between Al Qaeda and an Algerian Islamist group yielded Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), the organization appears to have shifted "from nationalist ambitions to a more internationalist agenda," according to a 2008 study by counterterrorism expert Andrew Black.
The study, published in April 2008 in West Point's Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel, found that anti-Western and antiforeigner statements by AQIM and its precursor, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), more than tripled from March 2005 to March 2008. (To read Mr. Black's full report, see page 12 of this PDF.)
Other recent attacks
In July, AQIM organized two attacks on Algerian military targets, killing at least 29 soldiers; the second ambush took place just 45 miles from the capital Algiers, distinctly closer than the first. On June 23, American national Christopher Leggett was assassinated in broad daylight in the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott in an act later claimed by AQIM.
AQIM also claimed responsibility for the January kidnapping of four European tourists in the Mali-Niger border area and the December kidnapping of two European diplomats in Niger. One captive, British national Edwin Dyer, was assassinated after Britain reportedly refused to pay a ¤10 million ransom.
What the summit will accomplish
In the face of this amplified threat, this week's summit, held in the Algerian city of Tamanrasset, will allow the four countries to "consolidate their cooperation against the raging criminality of border-crossing bandits, and particularly, against terrorism," according to a communiqué from the Algerian Defense Ministry.
But these African nations' militaries may be challenged by deficits in funding and communications technologies, according to Mr. Watts, especially in combat against technologically advanced groups deeply hidden in the hinterland.
"How are four armies with marginal capabilities and different languages going to communicate in the middle of the Sahara? Hunting down international terrorist networks is not their thing," says Watts.