**Daily Beast/Newsweek and Economist cite growing threat to North Africa and beyond from al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb, linked militants**
The Daily Beast/Newsweek, by Bruce Reidel (Washington, DC, Sept. 22, 2012) — Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, long the global jihad’s weakest link, is now thriving across North and West Africa. Its exact role in the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 is still unclear. But the perception that it was involved in the revenge killing of an American ambassador is already developed in the jihadist underworld.
AQIM was created about five years ago from the remnants of an Algerian terrorist group dating back to the 1990s. It started with a big bang, blowing up a United Nations building in Algiers. Then it faded into a small terror gang engaged in kidnapping and extortion in Mali, Niger, and other Saharan states. AQIM had no role in sparking the Arab Spring in Tunisia in early 2011. But it has skillfully exploited the chaotic openings that followed in Libya and Mali.
Al Qaeda has deep roots and connections to associated movements that date back to the 1990s. Al Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistan for years has also included a sizable Libyan faction with strong connections back home. Among these was Abu Yahya al-Libi, a senior operative who was killed in a drone attack this summer in Pakistan. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian Amir of al Qaeda, eulogized him on the eve of Sept. 11 and urged revenge.
Now it increasingly looks like AQIM operatives played some role in orchestrating the deadly attack on our consulate to avenge al-Libi. AQIM has publicly called the death of Chris Stevens a “blessed gift” that should be emulated by attacks on other American targets across North and West Africa, from Morocco to Nigeria, to avenge al-Libi, Osama bin Laden, and other “martyrs.”
In northern Mali, AQIM is building a base for orchestrating more such carnage. AQIM has built alliances with other jihadist groups in Mali to take control of an area the size of France or Texas. European intelligence services are already detecting the migration of European Muslim jihadists to training bases in Mali, just as earlier generations of jihadis went to Pakistan and Afghanistan to train with al Qaeda’s core.
Moroccan government sources fear Mali is becoming the most serious threat to North African stability in decades. The weak West African states appear incapable of dealing with Mali, and they are not getting much leadership help from outside. Burdened with an economic crisis, Europe does not want to take on the challenge. Mali’s biggest and richest neighbor, Algeria, is disappointing its friends by taking a very low profile in dealing with Mali’s jihadi menace.
Al Qaeda’s mother ship has been severely disrupted in the past four years by the drones in Pakistan. But the collapse of law and order across the Arab world has given the jihadists a huge operational opportunity that it has seized with enthusiasm. A drone attack in South Asia has unintended ripples in North Africa because even a weakened al Qaeda core still can inspire violence across the Islamic world. Bin Laden’s dream of inspiring a global jihad has sadly outlived him.
Bruce Riedel, a former longtime CIA officer, is a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution.
Divided Mali: Where al-Qaeda rules the roost. Islamist fighters tied to al-Qaeda control a swathe of north-west Africa
The Economist (Bamako, Mali, Sept. 22, 2012) — Attacks on Western diplomatic posts in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia have put the spotlight on Muslim extremists in north Africa. But farther south, in the Sahara desert, is where groups with ties to al-Qaeda have made most headway. Working with rebels fighting for ethnic rights, they took a mere three days in late March to conquer northern Mali, an area the size of France. And in contrast to Pakistan and Yemen, where refuges for extremists are insecure, here they have full control.
The sparsely populated lands stretching out from the fabled city of Timbuktu have become a vast lawless space where violent Islamists are free to train recruits, traffic arms and plan terror attacks. The shots are called by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has affiliates everywhere from the Mediterranean to the Gulf of Guinea, including Ansar al-Sharia, the Libyan group thought to be behind the recent attack on America’s consulate in Benghazi.
The northern Malian branch is busy setting up its own power structure. The ethnic Tuareg rebels who initially led the conquest have been sidelined. Two local al-Qaeda fronts have carved out separate fiefs. Ansar al-Dine, which controls Timbuktu, is more moderate and has tried to co-operate with local leaders, though it has failed to create a working civil administration. The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which controls the town of Gao, eyes commercial and criminal opportunities, while getting its funds from AQIM. Abdou Abdoulaye Sidibe, a member of parliament for Gao, says, “It is AQIM who have the money and the guns.”
The new rulers are settling in for the long term. Beyond Mopti, the government’s most northerly outpost 450km (280 miles) from Bamako, a harsh version of sharia law reigns. Robbers have had hands and feet cut off. Hassan Ag Diallo, a refugee from the north, says Islamists sliced off the top of his ear for smoking. “For drinking, they cut off your head.” New businesses are emerging. After the financial system fell apart when they took over, the Islamists let merchants create new links with Bamako, the capital in the south. Tamba Doucouré runs buses to Timbuktu, moving both passengers and cash. He charges $10 to send $2,000 and has set up a partnership with MoneyGram, an American firm. Businessmen think the new status quo will last a while; hopes of soon ejecting the Islamists look slim.
The central government in Bamako, which had been democratically elected, was overthrown in a military coup on March 22nd in the vain hope of preventing a northern takeover. Instead it accelerated one. The coup leader, Amadou Sanogo, seems to have been sidelined but heads an influential body that is supposed to reform the army. His allies control several ministries and a base in Kati, 15km outside Bamako. Armoured personnel-carriers and gun-toting men in mismatched uniforms guard sagging tents.
Civilian institutions are nominally back in charge, under an interim president, Dioncounda Traoré, a former speaker of parliament who is widely disliked. In May a mob broke into his office to rough him up. Cheick Modibo Diarra, the prime minister, is more popular but in the eyes of some still tainted because he is a son-in-law of Moussa Traoré, who ruled Mali from 1968 to 1991. The press in Bamako likes to call him “the Martian”, since he is an astrophysicist who once worked on interplanetary programmes at NASA in America. Sitting in white robes behind two smartphones, two packs of Marlboro cigarettes and a bowl of grapes, he says, “I control the government. The ministers follow my orders.”
Bamako’s messy politics is not the only obstacle to removing al-Qaeda from the north. Foreign military assistance has been mooted. Some Malians want troops under the aegis of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to come in. But conflicting interests and lack of military muscle are putting the idea on hold. Nigeria, the main power in ECOWAS, has problems with its own security. None of ECOWAS’s members has the logistics and intelligence to retake a large territory.
In any event, the Malians cannot agree among themselves on what type of help they want. A military spokesman says the army would like foreigners to provide equipment but not troops. Diplomats in Bamako doubt that foreign troops will come this year, if ever. ECOWAS is unlikely to intervene unless underwritten by the UN. A well-trained force might be able to chase out Mali’s al-Qaeda fighters, who are thought to number 2,000-4,000. But nobody expects a contingent of American marines to turn up. Even if the al-Qaeda types were put to flight, Mali’s ill-equipped army might well prove unable to hold on to the liberated vastness on its own.
So talk has turned to the possibility of negotiating with the Islamists. Officials in Bamako say they will insist that Mali must be a secular state but they have made several goodwill gestures. They have created a ministry of religious affairs. The prime minister has met an influential imam. Envoys have been sent north. For the time being, al-Qaeda looks set to hold onto its desert refuge.
Africa’s drug trade: Blazing saddles in the Sahara. Extremists in north-west Africa finance themselves by trafficking cocaine.
The Economist (Freetown, Sierra Leone, Sept. 22, 2012) — By virtue of one simple fact, the international airport in the capital of Sierra Leone, Freetown, was until recently a paradise for smugglers: it had no scanners or metal detectors. But their belated arrival has barely dented the flow of drugs from Latin America via west Africa to Europe. There are so many other transit points.
The UN drug office estimated in 2010 that the trade carried up to 60 tonnes of cocaine a year. It has grown fast since then. By some estimates, a quarter of all European cocaine arrives via Africa. The commonest of the routes is from Guinea-Bissau to Mali and Niger and onward to Libya and Egypt. Big parts of the terrain are controlled by extreme Islamists. They work with smugglers in order to finance battles for the Taliban-style governments they hope to set up.
Once the traffickers used aircraft, which limited how much they could ship. Now they ride in 4×4 vehicles on desert routes once plied by camels. A series of political changes has eased their passage: a coup in Guinea-Bissau in April 2012 put a corrupt army back in charge after a promising if brief transition to democracy. Northern Mali has been taken over by Islamists. A drought in Niger created a political crisis. The fall last year of military dictatorships in Libya and Egypt undermined those countries’ security forces.
The first evidence that west Africa was becoming a transit point for Latin American drugs surfaced in 2009. A burned-out Boeing 727 from Venezuela was found in the sands of north-eastern Mali. It had been stuffed to the gills with cocaine. In 2010 a two-tonne haul was found in the Gambia. In the past 15 months, Nigerian police have seized two big methamphetamine laboratories. Once merely an alternative route for traffickers, west Africa is now a production and distribution hub.
Western responses have been feeble. America provides $20m a year in aid to African drug cops. Europe stumps up even less.