Al-Qaida offshoot hopes to turn Africa's Sahel region into a 'new Somalia' | World news | The Guardian
An offshoot of al-Qaida is working to turn the whole of Africa's Sahel region into a "new Somalia" and terrorist bases there pose a growing threat to European and pan-African security, a panel of experts has warned.
Jerome Spinoza, head of the Africa bureau in the French ministry of defence, said the sub-Saharan Sahel area, up to 1,000km wide and stretching from the Atlantic in the west to the Red Sea in the east, presented challenges that western policymakers ignored at their peril.
"Instability is on the rise," Spinoza told the Chatham House thinktank in London on Thursday. "Without a meaningful policy, the area could constitute a lasting safe haven for jihadists."
Robert Fowler, a former UN special envoy to Niger and Canadian diplomat who was kidnapped and held hostage for four months in 2008-9 by al-Qaida in the Maghreb (AQIM), said the 31-strong group of captors was well-disciplined and wholly concentrated on its aim of creating an Islamic caliphate embracing the Muslim lands of Africa and the Middle East.
"These men are highly motivated and totally ascetic," Fowler said. "These guys have no needs. They are dressed in rags. They have a bag of rice and a belt of ammunition and that's it. I was held in 23 different locations in about 70 days. They are organised. They can break camp in under four minutes."
Fowler continued: "This was the most focused group of young men I have ever encountered in my life. They are totally committed to jihad. They said to me, 'We fight to die, you fight to go home to your wife and kids. Guess who will win?' Even if it takes 200 years … They want to turn the Sahel into a new Somalia."
Fowler said the terrorist threat to Europe's southern flank had risen after advanced weapons were plundered during the collapse of the Gaddafi regime in Libya. "They (AQIM) are now equipped with enormous amounts of Libyan weapons and I mean sophisticated weapons such as 20,000 [shoulder-mounted] SA-24 missiles, heavy mortars, heavy artillery and thousands of anti-tank mines … The UN has demanded they be handed over. Well, good luck with that."
The Sahel region embraces southern Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, southern Algeria, Niger, northern Nigeria, Chad, South Sudan and Darfur in western Sudan, northern Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Spinoza said a host of critical issues faced the region going beyond terrorism. They included recurring rebellions by nomadic Tuareg tribesmen, some of whom were armed by and fought as mercenaries for Gaddafi in this year's Libya conflict, cocaine trafficking to Europe from the west African coast, and people and arms smuggling.
The region was also confronted by rapid population growth, weak and ineffective governance, inter-state tensions, poor access to education and employment, and increasingly acute food supply problems exacerbated by climate change and the southward advance of the Sahara desert, he said.
AQIM was exploiting the resulting instability, he suggested, spreading its influence south from Algeria and raising the prospect of transcontinental link-ups with Boko Haram militant Islamists in Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Somalia.
Spinoza called for a joined-up approach by the international community, suggesting interested countries including France, the Netherlands and the US needed to coordinate their policies with regional and local players. "The EU's strategy for security involves development, rule of law and (non-military) security but the EU needs to be more concrete," he said.
Speaking this week, Kristalina Georgieva, the EU commissioner for humanitarian aid crisis response, said the Sahel was likely to experience severe food shortages next year because of erratic rainfall and localised dry spells.
Seven million people were already facing shortages in Niger, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria and Burkina Faso, she said. Current trends pointed to a massive problem of food availability next year.
The European commission last month increased humanitarian funding to the Sahel by €10m (£8.5m) to a total of €55m this year. Niger and Mauritania have already declared a crisis, prepared national action plans, and appealed for international help.
At the eastern end of the Sahel arc, 13 million people remained in need of emergency help and the crisis there was expected to last until the spring and perhaps the summer of 2012, Georgieva said.