MARRAKECH, Morocco - Regional rivalries and doubts about Western
intervention are hampering efforts by Africa's fragile Sahara-Sahel zone
to prevent remote desert areas destabilized by Libya's war from
becoming safe havens for al-Qaida and international criminals.
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Some of the world's poorest countries such as Mali, Niger and Mauritania
are scrambling to secure international expertise to shore up crumbling
state authority in the face of an influx of weapons and fighters from
Counter-terrorism experts are concerned that al-Qaida gangs, enriched by
ransoms paid for Western hostages, are exploiting growing lawlessness
to push their influence southwards, possibly into OPEC power Nigeria,
Africa's most populous nation.
Chadian General Adoum Ngare Hassan told a security conference in Morocco
at the weekend that if Maghreb states span out of control their neighbors could face "a descent into hell".
The general, responsible for protecting Chad's borders with Niger, Libya
and Sudan, suggested the West bore much of the responsibility for
regional disarray through its support for the revolt in Libya, a country
now risking "general collapse".
While there is agreement in the international community on the urgent
need to help Sahelian states with security, in practice it is proving
very hard, analysts and diplomats say.
The principal reason is a long-standing rift between Arab Maghreb neighbors Algeria and Morocco, a fact that frustrates many in the
region because by common consent these two countries are best qualified
to help their weaker southern neighbors.
Both countries are heavyweight intelligence and military powers, but
they are also rivals, and an impasse in relations means they do not
operate the sort of joint security cooperation in their Saharan backyard
that could really make a difference.
Speaking on the sidelines of the conference, Jean-Francois Daguzan of
France's Foundation for Strategic Research told Reuters: "If there is no
Algerian-Moroccan agreement on the security of the Sahel, there cannot
be true security, simply because the terrorists will use this
fundamental fault. It's a major problem."
Sahel uneasy about accepting western help
As a result Sahelian states may have to rely increasingly on Europe and
the United States for counter-terrorism support, an uneasy prospect for
countries combatting al-Qaida militants who seek to portray regional
governments as stooges of the West.
But there is disquiet too, about the West's muscular role in Libya, and
some delegates said the issue of how much Western help the Sahel should
accept was a delicate one.
Some countries blame the West for the chaotic end to Muammar Gaddafi's
long rule, arguing the disarray handed al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb
the chance to obtain arms looted on its behalf from Libya, a feat the
group has openly, and proudly, disclosed.
There is resentment that British and French action removed a generous,
if fickle, donor to many African states and ended Libya's welcome for
hundreds of thousands of Sahelian workers whose remittances were an
Chadian General Hassan, whose country is a former Gaddafi ally now
struggling with the return of hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing
Libya's turmoil, suggested that if the uprisings in north Africa span
out of control it would have a devastating impact on other parts of
Such a loss of control would "promote a descent into hell with
incalculable consequences as much for itself (the Maghreb) as for neighbors near and far."
The West now had a duty to provide training and logistical support to African government forces who knew the terrain.
"It's high time the rich nations of Europe and America decided to help
Africa squarely in this critical, phase where (African) armed forces,
even if united, cannot tackle small groups of extremely mobile and
elusive armed bandits.
It was also in the West's own interest to step up support.
"If terrorists of all sorts don't manage to pass through the defensive
meshes of the West, the porous frontiers of African states will provide
them a choice of opportunities."
His remarks reflected private sentiment among some delegates but others
cautioned a call for Western technical support should not be
misinterpreted as tolerance for Western meddling.
The ideal solution was for Algeria and Morocco to solve their main row -
over the future of the disputed territory of Western Sahara -- and help
the region fight al- Qaida, some said.
Modibo Goita, a professor at the Peacekeeping School in Bamako, Mali,
said Algeria and Morocco had to find a way to cooperate to better
confront "the threat of chaos emerging from their southern flank.
Otherwise, they both must prepare to encounter unavoidable foreign
Algeria and Morocco both deploy intelligence services in the Sahara's
semi-arid southern fringe where al-Qaida seeks a safe haven along the
lines of Yemen and Somalia.
But they are competitors more than collaborators, diplomats say. Lack of
trust narrows the flows of information that are vital to disrupting an
upsurge in smuggling and hostage-taking believed to be funding militants
and racketeers with links to criminal syndicates in West Africa, Europe
and Latin America.
Daouda Diallo Boubacar, a security researcher from Niger, suggested increasing Western security ties would be imprudent.
"The best way of making the region unmanageable is to accept
intervention in the region. A solution must pass through the Maghreb and
the Sahel," he said.
Lack of regional intelligence damages efforts to contain al-Qaida
Until regional intelligence was improved, delegates said, it would be
hard to obtain timely and credible information about AQIM and its
alliances to political or criminal networks, such as its reputed link to
Nigeria's shadowy Boko Haram militants.
"AQIM is the ideal scarecrow for mafia networks and interests of
regional policy to confuse the issue and advance their pawns at will,"
said Jacques Hogard, a former French military officer who runs an
intelligence consultancy, EPEE.
Delegates said another big vulnerability exploited by AQIM, and anyone
with an interest in the region's disorder, was the region's poverty. One
senior Sahelian security officer said AQIM had bought the complicity or
silence of border guards, who normally might earn $500 a year, for
$2,000 to $3,000 a year.
Another problem was what one delegate called a perennial problem of
police brutality, a factor behind European and U.S. calls for
improvements in rule of law and judicial performance.
But even progress on those issues was dependent on better coordination,
for example boosting economic cooperation and a sharing of best police
practice, delegates said.
A US officer, who declined to be identified as he was not meant to
talk to media, said the region suffered "insufficient cooperation and
resources, a suspicion of motivations, and sometimes a purposeful
misinterpretation of intentions."
Another Western official bemoaned "an utter lack of security architecture."
'US drones could eventually be operating in region'
James Hentz, professor of international studies at the Virginia Military
Institute, said that if the region continued to struggle against AQIM,
it was possible that in time "we could see US drones in operation in
the region, with the request or permission of the sovereign states
involved, as we've seen them used in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia".
In May, Mali announced that it, Mauritania, Niger and Algeria would set
up within 18 months, a joint force of up to 75,000 soldiers to secure
their region, based at joint command centre established in 2010 in
Tamanrasset, in southern Algeria.
But Morocco is not part of this venture, and information about progress in assembling the force has been sparse.
France, which has 1,500 nationals in Niger and a further 8,500 in Mali
and Mauritania, warned this month that nowhere in its three ex-colonies
could now be considered safe following a series of kidnappings of its
nationals by gunmen working for al-Qaida, and advised French travelers
to avoid the Sahel.
Two separate attempts by French forces to rescue nationals from AQIM's
grip have ended in failure. And Western delegates said that ideally they
wanted any action on the ground in the region to be by African states.
Outsiders must not be "intrusive", French Defence Ministry deputy head
of strategic affairs General Jean Marc Duquesne told Reuters, adding
"What is really important is cooperation."
"It's really a question of south-south relationships, and we have to be
careful, countries, like ours, not to be intrusive about this. We must
be ready to help them, we must be ready to hear them, but we must be
very careful how to act with them."