The attempted bombing of Delta Airlines flight 253 by a Nigerian has led to media speculation on the rise of militant Islam in west Africa. But we need to put the situation into perspective.
“Following recent events in the North of Mali,” the press release from the organisers of the Festival of the Desert reads, “…the festival will make its camps in the desert sands just minutes from the centre of the city of Timbuktu”. For visitors expecting the annual music festival to take place in its usual location of Essakane, an oasis 65km east of Timbuktu surrounded by rolling white dunes, the news comes as something of a disappointment. But coming in the wake of a series of kidnaps by Islamic militants of westerners, most festivalgoers are happy to relocate.
The reputation of this region of Africa, sometimes lazily described in the media as “the new front line in the war on terror,” has been further tarnished by the revelation that the foiled Christmas Day airline bomber, Abdul Farouk Umar Abdulmutallab, is Nigerian. Although there is no evidence linking Nigeria with al Qaeda, newspapers such as the British Mail on Sunday were happy to include it in the “swathe of territory between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans” which it suggests we should look to as “the source of [Abdulmutallab’s] fanaticism.” Whilst the presence of militiant Islamic groups in the Sahara and Sahel regions of Africa is beyond dispute, it is important to keep their significance in perspective. The last 12 months has seen an increase in activity by a group that call themselves al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), but incidents in this vast area remain rare.
On 25th November a Frenchman was abducted by gunmen near the eastern Malian town of Menaka. Days later three Spaniards travelling as part of an aid convoy were seized in northern Mauritania. On 18th December two Italian tourists disappeared near the Mauritania-Mali boarder. All six are thought to be being held hostage in the deserts of Northern Mali by Islamic militants and fears for their safety have been heightened by the execution in Mali of a British holidaymaker, Edwin Dyer, last May. Sixty-one year old Dyer had been held with five other westerners for nearly four months by AQIM. Whilst the other hostages, two Canadians, two Germans and a Swiss, were eventually released after their governments reportedly paid ransoms, Dyer was not so fortunate. Details as to how he died vary but one report claimed that he was “engorgé”: literally, the Britons’ throat was cut.
In recent years, armed Muslim radicals have kidnapped Europeans in the Sahara on several occasions but their motive has generally been to obtain ransom money. In 2003, an Islamist group kidnapped 32 European tourists in Algeria, holding some of them for six months. They were held in two separate groups, the first liberated by the Algerian army, the second released in northern Mali after an alleged ransom was paid. In 2008, AQIM kidnapped two Austrian tourists in Tunisia. Their release was successfully negotiated after they also turned up in Mali and a ransom paid. This year however, has witnessed a subtle shift in attacks from those motived purely by financial gain to those rooted in ideology. In Mauritania in August a suicide bomber blew himself up outside the French embassy killing two French guards and in June, an American teacher was shot dead. The AQIM claimed it had killed him for spreading Christianity in the Islamic state.
In 2003, the US launched the Pan-Sahel Initiative, triggered by a fear that the Sahel region of Africa might become a stronghold or safe haven for al-Qaeda operatives. The programme was intended to give assistance to Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania in seeking out possible Islamic terrorists and in 2005 it was superseded by the Trans-Saharan Counter-terrorism Initiative which received approval from US Congress to the tune of $500m over a six year period. As a result, the militaries of Mali and Niger have been receiving US aid and training to combat terrorism despite the fact that, until recently, there was little evidence of Islamic extremism in either country. Indeed, some critics argue the strategy has been counter-productive with heightened militarisation of desert areas leading to resentment and encouraging the very extremism it was intended to prevent.
Whilst jihadists are operating in the deserts of the Maghreb the evidence suggests that there is little grassroots support for Islamic extremism. “I have never encountered a single person who has the slightest sympathy for al Qaeda,” says Guy Lankester, an Englishman who runs a tour company, From Here 2 Timbuktu. “I’ve criss-crossed the Sahara dozens of times and only encountered warmth and respect from the people I’ve met, be they Falani, Songhai, Soniuke, Sahawari or Tuareg.” Lankester, who has brought an enthusiastic group of 16 travellers to the festival in Timbuktu, is determined not to be cowed by a few extremist incidents and judging by the ticket sales for this years festival, this is the prevailing attitude. Although it has been relocated the festival, which originally stemmed from an idea during a cermony marking the end of hostilities after decades of civil war, will go ahead. For three days in January, Tuaregs will gather beside the river Niger with people around the world for three days of music, dance and celebration. In the wider region, life will also go on as before, peaceful and content. If this is the new frontline in the war in terror, no one told the locals.
Stefan Simanowitz is a journalist and broadcaster. He has spent time this year in Algeria, Mali and Niger where he reported on the political situation for the Independent, New Internationalist, Prospect, In These Times, Zmag and the Contemporary Review. He has a weekly column on Afrik.com website.