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…