‘Perilous Desert’ warns of Qaeda threat in Sahara

WASHINGTON - ‘The geopolitical significance of the Sahara is becoming painfully clear,” according to a new book, Perilous Desert: Insecurity in the Sahara, published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace andedited by North Africa experts Frederic Wehrey andAnouar Boukhars. The book, to be formally launched later this week at an all-day conference of experts, cites increasing inroads by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its allies in terrorism and trafficking across the Sahara/Sahel region, including Libya, Mali, Mauritania, and the Polisario-run refugee camps near Tindouf, Algeria, which the book says represent “a tinderbox waiting to explode.” According to Perilous Desert, “While the world’s attention was fixed on the momentous events in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya after the outbreak of the Arab Awakening, the desert states to the south were undergoing their own transformations with major global implications.” Although “long overlooked by policymakers and scholars,” the “states of the Sahara suffer from a ‘perfect storm’ of afflictions—weak governance, rampant corruption, endemic poverty, ethnic and societal cleavages, and inaccessible terrain—that give room for transnational crime and Islamist militant groups to proliferate and flourish.” The recent “series of high-profile events,” including the murder of a US Ambassador in Libya, French intervention following the al-Qaeda-backed conquest of N. Mali, and the hostage seizure and shootout at the Algerian gas facility, “point to a new front in the struggle against al-Qaeda—what some have called ‘an arc of instability’ stretching from Western Sahara to Somalia and north into the Sinai.” Al-Qaeda’s North Africa affiliate “has found an attractive base of supporters and recruits among the region’s disenchanted,” from Mali, Libya, Niger, Mauritania, and Algeria, including frustrated fighters and disaffected youth in the refugee camps controlled by the Polisario Front near Tindouf. Perilous Desert provides an “in-depth analysis of the factors shaping the Sahara” — with chapters on Libya, Mali and Algeria, Mauritania, organized crime in the Sahel, and the Western Sahara conflict — all of which contribute to increased instability and insecurity that “raises urgent concerns for the broader Sahara and the West.” In a chapter on the Western Sahara, Carnegie scholar Anouar Boukhars writes that the unresolved W. Sahara conflict has “negatively impacted trans-Saharan security. The undergoverned areas abutting the Western Sahara, especially northern Mauritania and the Polisario-administered camps in southwest Algeria, are becoming major hubs for drug trafficking, the smuggling of contraband, and the circulation of weapons.” Boukhars notes that, “There is growing evidence to suggest dangerous connections between criminal organizations, AQIM, and the Sahrawi refugees in Tindouf,” and that “in February 2013, the Malian foreign minister confirmed the presence of Sahrawi combatants from the Tindouf camps among the groups that fled the French-led intervention, which was launched to counter an advance of insurgents from northern Mali toward the capital.” Boukhars adds: “a study conducted by Altadis (a European tobacco company) revealed that ‘Sahrawis are involved in a vast network of smuggling … using various routes, passing through the Western Sahara to Algeria via Tifariti and Bir Lahlou, oases controlled by the Polisario Front.’” While “this illegal activity has existed for decades,” the “problem today, however, is that these illicit activities occur in the context of the expansion of AQIM, growing interdependence of organized criminal networks and state officials, and rising social and ethnic conflict.” In late February the Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies, IUCTS, issued another study, which reported that al-Qaeda was establishing a new hub for jihadi recruits and a potential launching pad for terrorist attacks much closer to US and European shores in an “Arc of Instability” stretching across Africa’s Sahara/Sahel region. Among other recommendations, the IUCTS report called for long-term solutions to reduce potentialcriminal, terrorist recruiting in Polisario-run refugee camps in Algeria. On May 13, the UN Security Council convened a special session, where delegates expressed deep concern about the “arc of instability” stretching across Africa’s Sahara and Sahel, where armed groups are perpetrating increasing violence and exploiting the region’s porous borders, illegal arms and drug trafficking, and difficult socioeconomic situations to spread the “growing scourge” of lawlessness. “Terrorism thrives where borders are weakest,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. “If left unchecked,” the Security Council delegates warned, “it could transform the continent into a breeding ground for extremists and a launch pad for larger-scale terrorist attacks around the world.”