The desert interior of West Africa, from Mauritania to southern Algeria and from northern Niger to northern Mali covers around 3.5 million square kilometres – an area sixteen times the size of the UK with a population of less than four million. This remote region is barely under the control of the governments in Nouakchott, Algiers, Niamey and Bamako: there are few tarmac roads, the borders are unmarked, police posts are few and far between, and supplies of water, food and fuel are often hundreds of kilometres apart. Despite its inhospitable nature, the Sahara is popular with adventure travellers and significant numbers of tourists have visited it since the 1960s for its extraordinary landscapes, varied cultures and unique natural heritage. The region also holds barely tapped reserves of oil and minerals, including gold and uranium.
By Richard Trillo – travel writer, journalist and PR consultant with a special interest in Africa http://theroughguidetowestafrica.blogspot.com
The killing in January 2011 of two French men in eastern Mali, kidnapped from a restaurant in Niamey, Niger, was widely treated by the media as an example of a brazen new audacity by southern offshoots of “Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” (AQIM). As a result, foreign ministries in many countries, including Britain, France, the USA and Australia, beefed up their advisory notices to travellers in Mali and other parts of the Sahel. Evidence for the size and nature of the threat as reported by the media often comes from unspecified “intelligence sources” and “terrorism experts”. The extent of the threat and its true nature are, however, rarely assessed using publically available data.
Killings and abductions
Although the earliest major incident took place in 2003, when 32 tourists in different groups were kidnapped in coordinated attacks in Algeria and held for ransom (one woman died of heat stroke and 31 were released), the 32 cases involving foreign nationals described below (nine killed, five in assaults by gunmen; sixteen freed; seven still held) date back to 2007 and cover Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Nigeria.
The current perception of a crisis began in December 2007 when four French tourists were murdered during a roadside robbery in southern Mauritania. In 2009 a British tourist kidnapped in southeast Mali was executed. In 2010 an American aid worker was shot and killed in Nouakchott and an elderly French kidnap victim died or was executed in Niger. And then in January 2011, two French men were abducted in Niamey and killed less than twenty-four hours later over the border in eastern Mali, either before or during a rescue raid by French and Nigérien forces.
Between early 2008 and May 2011, 23 travellers and expatriates were abducted, of whom sixteen have been released unharmed (some after more than a year in captivity) and seven are still held hostage.
Of the sixteen people released, two were tourists kidnapped in southern Tunisia early in 2008 and eventually released in Mali; two were Canadian diplomats kidnapped in Niger in December 2008; four were abducted in Mali in two different incidents in 2009; and five were abducted in Mauritania, again in two different incidents, also in 2009. In September 2010, seven employees of the French energy company Areva (four French men, a French woman, a Togolese man and a Malagasy man) were taken hostage in Niger. Of these, the woman and the African employees were released in February 2011. In the same month, an Italian tourist was kidnapped near Djanet in southern Algeria. She and the four French men remain in captivity.
In May 2011, two expatriate workers (a Briton and an Italian) were abducted in Birnin-Kebbi, in northwest Nigeria, by unknown attackers. They remain unaccounted for, although their families may have deliberately avoided speaking to the media.
Although the full story about hostage negotiations and ransom payments is never made public, it is widely believed that millions of Euros have been paid by government intermediaries on behalf of the Italian, Spanish, Swiss and Canadian hostages. The French and British governments are notable for publically declaring they will not pay ransoms to hostage-takers.
Of the four hostage victims who have lost their lives in the Sahel since 2007, one British man was definitely murdered by his abductors, two French men were shot either in cold blood or during an attempt to rescue them, and one French man died or was murdered by his abductors.
Sahel travel in the balance
When measured against attacks attributed to Al-Qaeda over the last decade, including bombings and other attacks in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Turkey, Kenya, Tanzania, London, Madrid, Bali and the USA, which together have killed more than 4000 people, the number of incidents in the Sahel is minutely small.
Although kidnap victims report their attackers as generally behaving devoutly, ransom money rather than ideology is the main factor in the Sahel abductions. Rather than planning coordinated suicide bomb attacks on iconic targets such as embassies and hotels, AQIM is content to extort money from susceptible European governments and private sources, much after the style of Somali pirates hijacking tankers in the Indian Ocean. Perhaps surprisingly too, AQIM terrorists do not appear to be spending their millions on new attacks (although they did launch an abortive assassination raid in February 2011 on the president of Mauritania) or even on ramping up their hostage-taking.
The initial capture of hostages appears often to be carried out by freelance bandits who sell their victims on to AQIM, who then run the propaganda and negotiations, usually in the same remote region of northeast Mali. The freelance gangs, who may sometimes be indistinguishable from AQIM units, also traffic cannabis, weapons and migrants across the desert and run major cocaine rackets, participating in the shipment of South American cocaine consignments from coastal creeks in Guinea-Bissau to North Africa and Europe.
Somewhere in all this, one also has to reckon with the deep-seated and well-founded resentment of many of the Tuareg nomad communities of the southern Sahara over their treatment as second-class citizens by the national governments of Algeria, Mali and Niger. Major Tuareg uprisings in the 1990s in Mali and Niger ended with a successful peace agreement in Mali, but fizzled out inconclusively in Niger, only to rage into life again as a full insurrection in 2007. Since then, anti-government hostilities, banditry and hostage-taking in both countries have often been ascribed to Tuareg perpetrators, without much clear evidence. Tuareg websites have been vociferous in dissociating their community from any links with AQIM and there is certainly no cultural affinity between hardline interpretations of the Koran and the more pragmatic and tolerant lifestyle of Tuareg communities.
AQIM the ‘false flag’ in the War on Terror
Some Sahara analysts believe that AQIM, which was formed in 2007, is a false flag organisation. In this scenario, many of AQIM’s members may be genuine Islamic ideologues from Algeria, with a background in the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) that were formed after the cancellation of Algeria’s 1991 elections in which the Islamic Salvation Front won a sweeping victory. The activities of these AQIM ground troops, however, are said to be coordinated by none other than the Algerian intelligence service itself, in a strategy aimed at justifying the country’s authoritarian government, procuring arms and drawing their American military partners into the region in the “Global War on Terror” (there is a significant American military presence in the Sahel, notably a large US training base at Gao, in Mali). Professor Jeremy Keenan, professorial research associate at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, who has lived in the region and also acted as a hostage mediator, is a well known exponent of this view.
Keenan’s outspoken commentary on the murder of Edwin Dyer in The Independent in 2009 exposed the popular view of what AQIM represents to a harsh re-evaluation, in which the terrorist threat in the Sahel has been cynically fabricated to open a new front in the “war on terror”. Hard to stomach as this view may be, it cannot be denied that the public stance of the Sahel governments and their allies in London, Paris and Washington – that AQIM poses a serious threat to the security of the states in which it operates, and by extension is a threat to global peace – is simply not congruent with the prima facie evidence on the ground: instead of the coordinated, media-savvy attacks on iconic non-Islamic targets that one would expect from an organisation calling itself Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM engages in soft kidnappings for ransom, and infrequent, sometimes unsuccessful attacks on vulnerable targets in remote regions.
While the regional states and their international allies proclaim the dangers posed by AQIM, and vie to demonstrate which of them is more effective in countering it (and indeed some other regional states are claiming they also have an AQIM problem), the name of the group would appear to be an opportunistic effort to rebrand a poorly performing syndicate, and one whose political purpose – post-bin Laden, post-Arab Spring – must look increasingly unclear to its members.
If AQIM might otherwise look washed up (and the AQIM brand is greatly assisted by the willingness of its adversaries to ascribe every security incident to it), there is some foundation for the widely held view that the Libyan crisis is causing significant quantities of arms to be released into the desert region – although the demand for weapons on both sides of the war in Libya ought to keep most of them in the country. Concurrently, the return home to Mali and Niger from Libya of disgruntled migrant workers may produce a new AQIM recruitment pool while at the same time losing their jobs closes down a major source of remittances to desert communities.
Repercussions for travellers
Whatever the truth about AQIM’s membership and origins – and current best estimates are of a “membership” of just a few hundred men, most of them Algerian – the repercussions for travellers have been many: closed routes across the Sahara; threats to Mali’s music festivals*; a very uncertain future for the nascent tourist industry in Mauritania, which was just beginning to enjoy some success with the opening of the new tarmac road from Nouadhibou to Nouakchott, allowing overlanders to drive on tarmac all the way from Europe to Dakar; and the suspension of charter flights from France to Tamanrasset and Djanet (Algeria), Atar (Mauritania), Gao and Mopti (Mali), and Agadez (Niger).
Niger’s tourist industry dried up almost completely after the second Tuareg rebellion in 2007, because so much of the country was deemed unsafe for travel. Until 2011, however, the relatively healthy tourist industry in Mali had been steadily growing for many years, fuelled by the attraction of the Niger River, the country’s music festivals and the scenery and culture of the Dogon country east of Mopti. The new travel warnings, especially the British FCO’s lurid map of Mali, treat apparently safe regions, including Mopti and the Dogon country, as “too unsafe to travel”. This sledgehammer approach to travel advice is confusing to travellers who cannot see its logic and assume an underlying political motive, and damaging to local communities that rely on a steady trickle of tourist income for much of their cash needs. Until recently, the FCO’s Mali travel advice noted “No British nationals required consular assistance in Mali between April 2009 and August 2010”. Inexplicably, that remarkably positive statement has now been removed.
Boko Haram, Nigeria
In northeast Nigeria, the insurgency and Islamization campaign by the followers of the urban Boko Haram** sect does not so far appear to have any connection with AQIM. Unlike AQIM, Boko Haram has a political rather than a monetary agenda: attacks are carried out in broad daylight, and have hit multiple locations in Nigeria. The sect’s frequent attacks are usually political assassinations and weapons raids on police stations and it does not undertake banditry or kidnappings for ransom. Boko Haram has not targeted foreigners (with the possible exception of the Birnin-Kebbi abductions, which have yet to be explained), but the group’s conflict with the secular military and with northern Nigeria’s moderate-Muslim state governments is steadily ramping up. Hundreds of people were killed when police and army units brutally crushed Boko Haram protests in 2009, but their bomb and gun attacks – on alcohol users and state employees as well as on targeted individuals – are intensifying while the security forces’ response is increasingly violent and indiscriminate.
There is no reason for travellers in northern Nigeria to be complacent. The potential exists for the sect’s online rhetoric to transform rapidly into crowd violence against whichever targets might be deemed appropriate.
Sahel safety statistics
Something in the region of 100,000 non-African tourists, business travellers and expatriate workers visit Mauritania, Mali and Niger annually (World Tourism Organisation). The total area of the three countries, including the empty desert areas, is more than 3.6 million square kilometres, and although their combined population of 33 million people live in only about a third of that area, that inhabited third accounts for an area that is twice the size of Texas and five times as big as Britain. Based on the nine visitors who have been killed by terrorists since December 2007, the annual “tourist murder rate” in these three Sahel countries is around 2.5 per 100,000. This can be compared with the homicide rate in the USA, which is currently 5 per 100,000, or the UK and Australia, where the rate in both countries is 1.3 per 100,000.
Oil and mineral exploration companies can afford to buy inside information, on-the-ground security and insurance cover – all at a high price. Ordinary business travellers and tourists, however, have to do as they are told by official advice, or read between its lines and make a judgment about the risks to which they are exposing themselves.
*The Festival au Désert at Timbuktu takes places each January, and hundreds of foreign visitors attend, so far without incident. The lesser known Festival sur le Niger, in Ségou, is acquiring a similarly devoted following. There are other festivals: the Tamasonghoï festival at Bourem north of Gao and the Tamadacht festival at Andéramboukane in the far southeast of Mali. Four Europeans leaving the latter festival in January 2009 were held hostage for a number of months before their respective governments paid ransoms for three of them. The fourth, a Briton named Edwin Dyer, was executed.
**“Boko Haram” is a Hausa nickname for the movement, meaning “Western education is immoral”. The group’s real name is Jama’atu Ahli-Sunnah Lidda’awati Wal Jihad, meaning Sunni Association for the Promotion of Islam and Holy War and its avowed aims are to install hardline Islamic governments in Nigeria’s northern states.