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Al Qaeda in Mali!

Interesting Article: Mali gunmen abduct two French citizens from hotel by BBC NEWS /  Bamako published Thursday, November 24, 2011

A recent article in BBC News spoke about gunmen in Mali having abducted two French citizens from their hotel in the central town of Hombori. It is the first kidnapping of Westerners in Mali that has occurred. The BBC's Martin Vogl, in the Malian capital Bamako, says military vehicles and security personnel have been sent to Hombori to try to stop the hostage takers crossing the Niger River in case they plan to go to the bases of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the far north of the country. Al-Qaeda linked fighters have in the past brought hostages into northern Mali from neighboring countries. So what is AQIM doing in Mali?

AQIM is very active in the areas of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Libya and Chad (see map on right). The group has declared its intention to attack Algerian, Spanish, French, and American targets in the region. A disturbing report came out in 2009, where the Sun reported that there had been an outbreak of bubonic plague at an AQIM training camp in the Tizi Ouzou province in Algeria. According to the Sun, at least forty AQIM militias died from the disease. The surviving AQM members from the training camp reportedly fled to other areas of Algeria hoping to escape infection. The Washington Times, in an article based on only a single, anonymous source, claimed a day later that the incident was not related to bubonic plague, but was an accident involving either a biological or chemical agent. AQIM latest involvements in Mali seem to be on the uptick, historically Mali enjoys a very good reputation around the world. Mali is Africa’s third largest gold miner and a big cotton producer. Tourism receipts also contribute to an annual gross domestic output of just over $9 billion. It boasts a vibrant democracy with a multi-party system, a market economy and a tradition of practicing moderate Islam. A draw to travelers for its dramatic desert-scapes and the ancient trading town of Timbuktu, Mali is struggling with a growing presence of gunmen from Al Qaeda’s African wing, believed to be behind a rash of kidnappings. AQIM has organized numerous kidnappings of Western citizens in the region. Interestingly, kidnapped hostages from all over the region usually end up in northern Mali. AQIM has been using northern Mali (in particular Timbuktu and Kidal) as a sanctuary for three reasons: first, it is a very inhospitable area with a difficult terrain making it tough for nations to monitor it; second, some Arab tribes are located there; and finally, the Malian regime is weak and has almost no financial resources. AQIM’s charm offensive — which includes distributing antibiotics when children are sick and buying goats for double the going rate — has won the hearts and minds of many locals in the Sahel. AQIM buys off local tribes and forms alliances with them, often through marriage. The US military has begun training Malian troops in counterterrorism tactics, but the effort has yet to bear fruit. In an October 4th statement posted on, AQIM said it planted the mines to prevent people from “approaching mujahedeen’s’ centers” in the area. “AQIM’s use of mines is a new plan to fortify their strongholds against civilians who roam these areas, as AQIM now fears that agents may be deployed among local populations to work for the account of Mauritanian and Malian armies,” analyst Abdul Salam Ould Adah told Magharebia. The Malian government is boosting efforts to reduce poverty and unemployment in the northern regions of the country in an effort to reduce the sway of AQIM. Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao will be the focus of the expanded Special Programme for Peace, Security and Development in Northern Mali (PSPSDN). The regions are home to large Touareg and Arab communities which have a history of tense relations with the Bamako government. The Malian government also announced that development projects would be accompanied by security and military reinforcements in order keep AQIM from mingling with the local population of herders and shepherds. Algeria plans to contribute $10 million to fund health and vocational training programs for young people in northern Mali. Algeria is also supervising the raising of a 75,000-strong security force along with Niger and Mauritania. Ould Abdelkader said the project "will also limit al-Qaeda's ability to recruit some young people, who will have an alternative, more secure, and less dangerous work opportunities. In this way, al-Qaeda will lose a strong support among young people." Iselmou Ould Elmoustafa, director of the website Tahalil and an expert in Salafist groups, pointed out though that "the Beidane community, which represents the majority of population in Mauritania, northern Mali, southern Algeria and northern Niger, is linked together organically, psychologically and socially." Unfortunately, Al-Qaida's North African branch has expanded recruitment efforts, even as it faces increased military cooperation by regional governments, according a news site run by the United States Africa Command. In particular, AQIM has focused on building its membership in the wild areas in between Africa's Saharan nations. "Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has been organizing exhortatory and religious lectures that end with inviting people to engage in holy war, especially the young people," said a local Mauritanian trader, Sidi Mohamed, who frequently crossed the border into Mali. "In a Malian village called Laranp, al-Qaeda gave a lecture to the residents and the people visiting the weekly market just 700 meters from the barracks of the Malian gendarmerie, as they were watching the elements of the armed organization from the balconies of the building," he added. This shocked local residents, particularly women who were not wearing head coverings, and gave him the impression that Malian forces weren't serious about fighting AQIM. AQIM's terrorist recruitment has become particularly common in Mali. "[It] is no longer a matter of debate because all the residents of those areas are witnesses of it," said local terrorism specialist Bechir Ould Babana. Mauritania, Mali, and Niger are among the world’s poorest states and will require international support to defuse AQIM’s momentum. Algeria is right to push for regional cooperation to address the threat, and discreet aid from the West is crucial to help the Sahel countries regain control of their territory from al-Qaeda forces and prevent the terror group from taking hold in Africa. Although AQIM has only few hundred members scattered across the Sahara (reasonable estimates put it at 200 to 300 men), that low number is misleading. These forces are taking advantage of a relative security vacuum in the Sahel. Adding to AQIM's success is the fact that the  military budgets of Mali, Niger, and Mauritania are a fraction of those of Algeria and Libya. For example, in 2009 Mali’s military budget was the largest in the Sahel at $180 million; Algeria’s military budget was $5.3 billion. The bottom line is this; the government of the Mali can prevent al-Qaeda from taking hold in their region—if they cooperate with the west and are the core actors while receiving discreet international support. In addition, western powers must consider this jihadi gamble when planning the counterterrorism support that states like Mali desperately need, because any public display of Western assistance plays into the hands of AQIM. 



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