Timbuktu, Asharq Al-Awsat – Three Saudi tourists were killed and three others were injured by unidentified gunmen in northern Niger in December 2009. This incident raised several questions about the groups that control the region of the vast Saharan desert that stretches from the Mauritanian coastline, through parts of Mali and Algeria, and inland as far as Chad. The Sahara desert is outside the control of any authorities in these countries, and has become fertile ground for Al Qaeda and other armed Islamist movements, not to mention drug dealers, smugglers, and bandits. All of these groups are working side by side in the largest borderland outside of government control [in the world], and all efforts to establish control of this region have been met with failure.
The attack on the Saudi tourists confirms the complexity of the situation, and investigations have revealed that these tourists were the victims of a group that has a variety of goals. This group is both competing and cooperating with Al Qaeda and drug traffickers [in the area].
A senior security source in the region told Asharq Al-Awsat that the main suspect in the killing of the three Saudi citizens is an Arab national from the region who has a history of cooperation with all groups in the region, including Al Qaeda. It was also revealed that the Saudi victims were being monitored by an individual who was in personal contact with them. The investigation into the attack also revealed that a Nigerien diplomat who previously worked in a Gulf country, in addition to a female security officer and a private driver, were all in contact with the victims. These three individuals were organizing an illegal hunting trip which would begin in Niger, and would involve them and the Saudi tourists illegally entering Malian territory.
However the ongoing judicial investigation has so far failed to shed any light on how those who have been detained [by the Nigerien authorities] were involved in the crime, although some of those detained have alleged links to the group accused of carrying out this attack. The majority of those detained by the Nigerien authorities were from Niger and Mali.
According to local sources, the Sahara – which is an attractive region for hunting enthusiasts and especially those from the Gulf region – has been outside the control of any country after Islamist groups that specialize in kidnapping tourists, in addition to drug traffickers, moved to the region. This resulted in the emergence of illegal hunting expeditions that take advantage of the lack of security, attracting hunting enthusiasts to come and practice their hobby under the supervision of these tribal groups who offer them protection.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to a high-ranking security source in northern Mali who confirmed that the issue of illegal hunting is one that concerns the countries in this region, especially as Al Qaeda members have been seized entering the country as part of hunting expeditions. This is therefore an issue of grave concern to the authorities as they are unable to differentiate between [legal] hunters and members and financiers of the Al Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb [attempting to infiltrate the country]. The official, who spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity, called on hunters to be cautious and coordinate with the local authorities to obtain protection and to secure safe locations for their hunting trips.
He also noted that Al Qaeda financiers were spotted in Mali last year, but the armed forces refused to monitor them. He told Asharq Al-Awsat that they were later observed to be providing funding and modern technological communication equipment to groups suspected of having affiliations to Al Qaeda.
The official confirmed that many Al Qaeda members and financiers, along with illegal hunters, were robbed [by bandits] but none of them complained to the authorities due to the illegal nature of their own activities. He also confirmed that the illegal hunting expeditions and armed Islamist movements are operating in the same areas. He said that he was revealing this information in order to alert hunters to the reality of the situation, and prevent them from entering dangerous areas and falling into the hands of armed groups.
Security officials also confirmed to Asharq Al-Awsat that the Mali-Mauritania border region in particular has become the most problematic area in the region, after armed groups began using this area as a safe haven due to its rough terrain and the problems that security forces have in reaching this area. Al Qaeda and its affiliated groups are using this region as a safe haven to conduct their kidnapping operations, whilst drug traffickers are also using this region in their distribution operations. They obtain these narcotics from one-way flights of private airplanes from South America. Today the remains of these private aircrafts are scattered throughout the Sahara, and each flight can transfer tons of narcotics, before the planes are eventually destroyed. These drugs are then re-routed throughout the region from Mauritania to Sudan and Egypt.
These operations take place while the governments in the region stand by idly, especially as Al Qaeda and the drug traffickers are able to infiltrate the tribal areas, and even conclude alliances [with certain tribes], in addition to bribing low-level state officials in the region.
Al Qaeda and the groups that operate alongside it are in control of this desert region today, and they dig wells and aid the local residents so that they cover for them. The Euro currency is currently the most prevalent monetary currency in use in this region after Al Qaeda received a large ransom [in Euros] in exchange for hostages.
Local intelligence reports reveal that all the groups in this region, like Al Qaeda, drug and human traffickers, and even illegal hunters, are working side by side, and occasionally even cooperating with one another. This is as a result of their mutual hostility to the authorities of the regional countries who have failed in their fight against them as a result of large human losses.
A number of groups are present in the desert region, the most important of which is the group belonging to Abu Yahya Amane and Abdul Hamid Abu Zeid, which is located in the al-Raziqah region of Mali 180 km north-west of Timbuktu. This is the home of the al-Wasras tribe that is known for its religious piety. This tribe lives in an area that is difficult to reach and which is characterized by dense vegetation cover, in addition to rugged mountainous tracks that lead all the way to the Mauritanian border almost 200 km to the west. The authorities have trouble monitoring this area, and Cessna flights have been seen in this region a number of times. These planes are suspected of having ties to Al Qaeda or drug traffickers, and this is corroborated by a US report published recently which confirmed that unknown flights in the region have been detected since 2008.
According to security reports, the Al Qaeda organization has made a safe haven in this region, and has even dug wells to supply its members with water. Some Al Qaeda members have also married the daughters of tribal leaders in the region.
The [members] of the Al Qaeda affiliated groups in the region are mostly from Algeria, Mauritania, Mali, and Niger, as well as a minority that comes from other African countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, and others. The authorities believe that Al Qaeda cells are active in the border region between Mali and Mauritania, and estimate that there are around 150 Al Qaeda elements in the region. This Al Qaeda group is equipped with arms and money, and has the latest technological communication apparatus. When under threat, the Al Qaeda movement moves into the border region between Niger, Mali and Algeria, as the territory here is mountainous and the authorities have trouble monitoring this region. This area is the home of another [Al Qaeda affiliated] group led by the Algerian Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who is one of the most experienced fighters in this desert region, and who has close ties with the regional tribes.
Regional experts agree that efforts to combat these groups have failed for a number of reasons, most notably due to the regional countries lack of resources, particularly Mali, Niger, and Mauritania. In addition to this, other armed groups have infiltrated the region and bribed senior and junior officials in state institutions, and these groups are also proficient in guerrilla warfare which has resulted in them emerging victorious from the conflict with these regional states. There are intelligence centers that monitor these groups and there is funding from the US African Command AFRICOM, however this force cannot enter the Saharan desert itself for fear of incurring casualties, and so it can only train local forces, but these forces are incapable of confronting Al Qaeda and the other groups that are operating in the desert.
Al Qaeda and its elements have also infiltrated the cities [in the region], and Al Qaeda members and sympathizers have appeared as businessmen in some African cities laundering money belonging to Al Qaeda, other Islamist groups, and drug traffickers, as well as engaging in various other [illegal] operations from the African diamond or oil trade to banking.
Observers indicate that the security efforts that are being undertaken by the regional countries to combat the turmoil in the region will not be enough as a result of Algeria’s non-participation in these efforts. Algeria is one of the most important countries in the region, and represents an important partner in any security operations undertaken in the region. This is not to mention that an ongoing conflict in the Western Sahara would ensure that the culture of resistance and armed insurgency would persist in the region. These countries believe that the lack of peace in the Sahara can be traced back to the existence of an ongoing conflict fuelled by [Saharan] separatist organizations like the Polisario Front and those that stand behind it.
This region will remain a safe haven and breeding ground for such organizations so long as there is an absence of any strategic security organization and harmony. The region today is trapped between the US desire to try and control it, the French suspicion of US objectives in a region that lies within its sphere of influence, and the desire of these countries themselves to restore their security away from any [foreign] control or [regional] strife.