By Nazim Fethi
Terrorist groups have managed to ferry considerable quantities of arms across the Ténéré Desert (Mali and Niger), building up a formidable supply that threatens the security of the whole Sahel region.
The Algerian army has increased its presence along the border with Libya. The ANP just deployed an elite infantry brigade and airborne surveillance of the 900 kilometre border is also under way. In Algiers, officials voice concerns about the arms and explosives coming into the country from Libya, where weapons stockpiles have been raided.
Nigerien soldiers recently intercepted al-Qaeda terrorists carrying vast quantities of arms near the Algerian border. RPG-7 anti-tank grenade launchers, Kalashnikov assault rifles, 640kg of Semtex explosive material and 435 detonators were reportedly pillaged from Libyan arms depots.
Al-Qaeda could “take advantage of any chaos following the departure of Kadhafi to extend its influence to the Mediterranean coast,” L’Expression quoted NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe, Admiral James Stavridis, as saying.
“The Algerians are very, very worried,” he added.
Experts note that the Algerian borders are constantly exposed to the dangers of terrorism, illegal immigration, drugs, weapons and human trafficking, cross-border organised crime and military conflict.
The situation is particularly fluid nowadays, with political turmoil, terror threats and social unrest impacting the security balance in the country. In April, Algeria issued a warning that a batch of Russian-made SA-7 missiles had already fallen into the hands of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
But some say only regional co-operation, with backing from the international community, will prevent arms trafficking in the Sahel region from working to al-Qaeda’s advantage .
The Libyan arms traffic threat was a key topic at the recent G6 meeting in Madrid.
“One thing that seems particularly negative is the possible emergence of Libyan Army weapons, or what remains of them, in the hands of terrorists,” Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalacaba said on June 30th.
“The civil war in Libya gives the possibility of AQIM increasing its influence in the Sahel region, where it is now active after first emerging in Algeria,” he added.
In September, Algeria will host an international conference on the fight against terrorism and organised crime in the Sahel-Saharan region.
Sahel officials will be joined by UN Security Council permanent members as well as Italy, Spain and the Netherlands. The World Bank and the African Development Bank as well as global thinks tanks, including the Geneva Centre for Narcotics Control and the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, will also be present.
The volume of weapons on the move in the region continues. France last week dropped assault rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades and launchers in rebel-held areas of Libya.
Another source of concern: hundreds of Malian Touareg fighters were reportedly fighting alongside pro-Kadhafi forces. But when recent setbacks for Libyan government forces drove them back to Mali, they returned carrying weapons from the front line.