By Jemal Oumar
Reports that al-Qaeda has put its hands on advanced Libyan arms and stepped up recruitment in the Sahel are sending waves of anxiety across the region.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is “recruiting new agents using the money it gets as ransom for the victims it kidnaps; something that makes it necessary to beef up security so that there may be no hostages or payments of ransom money to finance the terrorist groups”, Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz told Radio France Internationale on September 14th.
While Mauritania enjoys “excellent relations” and close collaboration in the fight against terrorism” with Algeria, Niger and Mali, it “can’t wait for these countries to intervene”, the president said.
The president’s remarks came a day before armed clashes between security forces and al-Qaeda elements in the north of Niger. Fifty-nine young terror recruits, most of them 20 year old and younger, were freed, Defence Minister Karidjo Mahamadou said in a statement.
“Two vehicles and weapons, including a rocket launcher, three Kalashnikovs, a machinegun and a significant quantity of ammunition, were seized,” the statement read.
“Freed young people will be taken to capital Niamey where they will be questioned,” the Associated Press quoted the minister saying. He noted that AQIM lures villagers in Niger by giving them cars and amounts of money.
Meanwhile, the Nigerien government has called for international assistance with intelligence-gathering and aerial surveillance of its northern region, which is considered a base for AQIM fighters and drug traffickers.
The country has also voiced its concern that weapons plundered during the Libyan conflict could fall into the hands of AQIM fighters or some Touareg groups who could then use them in destabilising the region.
“Niger needs assistance in training and equipping its security forces to deal with the possible terrorism following the fall of Moamar Kadhafi’s government in Libya,” President Mahamadou Issoufou said on Monday at the World Trade Organisation conference in Geneva.
“There are concerns over security because the weapons are circulated in neighboring Libya, and we’re worried that they may fall into the hands of wrong people,” he added. “We’re also worried about the terrorist activities that may develop in the region because of poverty.”
As far as Niger’s counter-terrorism efforts are concerned, he said: “Our country exports uranium and gold and plans to start producing crude oil by the end of this year. We’re planning to use revenues generated from our natural resources in developing the social and economic fabric of our country. However, Niger is finding itself walking somewhat alone in its confrontation with this problem, and it needs to secure itself so as to also contribute to security all over the world.”
According to analyst Said Ould Habib, “the noose is being tightened on al-Qaeda in Mauritania and that was why it resorted to northern Niger”, where the terrorist group can take advantage of the “vast Niger desert”.
“We can understand Niger’s call for assistance given its relatively new experience with AQIM and its fears that security unrest in Libya may extend to within its borders,” terrorism expert Rabie Ould Adum said. “The strength of al-Qaeda is found in Algeria, Mali and Mauritania where young people are recruited and used for terrorist purposes. Meanwhile, Nigerien young people were not recruited in large numbers.”
“As to the Niger government’s call for assistance, it is a part of its desire to help its northern region like what the Malian government is doing right now,” he added.