By Raby Ould Idoumou and Bakari Guèye
It was a very different Sahel security summit this week for the foreign ministers of Mali, Mauritania, Algeria, Niger and guest Nigeria.
The countries confirmed the link between al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Nigerian terrorist organisation Boko Haram for the first time, pledging Tuesday (January 24th) in Nouakchott to work together against the shared threat to African stability and development.
Four days earlier, Boko Haram (meaning “western education is forbidden”) killed more than 200 people in a series of co-ordinated bomb and gun attacks in Kano, Nigeria’s second-largest city.
Scores more have died in attacks on churches, hotels and public buildings since the start of the year. Human Rights Watch says that 550 people were killed last year in 115 separate attacks engineered by Boko Haram, including the UN bombing in Abuja.
“There is a proven connection between AQIM and Boko Haram,” Malian Foreign Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga said at the Nouakchott ministerial meeting.
Nigerian foreign minister Mohamed Bazoum said he was concerned about the situation in his country, due to the rise of Boko Haram, whose connections to AQIM were “more than just simple conjecture”.
According to the Nigerian diplomat, “the deteriorating situation in Libya in 2011 caused an exceptional increase in the flow of arms and explosives in the region”.
“We must stop the networks used by terrorists to get supplies of food and fuel,” Bazoum said.
Along with jointly facing the “great challenge posed by AQIM in the Sahel and Boko Haram in Nigeria”, Mauritanian Foreign Minister Hamadi Ould Hamadi said the countries intended to partner against organised crime, trafficking in weapons and explosives, and the abduction of Westerners.
The Algiers-based African Centre for Study and Research on Terrorism (CAERT) also attended the Mauritania event. Algeria, home to the Sahel states’ joint military and intelligence commands, raised the issue of the AQIM and Boko Haram link months before the ministerial summit.
“We are convinced that there has been some co-ordination between Boko Haram and al-Qaeda,” Algerian Minister for Maghreb and African Affairs Abdelkader Messahel said last November during a joint press conference with visiting Mauritanian Foreign Minister Hamadi Ould Baba Ould Hamadi.
“The way in which the two organisations operate and reports from intelligence services clearly show that there is co-ordination,” Messahel said.
Evidence of the link between AQIM and Boko Haram is also coming from the United Nations.
According to a UN mission that went to the Sahel region to report on security fallout from the Libya conflict, Boko Haram militants from Nigeria are indeed bolstering ties with al-Qaeda, AFP reported on Thursday (January 26th).
Nigeria’s vulnerability to terror attacks could jeopardise peace-building, democracy and stability in West Africa, UN Special Envoy for West Africa Said Djinnit told the UN Security Council on January 16th.
In Niger, authorities recently intercepted a convoy carrying 645 kilograms of Semtex and 445 detonators and “alleged that the explosives were meant for Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb camps in northern Mali”.
“This seizure may indicate that terrorist groups have been acquiring arms, weapons and explosives from Libyan military stockpiles,” the report said.
“Some of the weapons may be hidden in the desert and could be sold to terrorist groups like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Boko Haram or other criminal organizations,” said the group, which was led by UN Special Envoy for West Africa Said Djinnit.
Mission representatives found that Boko Haram members from Nigeria and Chad had received training in al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb camps in Mali during the summer of 2011.
Seven Boko Haram members were also detained going through Niger to Mali carrying material on making explosives and contact details of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb members they were to meet.
African security agencies, however, are determined to prevent contacts between the three most dangerous organisations in Africa – Boko Haram in Nigeria, AQIM in the Sahara, and al-Shabaab in Somalia.
Sahel countries – in co-ordination with the government of Nigeria – aim to keep al-Qaeda and Boko Haram from forging a closer alliance.
After the success of the Arab Spring, these violent organisations were faced with a difficult situation. They had to may turn to new, poorer regions of Africa to revive their silent cells.
“There is continuous thinking about preventing this terrorist network, which tries to extend from eastern to central Africa, from communicating,” a Mauritanian Foreign Ministry official confirmed to Magharebia.
Boko Haram may already have penetrated state agencies in Nigeria. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said he believes that there are sympathisers in his government and security agencies with Boko Haram.
“Some of them are in the executive arm of government, some are in the parliamentary arm of government, while some of them are even in the judiciary. Some are also in the armed forces, the police and other security agencies,” the president said on January 8th.
“During the civil war, we knew and we could even predict where the enemy was coming from,” Jonathan said, “but the challenge we have today is more complicated.
There have long been claims of political links to Boko Haram, but it was the first time Jonathan made the case publicly in such strong terms.
In a televised speech after the Kano attacks, the president said that the defence ministry had been tasked with forming a new anti-terrorism force.
He described the Islamist militant Boko Haram as a “cancerous” movement that aimed to destroy the country but which would eventually fail.
The Nigerian government’s new war on Boko Haram will be a real blow to al-Qaeda.
Sahel countries have recently disrupted al-Qaeda supply lines. This new development, combined with defections by young jihadists, has forced AQIM to use Boko Haram as a rear base and supply source for weapons and young recruits.
According to Algeria’s Ennahar daily, “Battalion of the Masked” leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar, alias Laaouar, used cigarette smugglers to establish contacts with African fighters. Security agencies, however, thwarted an operation to bring scores of youths to Laaouar’s headquarters.
Given the impediments to recruiting and supply routes, Laaouar’s recent remarks about suspending Mauritania activity are not unexpected.
In November, Laaouar told the Akhbar Nouakchott daily that he was open to the idea of ending operations in Mauritania.
That Mauritania could be off the table means just one thing: that the leaders of the terrorist organisation are starting to feel pressure from the Sahel countries’ expanded counter-terrorism partnership.
And now that security agencies from five countries are determined to sever al-Qaeda’s connection to Boko Haram and Nigeria, the terror group will be forced to look elsewhere for help.
Raby Ould Idoumou is a Nouakchott-based writer and terrorism analyst. He also serves as a communications director for the Mauritanian Human Rights Association (AMDH).