By Jemal Oumar and Walid Ramzi
With instability in the Sahel-Saharan region, fears are growing about the fallout from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) potential acquisition of portable surface-to-missiles from Libya.
Malian Foreign Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga was the latest official to express concern. Speaking at a meeting of Sahel states’ top diplomats in Nouakchott on Tuesday (January 24th), the minister warned of “the dangerous situation in Sahel following the war in Libya which led to the proliferation of large quantities of weapons among criminal and terrorist circles”.
The Malian minister’s statements came less than two weeks after news surfaced that civilian airlines were rerouting traffic over the Sahara to avoid potential surface-to-air missiles acquired by al-Qaeda. Algeria’s El Khabar daily reported January 12th that Air Algérie was among the airlines redirecting air traffic based on security reports of threats in Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad.
The same newspaper added that the Algerian and French defence ministries, together with NATO, took precautionary measures to avoid the risks of such weapons. According to the daily, the steps include jamming missiles and NATO reconnaissance flights of several African states neighbouring Libya.
“In addition, some Western airlines have equipped their aircraft with US-made military combat technology that uses lasers to jam heat-seeking missiles,” the paper said. The daily also reported some airlines were equipping jets with radar to detect missile launches as well as ordering pilots to fly at higher altitudes.
However, when asked by Magharebia, Mauritanian aviation authorities downplayed fears by noting the portable surface-to-air missiles’ limited range.
“As far as we know, the missiles that al-Qaeda has in its possession have a range of just six kilometres, while aircraft fly at an altitude of ten kilometres in the Sahara,” said Abu Bakr al-Sedik Ould Mohammed al-Hasan, general manager of Mauritania’s Civil Aviation Authority.
But analyst Ibrahim Ould al-Bar said there was “no doubt that the weapons that the terrorist organisation obtained from Libya pose a threat”.
“However, as far as the organisation’s ability to hit distant targets or aircrafts in the air is concerned, this is unlikely because of the nature of these weapons themselves,” Ould al-Bar added. He also cited the fighters’ relative inexperience with such weapons.
The analyst said terrorists were more likely to target low flying military aircraft. “The proof of that is perhaps Touareg rebels’ success in shooting down a Malian army’s plane a few days ago during their recent confrontation in northern Mali,” he said.
“It is well-known that the Touaregs who shot that plane down had returned from Libya with sophisticated weapons after the fall of Kadhafi,” Ould al-Bar added.
The Movement for the National Liberation of Azaouad (MNLA) claimed to have shot down a Malian Mig-21 last week, according to Le Monde.
Algeria steps up maritime security
While concerns continue over regional airline security, Algeria recently made arrests in a plot to attack shipping in the Mediterranean.
Algeria’s Echorouk daily reported January 24th that an AQIM plan was thwarted after three suspects were arrested in Annaba. The men were allegedly operating under the leadership of Qassemi Salah al-Din (alias Abu Mohamed Salah).
The attackers reportedly planned to load a boat with explosives and blow it up near an American or European ship. The paper added that the three detainees received orders after frequenting jihadist websites at internet cafés.
The terror plot was the first targeting shipping along the Algerian coastline. Algeria has recently beefed up coastal surveillance and deployed new naval units to monitor ships. Meanwhile, the Algerian defence ministry continues to participate in training exercises with the US and European countries as part of the 5+5 defence initiative, with the last drill held in October with European forces.
An Algerian security source told Magharebia that navy and coast guard have been boosted with advanced naval equipment, the most important of which are reconnaissance helicopters and small boats.
The source added that the navy would soon receive radar for monitoring suspicious ships and confronting illegal immigration. The country’s naval forces monitor the movements of nearly 5,000 fishing vessels and more than 18,600 leisure boats plying the nation’s waters.
“Algeria’s sea borders are secure and there have been no breaches of the country’s sea borders or fishing areas,” the security source said.