Al-Qaeda centre of gravity shifts to Maghreb
By Jemal Oumar for Magharebia in Nouakchott – 12/10/12
The current chaotic situation in the Sahel-Saharan region provides an ideal platform for al-Qaeda and its radical allies to expand their reach.
For months now, reports and analyses have been talking about a new al-Qaeda shift and change in strategy. Now Maghreb leaders are speaking out about the threat the global terror network poses to the region.
In an interview with al-Hayat published October 2nd, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki said that radical Islamists were shifting their focus from south-west Asia to the Maghreb, taking advantage of regional unrest and the often chaotic transition to democratic rule.
"The presence of these terrorist groups is basically concentrated in Libya and Algeria, especially in the south," Marzouki added, referring to the sparsely populated desert extending along the south of Maghreb where security control is weak and tribal resistance to central authority is strong.
Terrorists are trying to find their feet in Mali, warned Marzouki. The centre of gravity in jihad is now shifting from Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Maghreb, according to the Tunisian president.
"There is a great danger threatening us now at our own doorsteps," Marzouki noted.
At a time when al-Qaeda is under pressure in Asia, the North African terror affiliate has been flush with cash from millions of euros in kidnapping ransom payments. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was further strengthened earlier this year when radical Islamists ousted the Malian military from Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu, creating a safe-haven for militants in the Sahara.
According to terrorism expert Abdelhamid al-Ansari, "Marzouki was not giving arbitrary analyses; rather, he was taking about an experience in his own country which has for years been immune against terrorist movements. However, after the outbreak of the Tunisian revolution which brought him to office, and at a time when the Tunisian ship is still teetering on rough waters, these movements started to sneakily infiltrate into his country taking advantage of the revolution. "
Al-Ansari added that al-Qaeda and other extremists are "taking advantage of the revolutionary atmosphere that allows all forms of expression to pass on a terrorist agenda".
"What happened in Tunisia clearly demonstrates this," the terror expert said. "In some cases, the parent al-Qaeda sent some of its elements of Maghreb origins to contribute to Maghreb revolutions so that the Islamic groups may attribute peoples' victory to themselves."
There are an estimated 3,000 militant salafists in Tunisia who could pose a threat, according to Marzouki. "Talks with those extremists haven't so far been useful, and the threat they are posing must be dealt in the framework of the law," the Tunisian president added.
One solution to the terror threat discussed by the Tunisian leader was expanding the role of the Maghreb Union.
"There is a security problem now that threatens the entire Maghreb region," Marzouki said. "All of our southern borders are now threatened by this problem. There must be a unified answer from all countries."
Marzouki has been a staunch advocate of stronger regional ties, embarking on a Maghreb tour earlier this year to jumpstart unification talks.
According to Mohamed Naji Ould Ahmedou, a journalist at a Nouakchott radio station, Marzouki's push for a more robust Maghreb Union can be seen as "a parallel measure to the African approach, which seeks to intervene militarily in northern Mali".
"If Tunisia has felt the threat of terrorism which is coming from Asia, the other Maghreb countries should be keener on countering it collectively," Ould Ahmedou added. "This is because terrorism is more deeply-rooted and pervasive in these countries where it has previously succeeded in carrying out several attacks."
Sid Ahmed Ould Baba, a Mauritanian journalist specialising in armed groups, agreed with Marzouki's analysis of a growing al-Qaeda threat in North Africa.
"Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb's centre of gravity, and more precisely in northern Mali, has become stronger and more dangerous than the rest of al-Qaeda branches across the world, given that the volume of military equipment, military preparedness, ability to manoeuvre, and possession of an infantry force are all factors making it capable of countering any military offensive against it," Ould Baba said.
However, Intagrist El Ansari, a Touareg journalist who has been following the security conditions in northern Mali for years, said that it was not a shift by al-Qaeda that increased activity in the Maghreb, but an enlargement of the global terror network.
"It's better to say that what is happening now is an expansion of the parent al-Qaeda because the talk about the shift of centre of gravity to North Africa would necessarily involve the reduction of al-Qaeda's presence in Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula. However, the group is still hitting targets in those areas, and the Maghreb branch has also a strong presence," el-Ansari said.
The Touareg journalist added that "talk about the presence of elements from Somalia, Niger, Nigeria and Maghreb countries in AQIM ranks is natural, given that the organisation is both local and regional."
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