Last summer Agence Nouakchott Informations, a Mauritanian news agency with good contacts among violent Islamists in the Sahara, received a video showing two western hostages pleading for their lives in front of three masked gunmen.
The hostage-takers claimed to be from a group calling itself “Al Qa’ida in the land beyond the Sahil”. For terrorism watchers the group’s name was entirely new. But their tactic was depressingly familiar.
Across vast swathes of the Sahara, the kidnapping of westerners has become frighteningly commonplace. More often than not the finger is pointed at Al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a violent Islamist group that was chased out of North Africa and now operates in the lawless Sahara desert regions of Niger, Mali and southern Algeria.
But what made this particular hostage video remarkable was that the two victims – Chris McManus and Franco Lamolinara – had been taken from Birnin Kebbi, a town in north western Nigeria. It was the first time a group supposedly associated with Al Qa’ida’s global ideology had carried out a successful kidnap in Africa’s most populous nation.
The group’s choice of name seemed to relish that fact. Sahil is an Arabic word that means “shore coast” and refers to the semi-fertile strip of land where the Sahara desert meets the savannah. The group’s new name was chosen to announce that Al Qa’ida now had a presence beyond the Sahara.
Whether that claim is true or not is difficult to judge. Agence Nouakchott Informations stated that it had spoken to members of AQIM who said that “Al Qa’ida in the land beyond the Sahil” were a group inspired by their goals rather than directly affiliated with them. Nonetheless security officials have looked with alarm at the increasingly bold tactics violent Islamists have begun to employ in northern Nigeria.
Boko Haram, a once poorly organised indigenous militant group, has carried out a string of coordinated attacks in Nigeria one of which, on the UN compound in Abuja last year, used a complicated shaped charge car bomb that showed an unusual technical prowess. The fear is that Boko Haram has made contact with and is learning from its militant allies to the north.
At the same time, however, the strength and reach of AQIM is sometimes overplayed. Over a two day period in November six European tourists were kidnapped from three towns in Mali. One of the hostages, a German who resisted, was shot dead. AQIM happily took responsibility for the kidnappings and was quickly blamed by terrorism experts.
Yet evidence suggests the hostages were more likely taken by Tuareg tribesmen who have fought various rebellions against the Malian and Algerian authorities over the decades. Witnesses said the kidnappers spoke the Tuareg language tamashek whilst Malian security sources hinted that a rebel Tuareg leader recently returned from fighting for Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi was behind the kidnappings.
Either way one thing remains certain. The Western Sahara, once a place that attracted intrepid western tourists, is becoming increasingly dangerous. If that instability spreads to northern Nigeria it could be disastrous.