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Washington, U.S.A. – An experts panel hosted by the Carnegie Endowment and Atlantic Council warned that al-Qaeda terrorists are consolidating their position in northern Mali — buoyed by drug-trafficking, kidnapping ransoms, Libyan arms, and an influx of extremists. As the international community deliberates next steps on the Mali “meltdown,” analysts worry about the spread of an Arc of Instability across Africa’s Sahel.
“Terrorists are consolidating their position by the day in northern Mali and the international community just talks,” said Maman Sidikou, Niger’s Ambassador to the US. He cited the influx of Libyan arms, kidnappings, and control by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) of drug-smuggling routes. “Al-Qaeda has the resources, arms, and ideology to turn young people’s minds. They are the driving force.” Why would international leaders “wait while this turns into another Afghanistan?”
For Western aid-workers, Rossella Urru of Italy and Ainhoa Fernandez de Rincon and Enric Gonyacons of Spain, it was day 222 of captivity since their Oct. 23 kidnapping from a Polisario-run refugee camp near Tindouf in Algeria, reportedly assisted by camp-insiders. They are believed held in northern Mali by an al-Qaeda offshoot, Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), that threatens to kill one of them if its ransom demands aren’t met. More than half of Westerners kidnapped in Africa are now held in northern Mali, news reports indicate.
“Northern Mali is turning into a Star Wars bar of extremists from across the region,” said Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director, Atlantic Council’s Ansari Africa Center. “The last thing Africa needs right now is another Failed State” attracting bad actors.” He added that “pragmatism” holds together the ideologically diverse groups now in control — Tuareg-led separatists, Ansar Dine Islamists, AQIM, and MUJAO.
“The meltdown in the north came in conjunction with the coup in the south,” said Anouar Boukhars, co-leader of Carnegie’s Mauritania working group and assistant professor, McDaniel College. He and panelist Rudolph Atallah, senior fellow, Atlantic Council, outlined the complex history that provided the “ingredients for the conflagration.”
Al-Qaeda’s consolidation in northern Mali underscores growing volatility across Africa’s Sahel.Multiple reports are linking instability in the region to other militants and groups in the Maghreb and Sahel, including members from the Polisario-run camps.