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Islamic terrorism finding a safehaven in Africa

Since the attacks of September 11, the West has focused its counterterrorism efforts in Central Asia. But with al Qaeda under pressure in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Islamic militants have found a new home in Africa.

US Green Beret training African soldiers

The US is training militaries in the Sahel region to fight terrorism

Last month, a small Islamic terrorist group named al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) made headlines when it executed Michel Germaneau, a French aid worker. He was not the first hostage to be executed by AQIM, but his death provoked France to declare war on al Qaeda.

While Western nations like France are just starting to escalate their engagement against terrorist organizations in Africa, the Tuareg people of Niger - where Germaneau was kidnapped - have long been victims of the underdevelopment that nourishes fundamentalism.

Groups like AQIM operate in the ungoverned regions of a continent that is struggling to establish centralized states and the rule of law. From the Sahel to the Horn of Africa, they thrive off of the symptoms of state collapse: Drugs, weapons and grinding poverty.

The Tuaregs have lived for years with war. Rebels launched an uprising against Niger's military Junta in 2007 under the pretense of expanding the rights of this neglected community. But locals claim that the real source of the conflict lay elsewhere.

"The real motors of the conflict weren't the Tuareg, the driving force was people that wanted to profit from the drug and arms trade," said Mano Aghali, a Tuareg who founded the NGO HEDTAMAT. "They have made the interests of the Tuareg the shield of their actions. They have always hidden themselves behind the same song: Let's fight for the interests of the Agadez region."

Aghali fears that the same people who instigated the rebellion in 2007 will lead the Tuaregs to war once again. As foreign jihadists move into Niger to take advantage of the lawlessness there, those who profit from violence have adopted a new motto to mobilize the local population.

"Today the same people in the same region in the same land are saying: 'Lets fight for ourselves - in the name of Islam," Agahli said .

The terror networks of Africa

AQIM operates in the western portion of the Sahel region, a vast desert that stretches from the Atlantic coast to the Red Sea in East Africa.

Originally called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, the organization changed its name to AQIM in 2007 in order to show its allegiance to al Qaeda. AQIM has its roots in the civil war that took place in Algeria between the military government and Islamists during the 1990s.

Village in the Sahel

The Sahel is a vast, lawless desert region where Islamic terrorists are taking root

The terrorist group has launched a campaign of bombings and kidnappings, predominantly targeted at Western aid workers and tourists. And it often demands ransoms in order to finance future operations.

AQIM also protects narco-trafficking routes in Western Africa through which Latin American drugs make their way to markets in Europe, report Western media sources.

The United states has lent military aid to governments in the region, launching a large joint military exercise with them in May of 2010.

France carried out a raid against an AQIM base in Mauritania last July in an attempt to save the hostage Germaneau. French Foreign Minister Bernarnd Kouchner has promised to pursue the group.

In East Africa, another Islamic terrorist group with al Qaeda ties has made a name for itself. Al-Shabab emerged from a grassroots movement called the Union of Islamic Courts, which tried to reestablish order in war-torn Somalia in 2006.

Ethiopia intervened militarily in Somalia the same year, sweeping the Islamists from power. The United States subsequently launched airstrikes targeting the group. And the European Union is currently training Somali security forces in Ethiopia and Uganda to combat Al-Shabab, while African Union peacekeepers battle the group in the Somali capital of Mogadishu. In the most recent incident, Al-Shabab militants on Tuesday stormed a hotel in Mogadishu, killing at least 31 people, including several government officials.

Both of these groups carry out attacks predominantly in Africa, but the West has recently seen how Islamic terrorism can be exported from the continent. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who allegedly tried to blow up a Detroit-bound flight from Amsterdam in 2009, was born and raised in Nigeria.

Terrorism jeopardizing tourism and development

As Islamic terrorist groups acquire a higher profile in Africa, they are undermining the tourism industry and the development work upon which communities like the Tuareg depend.

"There were many of us who lived off of tourism: the merchants and above all the tourist guides. The 2007 rebellion and its results were a real shock for them," Aghali said. "There are few possibilities to do something else. Most of them didn't participate in the rebellion, they didn't fight. And now they have no work."

After the execution of Michel Germaneau, the French government told its citizens to avoid travel in this Francophone region. Similar warnings have been issued by other Western governments.

Michel Germaneau, French hostage taken by al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb

Development work has become difficult as terrorists target aid workers like Michel Germaneau

And with violence targeting aid workers like Germaneau, development work is suffering. Christian Harth, who works closely with Aghali's organization HEDTAMAT, wishes NGOs had more freedom to operate.

"We wish that NGOs had more latitude in countries where official development work has been cancelled, so that we could continue our work with partners like HEDTAMAT, to give the people the feeling that they won't be left alone," Harth said.

The fear is that without development, Islamic terrorist groups could turn Africa into a safehaven.

Author: Ute Schaeffer, Spencer Kimball
Editor: Rob Mudge

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