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The power of terror: Al Qaeda in the Maghreb

Terrorist networks in Africa's Sahel zone are gaining greater influence, and this includes al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. These developments have grave consequences for the region.

Mali has long been considered a model country in West Africa. With a constitution, numerous political parties and a national assembly, the country has over the last decades transformed from a one-party state into a largely functioning democracy.

But little of that progress can be seen today. In recent months, the government has lost control over large parts of the country. At the same time, terrorist groups have been making advances in the north of Mali. Some observers have already warned that Mali could become a failed state.

Failure signs

There have been some warning signs: the country is divided, militant jihadists are gaining influence, and hundreds of thousands of people are on the run. "The coup against the president surely sparked this development," said Peter Heine, professor emeritus of Islamic studies at Berlin's Humboldt University.

In March, the Malian Army forced President Amadou Toumani Toure out of office in a coup and seized power. The army's reasoning: Toure was unable to control the situation in the country and take on the rebel Tuaregs in the north. But Toure's time of office would have come to an end only a few weeks later as a presidential election was imminent.

The coup played into the hands of the Tuareg rebels - initially, at least. In the power vacuum following Toure's removal, the Tuareg, who have felt neglected by the government for decades, formed an alliance with the terrorist network "al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb" (AQIM).

Pragmatic Islamists

"[The Islamists of the AQIM] are more than willing to work with other groups, as long as it serves their interests," said Peter Pham, an Africa expert with the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. However, the two groups have different goals. The regional al Qaeda offshoot aims to, among other things, enforce Islamic Sharia law.

Tuareg fighters

Tuareg rebels have formed an alliance with al Qaeda.

"North Africa and the Sahel have been under Islamic rule for centuries, but this region has particular forms of Islam," said Heine. "This is an Islam that includes the worship of saints, and these ideas are not accepted by al Qaeda. This was what led to the destruction of holy shrines and other buildings in Timbuktu and Gao."

The Tuareg have little interest in introducing Sharia. "The Tuareg are a people without a land, so to speak," said Heine. "They have long tried to establish their own state in the region."

As a result of the differences between the two groups, the alliance between the Tuareg and AQIM was relatively short-lived. The Islamists have since gained the upper hand and driven the Tuareg rebels out of the main cities of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal.

Kidnapping as a financial source

AQIM's power in the Sahel is a result of the government's weakness - but also a strong financial strategy that includes drug trafficking and kidnappings. "Some governments pay large amounts of money for the return of captured nationals. AQIM has made literally millions over the years," said Pham.

The downfall of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 also strengthened the terrorist network. Mercenaries from the Sahel, who had long been in Gadhafi's service, returned to their home countries heavily armed.

Militiaman from the Ansar Dine Islamic group REUTERS/Adama Diarra/Files

Al Qaeda's influence in the Maghreb region is growing.

"Since the beginning of the war in Libya, the terrorists in Mali have obtained many weapons - and there are many fighters looking for a job," said Pham.

Heine said he fears AQIM's influence in Mali's neighboring countries is still growing. "We may end up with a power structure completely free of authority," he said. "Hostage-taking and incredible amounts of drugs trafficking - there is a chance that may intensify."

Five months after the start of the occupation in the north, it's still unclear whether there will be a military operation to retake the area, and when such an operation could begin. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has already offered to deploy around 3,000 troops to Mali. The government in Bamako, however, has insisted that its poorly equipped army will take on the Islamists in the north.

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