Fear of Islamist spillover in North Africa | Africa | DW | 26.01.2013
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Fear of Islamist spillover in North Africa

Western governments have issued a security warning for their nationals in northern Libya, fearing that recent unrest in Algeria and Mali could spill over national borders. But some experts do not see a reason to worry.

The situation was "grave and delicate," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said, referring to the worsening security situation in Libya. Several Western governments have called on their nationals to leave Benghazi. A spokesman for the German Foreign Ministry said there was "credible evidence" of a serious security threat in and around the coastal town. He added that German citizens were at risk, too.

Last September, US ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other diplomats died in an attack on the US embassy in Benghazi, Libya's second largest city.

But Western governments are loath to comment on the exact nature of the threats that have lead to the current urgent appeals. Is their reaction exaggerated and premature - or is there a real danger of terrorist activity spreading across North Africa?

Damaged reputation

Dr. Hardy Ostry Poto: private

Ostry: 'No concrete indication of an imminent threat'

Hardy Ostry, head of the German political Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation in Tunisia, calls the current warning "extremely unusual." He said that "northern Libya continues to be unsafe, but we don't have any concrete indication of an imminent threat."

Ostry, who also represents the Foundation in Algeria and Libya, says while it was important to critically assess the region, people should not see a reason to panic. He added that many Libyans thought that the decision by Western governments to issue the warning had damaged the country's reputation at a time when a certain degree of normality was being established.

German political scientist Jochen Hippler disagrees. Pointing to the recent hostage-taking at a gas plant in Algeria by militant Islamists, he said that governments should be careful when it came to security in the region. "Those who don't draw that conclusion haven't done their job properly," he told DW.

Terrorists gaining ground?

Malian soldiers check a motorcyclist's identity papers in Diabaly, Mali Photo: REUTERS/Joe Penney

Malian troops are fighting alongside the French

For years, terrorist groups have been hiding out in the desert frontier between Mali and Algeria. From there, they have built up a lucrative trade in smuggled drugs and cigarettes, as well as organized abductions. "They're a mafia-like structure, which until recently didn't pose a strategic threat to Western targets," Hippler said.

During the war in Libya, which deposed former leader Muammar Gaddafi, these groups became stronger.

"It's a fact that the war in Libya contributed to the escalation in Mali because many heavily armed Tuareg fighters returned to Mali," Annette Lohmann, head of the German Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation in Mali told DW. "Never mind whether they make reference to the sharia or an autonomous north - ultimately it's about controlling an economically very lucrative area."

Lohmann added that the fighters were expanding their influence against a backdrop of weak governments. "All the countries in the region that are going through a transition period have major security concerns," agreed Ostry. He pointed to major challenges, such as retraining the security forces and re-establishing the government's monopoly on power.

Ostry believes that terrorist groups are exploiting these weaknesses to create havoc in the region.

Possible spillover?

Libyan military guards in the burned US Consulate in Benghazi (Photo: Mohammad Hannon, File/AP/dapd)

In September 2012, US ambassador Stevens was killed in an attack

"This has been a regional problem for a while - jihadist groups operate across borders and are now making their presence felt," said Hippler.

Ostry doesn't think that there is a direct connection between the French military intervention in Mali to stop Islamist militants from overrunning southern Mali, the hostage-taking in Algeria and the calls for foreign nationals to leave Benghazi. "Our contact in Algeria is convinced that the attacks were planned long-term, and that the intervention in Mali was a mere pretext. It's impossible to organize such an operation in only a couple of days."

Ostry added that Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the al Qaeda-linked Islamist fighter who claimed responsibility for the siege, had announced terrorist attacks as early as last year. "Maybe he just wanted to reaffirm his presence," Ostry said.

Lohmann believes that there is a danger of further attacks in the region. "The conflict in Mali was never a purely Malian problem, but rather a regional one. The terrorist network 'Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb' has managed to spread across the region."

The group has long operated in the triangle between Niger, South Algeria and northern Mali, Lohmann said, adding that currently Niger was at risk. "From day one, the country has been worried that the conflict might spill over."

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