Sahara, potential terrorist breeding ground?
Dakar, Sept 14: The vast Sahara has long sheltered rebels and bandits but security experts fear its remote oases and mountain hideouts may also be an ideal recruitment and training ground for al Qaeda-linked militants.
Rebellious nomads, large Muslim communities and dire poverty in a largely unpoliced territory have made the US intelligence community increasingly nervous that the Sahara's southern fringe in West Africa could become a launch pad for terrorist attacks.
''We're not talking about large numbers of terrorists, like Iraq or Afghanistan, or fixed training bases,'' one US counterterrorism official in Washington told Reuters.
''We're talking about relatively small numbers of moving targets who are difficult to fix and destroy but who represent an increasing threat ... It's not the biggest threat in the world, but it's a significant emerging one.'' One of Washington's greatest concerns is the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), an Algerian rebel movement which has pledged allegiance to al Qaeda and publishes Osama bin Laden's messages on its Web site.
French and Italian police arrested suspected GSPC members earlier this year thought to have been planning attacks, some of them in Algeria and in Iraq. The head of French police has said the group also poses a major threat to France.
Regional diplomats, security sources and US officials believe the GSPC and its allies have been running mobile camps in the Sahara, teaching recruits guerrilla tactics before sending them home as ''sleepers'' to await further instructions.
''After training they are dormant. They become sworn members who know they are going to die,'' said Mamour Fall, a reclusive Senegalese imam expelled from Italy in 2003 after being branded a national security threat.
''One day you receive your ticket telling you it is your turn to go, and you go,'' he told Reuters in Dakar last year.
Fall said he met bin Laden in Sudan in the early 1990s, fought alongside him in Bosnia and was still preaching his message in West Africa.
He said three camps in the Sahel, the southern fringe of the Sahara, trained a total of 100 men every six months sent from around the region. Intelligence experts believe such activity is very much ad hoc.
''It's two or three vehicles meeting somewhere in an oasis, bringing out a laptop computer and showing people how to construct bombs. Or it's someone setting up a temporary firing range,'' one senior US intelligence official said. US Special Forces have been training local armies in 10 countries in the region to confront the threat as part of the US government's Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative.
But radical voices such as Fall's are the exception in West Africa, which has a strong tradition of moderate Sufi Islam whose brotherhoods are renowned for their tolerance.
Opposition to US foreign policy may be common among many West Africans, largely due to the war in Iraq and US support of Israel, but it is rarely fervent, the strongest resentment is often reserved for former European colonial powers.
But Washington fears the region's poverty and weak governance leaves it prone to influence from movements like the Salafis, a purist group among Sunni Muslims whose extreme followers fought armed struggles in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya and in Algeria with the GSPC.
''Over the years, especially over the past 5 or 10, there has been an influx of Saudi and Pakistani, mostly Saudi, money and you've seen mosque building and proselytising across the whole belt of the Sahel,'' the US counterterrorism official said.
''They bring a new kind of Islam to the region that is inconsistent with the historic brotherhoods and the Sufi tradition that has been dominant.'' Fall said although violent jihad was largely alien to African Muslims, preachers such as himself portrayed Africans as victims of colonial powers in much the same way as some Arabs saw themselves as victims of US imperialism.
''The context is linked. We have the same religion, the same economic situation, the same culture. Young men know they have to do something to be respected,'' he said.
Militant Salafist groups in the Sahara, such as the GSPC, nonetheless appear so far to have had limited success in finding support for their ideology among local populations.
Tuareg nomads in northern Mali and northern Niger are seen as particularly ripe for recruitment because they come into contact with GSPC fighters on desert trading routes and themselves fought armed rebellions in the 1990s.
Yet they publicly reject the GSPC cause. Eglasse Ag Idar, a Tuareg leader who was part of a revolt in Mali's desert town of Kidal in May, helped conduct hostage negotiations with the GSPC when they kidnapped 32 European tourists in 2003.
''We talked a lot about the fact we were all Muslims. We told them that Islam never demands such violent acts, that for us it was not legitimate,'' Ag Idar told Reuters from Kidal, adding he believed the GSPC still had logistics bases north and west of Timbuktu near the Algerian border.
''They do not have a big presence ... but we tell people in the region, particularly our youths, not to approach them.''