African business, politics and lifestyle
Al Qaeda and France raise the stakes in the Sahara
Al Qaeda’s North African wing has been creeping up the radar with an increase in attacks in the Sahara. But some have still sought to play down any strategic threat, citing the lack of key interests in the desert.
Westerners were at risk – a couple have also died in the hands of the Islamists – but incidents had mostly ended with in some sort of agreement involving a mix of prisoner swaps and, say experts, cash being passed to the right people.
There has also been intense debate over how loyal to al Qaeda-central the fighters are, as opposed to a bunch of bandits taking advantage of little government control.
Then five French nationals and two other foreigners – all of whom worked in Niger’s uranium mines where French nuclear giant Areva has vast investments – were plucked from their houses as they slept.
Despite the efforts of Nigerien and Malian security forces, it appears the hostages are now safely stashed in an Islamist hideout in the Malian mountains. Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the attack and vowed to issue demands soon.
France, in reaction, also seems to have torn up the rules books.
Like the United States and other allies fretting about an Islamist threat in the Sahara, Paris has long advocated a more discreet approach, supporting local armies and encouraging regional collaboration. But President Nicolas Sarkozy has now embarked on a more direct approach. French commandos took part in a botched raid to free a previous hostage in July and officials in Niger say French troops have been dispatched there.
One Sahara-watcher says local tribes are reporting French reconnaissance jets flying over the area where the hostages are meant to be.
The incident is also having ramifications back home, where France is on heightened alert for a possible terrorist attack but opposition politicians are suggesting that the government might be playing the terrorist card to distract attention from a string of scandals.
Where is this showdown going to end up?
Has Sarkozy got the stomach to send his soldiers into the mountains to root out the Islamists? With their coffers brimming with ransom payments, have the Islamists grown bolder in their attacks?
Or will both sides seek a negotiated solution?
Is Sarkozy using this foreign policy crisis to bury a summer of bad news at home?