Africa News blog

African business, politics and lifestyle

Al Qaeda and France raise the stakes in the Sahara

September 22, 2010

sarkoAl 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?


Islamists have indeed grown bolder with more cash. Freeing islamists in exchange for hostages also set a very bad precedent. Another point is the inefficient coordination between Sahelian states, with Mali and Algeria accusing each other of not cracking down on rebels, Morocco and Algeria not cooperating (Sahraoui crisis), and lack of means. Despite international cooperation (USA with Flintlock, France military assistance), islamists are able to escape due to their excellent knowledge of the local environment and ties to local communities which probably depend on them for their own safety. There are no real borders in the area and the notion of the state can be questioned. Sahelian states often combine poorly paid armies with lack of means, and their leaders’ political legitimacy is challenged at home(Aziz in Mauritania, Déby in Chad, and Compaoré in Burkina). Finally, increased poverty in the Sahel and Sahara is likely to make it easier for islamists to recruit the young unemployed. A perceived injust immigration policy (France and Italy) is not likely to make people in the region sympathetic to Western woes and to some extent.

Regarding the security situation in France while terrorist threats are a reality, it cannot be ruled out that Sarkosy will use the crisis to look like he is more than ever in charge. StrategiCo, specialises in risk analysis in Africa.

Posted by lydieboka | Report as abusive

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see