Home | Comment & Analysis    Tuesday 30 August 2005

The Sahel is Osama’s New Playground


by Jackson Mbuvi, The Nation.

Aug 30, 2005 (Nairobi) — According to recent media and intelligence reports, terrorists are on the march in the Sahel region.

That is certainly bad news for Kenya. Sahel is our second door neighbour. Where terrorism is concerned, we already have enough troubles with our first-door neighbour, Somalia.

So what is up in the Sahel? In June, terrorists ambushed an army patrol in Mauritania and massacred 15 soldiers. The culprits readily identified themselves with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda group. Indeed, they received immediate congratulatory messages on the Internet from far-flung affiliates of the al-Qaeda.

Among the most noticeable of the messages was one from the Iraq-based al-Zarqawi Jihad organisation whose leader is Osama’s right-hand man.

It will also be recalled that when London was attacked by terrorists early last month, media houses in both US and the UK reported that four months to the attack, a key Western intelligence agency had alerted authorities in London that terrorists in a Morocco hide-out were planning an attack on London.

Ideal terrorist hiding place

Following the attack on the Mauritania army, the July 6 issue of Morocco’s leading tabloid, The Liberation, reported that the al Qaeda had a grand objective to establish terrorist bases in the Sahel similar to those existing in Afghanistan before the Taliban regime was dismantled two years ago.

The Sahel terrain is as torturous as the Afghan caves and mountains when it comes to policing, making it an ideal hiding place for terrorists.

Quoting intelligence sources in Casablanca, The Liberation newspaper reported that Mauritanian security had seized documents from a local Islamic fundamentalist group that contained detailed instructions for staging attacks on targets within Sahel and beyond.

It contained a list of key leaders targeted for assassination, starting with Mauritanian prime minister Sghair Ould M’bareck.

The most lethal fundamentalist group in the Sahel, and which networks well with Osama, is the Algeria-based Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (SGPC).

The group, with estimated 300 active combatants is on hot-line communication with Osama. SGPC has also owned up to over a dozen terrorist attacks in the Sahel and beyond.

In June, Mauritania Defence minister Baba Ould Sidi said at a press conference that SGSP had planned the ambush on the army patrol that killed 15 soldiers.

And in March, Chadian troops had a showdown with the group’s militia near the Algerian border, in which five people were killed.

According to another Morocco tabloid, L’Opinion, recent events in the region are enough prove that "the SGPS and al Qaeda are set to turn Sahel desert to an oasis for international terrorism."

Some good news, however, is that countries in Sahel are not sitting and watching the merchants of death take over the Sahara.

Early last year, they came up with a joint programme aimed at equipping their military with new techniques to combat infiltration by al-Qaeda cells.

And this year, they have unveiled a much broader programme dubbed the Trans-Sahara Combat Initiative.

The new programme has a two-phase military training operation code-named "Operation Flintlock". The first phase began in early June with the arrival of special trainers from the US anti-terrorism force.

It involved training in infantry combat tactics. The beneficiaries in that category were Mauritania, Mali and Niger.

The second phase focused on border patrol exercises and involved military personnel from Tunisia, Morocco, Nigeria and Senegal.

Through annual training exercise, "Operation Flintlock" will equip participants with the expertise to limit hostile penetration of porous borders in remote terrains. In addition, it will help sabotage militants’ recruiting campaigns. Intelligent reports say the SGPC and the al-Qaeda are busy interesting youths in the Sahel to join their "cause".

Closer home, our immediate neighbours, Uganda and the Sudan, are not taking the terrorist threat in the Sahel lightly.

According to the pan-Arab daily, AI-Sharq al Awsat, Sudan, situated on the eastern edge of the Sahel, and formerly branded a pro-terrorist state is now showing increasing willingness to participate in the global fight against terrorism.

In June, authorities in Khartoum gave investigators "crucial dossier" on al-Qaeda activists, including that of their "high priest", Osama, who lived in the Sudan in the better part of 1990s.

Uganda not sleeping on the job

The change of heart by Sudanese authorities has not been taken kindly all round. In a scathing attack broadcast on the al-Jazeera satellite television on June I7, a spokesman for Osama, one Ayman al-Zawahiri, denounced Khartoum for assisting "our arch-enemies" and threatened that "somebody will have to pay a very high price for it".

Nor is Uganda sleeping on the job. Recently the country made a major score in fighting terrorists when it installed a sophisticated border security control system. The high-tech equipment is meant to detect, track down and apprehend potential terrorist attackers.

With the installation of the facility, Uganda becomes part of the global Terrorist Interdiction Programme (TIP) aimed at containing the ability of terrorists to move freely across territorial borders.

That said, what is Kenya doing or about to do to counter the threat posed by the presence of terrorist cells in the Sahel?

This is one matter that need not wait until the referendum on the constitution is over! And certainly not with our past experience with terrorists in mind.

Mr Mbuvi is a retired policeman and lawyer.

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