DAKAR (Reuters) - The capacity for military cooperation against al Qaeda cells operating in North Africa has been undermined by a coup in Niger last month and rising tensions between governments in the region.
Any erosion in coordination could allow the group to deepen its roots in a zone rich in energy and minerals deposits coveted by international resource firms, and may damp much-needed tourism revenues, analysts said.
"The current situation certainly seems to have dashed the optimism of mid-2009, when there was much talk of multilateral regional cooperation," said Jeremy Binnie, security expert for Jane's Defense in Washington.
Mutinous soldiers stormed the presidential palace in Saharan state Niger last month, toppling President Mamadou Tandja and his government. The coup is likely to delay the resumption of military aid to Niger, which had been suspended due to complaints over Tandja extending his rule last year.
Meanwhile, regional neighbors Mali, Mauritania and Algeria have descended into a diplomatic tussle over Mali's handling of a recent al Qaeda hostage case -- in which it agreed to release four Islamist prisoners for the liberation of a Frenchman.
"There's a reduced likelihood of cooperation in the Sahara now," said Geoff Porter, Africa analyst for Eurasia Group. "There is a tremendous amount of distrust in the region and these latest developments only make it worse."
Al Qaeda's North African wing -- known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM -- emerged in 2007 from the Salafist GSPC movement which waged a campaign of suicide bombings and ambushes in Algeria during the 1990s.
Its initial operations targeted the Algerian military and international organizations in the country.
The group has since shifted a large part of its activities south to the Sahara desert -- using the politically volatile and sparsely populated area as a safe haven for its hostage and drugs smuggling operations.
"AQIM may try to exploit some maneuvering space as a result of frustrations governments in the Sahel region have toward one another," said Mark Shroeder, Africa analyst at Stratfor.
"But this will be tempered by the fact that these governments will not be reducing their individual heightened security postures they have toward AQIM," he said.
The United States and European nations have been trying to improve the capacity of the Saharan states to work together to combat the al Qaeda threat, which analysts said could pose a risk for long-term resource investment.
"These states are so divided. Unless they work together, there is going to be too much ungoverned space," said a western diplomat based in the region.
Niger, for example, has attracted billions of dollars in investment from companies like uranium miner Areva and energy giant China National Petroleum Corp, while Mauritania is hopeful western drillers like Total will find oil deposits.
"Companies may be discouraged from pursuing projects if there is a perception of high risk," said Eurasia's Porter.
The capacity of western nations to fill any widening of the Saharan security gap due to regional diplomatic tensions may also be undermined by deepening mistrust between them and the North African states.
Algeria, a regional counter-terrorism powerhouse, has accused France of orchestrating Mali's prisoner swap to save hostage Pierre Camatte, and has also resisted western pressure to pursue AQIM beyond its borders.
"The way the French hostage has been released is a dangerous setback in the fight against al Qaeda in the Sahel," said retired Colonel Ahmed Adimi on Algerian state television. "The visit of (French President) Sarkozy to Mali is in itself a victory for al Qaeda," he added.
The prospect of increased al Qaeda activity in the Sahara could hurt tourism revenues in places like Niger and Mali which, according to the World Tourism Organization, rely on sightseers for more than 4 percent of their respective GDPs.
"The dollar figures are fairly negligible, but as a percentage of GDP they are extremely high," said Porter.
Tuareg rebels active in Niger and Mali have begun cooperating with al Qaeda cells in recent months because they are able to make more money through ransoms and drug trafficking than they could from their share of tourism revenues, according to security experts.