MARRAKECH, Morocco (Reuters) - Regional rivalries and doubts about Western intervention are hampering efforts by Africa’s fragile Sahara-Sahel zone to prevent remote desert areas destabilized by Libya’s war from becoming safe havens for al Qaeda and international criminals.
Some of the world’s poorest countries such as Mali, Niger and Mauritania are scrambling to secure international expertise to shore up crumbling state authority in the face of an influx of weapons and fighters from Libya’s conflict.
Counter-terrorism experts are concerned that al Qaeda gangs, enriched by ransoms paid for Western hostages, are exploiting growing lawlessness to push their influence southwards, possibly into OPEC power Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation.
Chadian General Adoum Ngare Hassan told a security conference in Morocco at the weekend that if Maghreb states span out of control their neighbors could face “a descent into hell”.
The general, responsible for protecting Chad’s borders with Niger, Libya and Sudan, suggested the West bore much of the responsibility for regional disarray through its support for the revolt in Libya, a country now risking “general collapse”.
While there is agreement in the international community on the urgent need to help Sahelian states with security, in practice it is proving very hard, analysts and diplomats say.
The principal reason is a long-standing rift between Arab Maghreb neighbors Algeria and Morocco, a fact that frustrates many in the region because by common consent these two countries are best qualified to help their weaker southern neighbors.
Both countries are heavyweight intelligence and military powers, but they are also rivals, and an impasse in relations means they do not operate the sort of joint security cooperation in their Saharan backyard that could really make a difference.
Speaking on the sidelines of the conference, Jean-Francois Daguzan of France’s Foundation for Strategic Research told Reuters: “If there is no Algerian-Moroccan agreement on the security of the Sahel, there cannot be true security, simply because the terrorists will use this fundamental fault. It’s a major problem.”
As a result Sahelian states may have to rely increasingly on Europe and the United States for counter-terrorism support, an uneasy prospect for countries combating al Qaeda militants who seek to portray regional governments as stooges of the West.
But there is disquiet too, about the West’s muscular role in Libya, and some delegates said the issue of how much Western help the Sahel should accept was a delicate one.
Some countries blame the West for the chaotic end to Muammar Gaddafi’s long rule, arguing the disarray handed al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb the chance to obtain arms looted on its behalf from Libya, a feat the group has openly, and proudly, disclosed.
There is resentment that British and French action removed a generous, if fickle, donor to many African states and ended Libya’s welcome for hundreds of thousands of Sahelian workers whose remittances were an economic lifeline.
Chadian General Hassan, whose country is a former Gaddafi ally now struggling with the return of hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing Libya’s turmoil, suggested that if the uprisings in north Africa span out of control it would have a devastating impact on other parts of Africa.
Such a loss of control would “promote a descent into hell with incalculable consequences as much for itself (the Maghreb) as for neighbors near and far.”
The West now had a duty to provide training and logistical support to African government forces who knew the terrain.
“It’s high time the rich nations of Europe and America decided to help Africa squarely in this critical, phase where (African) armed forces, even if united, cannot tackle small groups of extremely mobile and elusive armed bandits.
It was also in the West’s own interest to step up support.
“If terrorists of all sorts don’t manage to pass through the defensive meshes of the West, the porous frontiers of African states will provide them a choice of opportunities.”
His remarks reflected private sentiment among some delegates but others cautioned a call for Western technical support should not be misinterpreted as tolerance for Western meddling.
The ideal solution was for Algeria and Morocco to solve their main row - over the future of the disputed territory of Western Sahara — and help the region fight al Qaeda, some said.
Modibo Goita, a professor at the Peacekeeping School in Bamako, Mali, said Algeria and Morocco had to find a way to cooperate to better confront “the threat of chaos emerging from their southern flank. Otherwise, they both must prepare to encounter unavoidable foreign intervention”.
Algeria and Morocco both deploy intelligence services in the Sahara’s semi-arid southern fringe where al Qaeda seeks a safe haven along the lines of Yemen and Somalia.
But they are competitors more than collaborators, diplomats say. Lack of trust narrows the flows of information that are vital to disrupting an upsurge in smuggling and hostage-taking believed to be funding militants and racketeers with links to criminal syndicates in West Africa, Europe and Latin America.
Daouda Diallo Boubacar, a security researcher from Niger, suggested increasing Western security ties would be imprudent.
“The best way of making the region unmanageable is to accept intervention in the region. A solution must pass through the Maghreb and the Sahel,” he said.
Until regional intelligence was improved, delegates said, it would be hard to obtain timely and credible information about AQIM and its alliances to political or criminal networks, such as its reputed link to Nigeria’s shadowy Boko Haram militants.
“AQIM is the ideal scarecrow for mafia networks and interests of regional policy to confuse the issue and advance their pawns at will,” said Jacques Hogard, a former French military officer who runs an intelligence consultancy, EPEE.
Delegates said another big vulnerability exploited by AQIM, and anyone with an interest in the region’s disorder, was the region’s poverty. One senior Sahelian security officer said AQIM had bought the complicity or silence of border guards, who normally might earn $500 a year, for $2,000 to $3,000 a year.
Another problem was what one delegate called a perennial problem of police brutality, a factor behind European and U.S. calls for improvements in rule of law and judicial performance.
But even progress on those issues was dependent on better coordination, for example boosting economic cooperation and a sharing of best police practice, delegates said.
A U.S. officer, who declined to be identified as he was not meant to talk to media, said the region suffered “insufficient cooperation and resources, a suspicion of motivations, and sometimes a purposeful misinterpretation of intentions.”
Another Western official bemoaned “an utter lack of security architecture.”
James Hentz, professor of international studies at the Virginia Military Institute, said that if the region continued to struggle against AQIM, it was possible that in time “we could see U.S. drones in operation in the region, with the request or permission of the sovereign states involved, as we’ve seen them used in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia”.
In May, Mali announced that it, Mauritania, Niger and Algeria would set up within 18 months, a joint force of up to 75,000 soldiers to secure their region, based at joint command centre established in 2010 in Tamanrasset, in southern Algeria.
But Morocco is not part of this venture, and information about progress in assembling the force has been sparse.
France, which has 1,500 nationals in Niger and a further 8,500 in Mali and Mauritania, warned this month that nowhere in its three ex-colonies could now be considered safe following a series of kidnappings of its nationals by gunmen working for al Qaeda, and advised French travelers to avoid the Sahel.
Two separate attempts by French forces to rescue nationals from AQIM’s grip have ended in failure. And Western delegates said that ideally they wanted any action on the ground in the region to be by African states.
Outsiders must not be “intrusive”, French Defense Ministry deputy head of strategic affairs General Jean Marc Duquesne told Reuters, adding “What is really important is cooperation.”
“It’s really a question of south-south relationships, and we have to be careful, countries, like ours, not to be intrusive about this. We must be ready to help them, we must be ready to hear them, but we must be very careful how to act with them.”
Editing by Diana Abdallah