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Al-Qaeda Murders Its Way Across the Sahara

A suicide bomber attacks a French embassy in Mauritania in response to Sarkozy's stance on the burqa.

by
Annie Jacobsen

Bio

August 27, 2009 - 12:36 am
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Positioning France as the new Great Satan appears to have come — at least in part — in response to French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s stance against burqas. In June, Sarkozy told the French parliament that burqas were “not welcome” in France and compared having to wear one as analogous to being in a prison. “The problem of the burqa is not a religious problem. This is an issue of a woman’s freedom and dignity. This is not a religious symbol. It is a sign of subservience; it is a sign of lowering,” Sarkozy said.

Five days later, al-Qaeda issued a statement threatening “revenge” on France. Sarkozy’s statements, al-Qaeda said, were a declaration of war against Muslim sisters and it was therefore their duty to seek revenge “by every means and wherever we can reach them.” Whether or not al-Qaeda’s jihadists can attack France at home remains unknown. But its reach certainly extends to French outposts in Africa, such as the embassy in Mauritania.

Unable to successfully mount large-scale attacks on Western targets, the global network of al-Qaeda has been setting its sights on Africa, which serves as both a recruiting ground and a sanctuary for jihadists. When Mauritania’s foreign minister, Naha Mint Moknass, announced last week that the jihadists who planned the French embassy attack were foreign-born, it became clear that AQIM had succeeded in extending its reach deep into the Sahara.

And with global results. For the first time in forty years, the Peace Corps pulled 45 volunteers and 14 staff out of Mauritania “for security reasons.” Attacks elsewhere in Africa this summer have had significant financial results for the region. As many as 11,000 European tourists who usually visit the fabled city of Timbuktu in Mali (a neighbor to Mauritania) have all but disappeared after al-Qaeda kidnapped a number of people there. In June, one of the kidnapped tourists, a British citizen named Edwin Dyer, was killed. (Dyer was captured in Niger in January and taken to Mali where he was executed.) Tourism used to be “good for the local economy,” Mahamane Dady, an official from the Malian tourism office, told Agence France Presse. Dady continued: “But with the recent problems linked to security in the region, we are crossing our fingers.”

The posh Paris-Dakar race, which has fueled the impoverished region with cash since 1979, was canceled last year and relocated to South America after one too many terrorist threats. Plans to develop a gas pipeline across the Sahara are also now at risk. The  Trans-Sahara Gas Pipeline project involved inter-government agreements between Algeria, Nigeria, and Niger and had the support of the European Union. But growing security concerns in Africa have now threatened to derail the project.

The instability in the region has caused the State Department to increase security at U.S. facilities, which in turn, say American diplomats, “has led terrorists to seek softer targets such as hotels, beach resorts, prominent public places, and landmarks.” For this reason, officials caution civilians against traveling to remote areas in Africa. “Terrorists do not distinguish between official and civilian targets,” says the State Department’s webpage.

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Annie Jacobsen writes the "Backstory" blog (http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/back-story/) for the Los Angeles Times Magazine.
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