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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Malta a no-show at North Africa-Southern Europe Counter-Terroism Meeting in Mouritania

In the wake of a US State Department report citing concern over Malta’s potential as a staging post for terrorists entering Europe and another warning from Malta’s security service, Malta missed a crucial meeting this week between southern European and north African security ministers on the subject of trans-national terrorism risks threatening both regions.

Malta’s absence from the meeting, which placed the increasing terrorist threat against Europe by North African militants at the top of its agenda, was even more conspicuous by the fact that a report drafted by the Security Committee of Malta’s National Security Service tabled in Parliament this week urged politicians and the country’s law and order structures to keep a lookout for terrorism threats in the light of heightened terrorist group activity in North Africa.

But the reason behind Malta’s absence, where the country was to have been represented by newly installed Justice and Home Affairs Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici, was not for lack of effort on the part of the government but rather the failure by both sides of Parliament to come up with an agreement on parliamentary pairing.

Speaking in Parliament on Wednesday, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi remarked it was regrettable Malta had not been represented at the Mauritania meeting because of Parliament’s failure to strike a pairing agreement.

Contacted yesterday, a Justice and Home Affairs spokesperson confirmed the minister had been unable to attend due to the pairing issue, and that Malta had not been represented at the meet on the grounds that it had been a ministerial meeting and as such there had been no point in sending a replacement for the minister.

The meeting came at a critical stage, with the Africa-Europe irregular migration season now coming into full swing, and with an apparent pick-up in terrorist group activity in North Africa.The terrorism phenomenon is gaining ever more ground in north Africa, and the subject matter was treated in depth at the two-day meeting held on Wednesday and Thursday in the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott.

In recent years, North African countries have suffered bomb blasts and other attacks carried out by Islamic militants, including the North African branch of al-Qaeda.

Spain and other southern European States have also been targeted.Terrorist activities in North Africa have been on the increase once again of late.
  • In the meeting’s host nation, {Mauritania] al-Qaeda gunmen have killed French tourists and local soldiers over the last six months.
  • Last year Tunisian authorities killed 12 Islamic extremists while breaking up a plot to attack the US and British embassies as well as hotels and nightclubs in Tunis.
  • The last 12 months have been particularly bloody for Algeria, with eight suicide attacks killing over 100 people.
  • Morocco also appears to be another hotbed, with the Moroccan Islamist Combat Group believed to be responsible for the 2004 Madrid bombings that killed 191 people.Just this week Moroccan authorities arrested 11 al-Qaeda linked suspects allegedly planning a terrorist attack in Belgium
  • Southern EU States are also said to be particularly concerned about militant attacks in Algeria.

In its 2007 annual report, Malta’s National Security Service noted that the recent merging of the North African al-Qaeda group and the Salafista “Preach and Combat Group” into the so called al-Qaeda in the Land of Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) group “could have serious implications for the Mediterranean and the European Union as this organisation is taking advantage of the extensive network of operatives that could be exported to the European continent”.

The report also observed how AQIM had affiliated itself with a number of other like-minded groups in North Africa where it had also established extensions and other assets in the Maghreb region, which had reached Europe and Iraq.The amalgamation had taken place in 2006 on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack against the United States, and the group is said to have been growing quickly since.

While the group is still concentrating many of its actions against Algerian military forces and authorities in, according to Osama bin-Laden’s deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, a “jihad to liberate Algerians from America, France and the children of France”, is thought to be setting its sights increasingly on European targets – presenting a worrying picture for European security forces.

A recent report by the EU’s criminal intelligence agency Europol said that most of the 340 arrested in the EU on terrorism charges between October 2005 and December 2006 had come from Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria – many of which had ties to AQIM.

Another recent report by the US State Department highlighted the potential of Malta serving as a staging post for would-be terrorists seeking clandestine entry into Europe, given Malta’s high influx of undocumented irregular migrants.

The US State Department, in its 2007 Country Report on Terrorism for Malta, noted that, “Malta could become increasingly attractive to terrorist organisations seeking entry into Europe” given the country’s geographic location between North Africa and Europe and Malta’s status as an EU member State.

This week’s 5+5 meeting in Mauritania was held as part of the Inter-governmental Conference of Interior Ministers from the Western Mediterranean. A total of 14 meetings of the forum have been held in which Malta participated, with the exception of this week’s meeting.The meeting saw the participation of Libya, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Mauritania from the North African side, all of which insisted on the importance of communication and education to halt the phenomenon of terrorism.

Southern Europe, meanwhile, was represented by France, Spain, Portugal and Italy, while Malta had been absent from talks that centred around ways of improving exchanges of information and collaboration to confront trans-national security risks seen threatening both regions.

Participating States agreed to share intelligence and work together to fight terrorism, drug-trafficking and illegal migration in the Mediterranean – all areas integral to Malta. The issue of irregular migration is central to the fight against terrorism, while drug trafficking is featuring as an increasingly strong source of financing for North African terrorist groups.


The Rest @ Malta Independent Online

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