Western intelligence services are on high alert as an escalation in violence in North Africa suggests Al-Qaeda has penetrated vast swathes of the continent
From Fred Bridgland in Johannesburg
ELEVEN DAYS ago, scarcely noticed by the international media, guerrillas in Algeria aligned to the terror group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) detonated two huge roadside bombs against a convoy of vehicles 125 miles south-east of the capital, Algiers.
The convoy, travelling near Bordj Bou Arreridj in the Kabylia range of the Atlas Mountains, comprised paramilitary police vehicles escorting Chinese workers to a site where they were building a new highway.
After disabling the convoy with two improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the Islamic militants raked the disabled vehicles with small-arms fire. By the end of the ambush, 18 policemen and one Chinese worker lay dead. Another six gendarmes and two Chinese were wounded.
As well as causing dismay within the Algerian government, Western governments and intelligence agencies took extra-special note of the Bordj Bou Arreridj attack for many reasons.
- First, although it was one of many attacks in the past two years by AQIM, which has training bases in the Kabylia mountains, rising to 7000ft,
- The sophistication of the IEDs suggests the group may have been joined by top operatives returning from training with Islamist groups in Iraq or Pakistan, where roadside bomb-making has become a deadly art form.
- Second, it coincides with deadly AQIM strikes elsewhere in Africa. Al-Jazeera TV said it had received a recorded statement from the north African wing of the international terror outfit saying it was responsible for the slaying on June 23 of 39-year-old American Christopher Leggett in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania.
- AQIM said in the video statement that Leggett was assassinated for allegedly trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. "Two knights of the Islamic Maghreb succeeded to kill the infidel American Christopher Leggett for his Christianising activities," said AQIM. "The organisation in Mauritania carried out the attack at a time when savage US bombs are mowing down our Muslim brothers in Pakistan and Afghanistan."
Leggett was shot in the head several times from close range outside the computer and language school he had directed since 2003.
"With grace from Allah, we were able to assassinate him, kill him, and purify the land of Mauritania from his criminal presence," the AQIM statement added.
AQIM has also claimed responsibility for two other attacks in Mauritania - the killing of four French tourists in December 2007, which prompted the cancellation of the Paris-Dakar car rally, and a small-arms attack on the Israeli Embassy in Nouakchott last year, in which no-one was hurt.
The third reason why western intelligence service are now sitting up and taking worried notice of AQIM is that the Bordj Bou Arreridj ambush followed the execution four weeks ago of British tourist Edwin Dyer in an area of Mali near Algeria's southern border by a group claiming to be aligned to AQIM.
The group issued a statement saying it had carried out its threat to kill Dyer - who was kidnapped in January in a border area between Mali and Niger - after Britain failed to meet a demand to release from detention Abu Qatada, a Jordanian militant reputed to be the European envoy of Osama bin Laden.
The ambush, the Leggett assassination and the Dyer execution across a vast area of north-west Africa could be dismissed as isolated attacks by fanatics suggesting more power and support than they really enjoy.
But gruesome events some 4500 miles to the east, right across Africa from Mauritania, last Thursday raised the alarm in Washington about al-Qaeda penetration of Africa to such an extent that the Obama administration said it was sending arms and ammunition to the beleaguered government of Somalia to counter al-Qaeda-aligned insurgents who are bringing a grotesque form of sharia law to the outskirts of the capital, Mogadishu.
The 40 tonnes of American weaponry were despatched despite an arms embargo imposed on Somalia by the United Nations Security Council. Washington sought a waiver on the embargo and the Security Council agreed.
A top administration official said the sending of arms to Somalia signalled President Obama's determination to try to thwart a takeover of the Horn of Africa state by the al-Qaeda-inspired Al Shabaab (The Youth) Islamic rebel group.
The official said: "A decision was made at the highest level to ensure the Somalia government does not fall and that everything is done to strengthen government security forces to counter the rebels."
Al Shabaab, which the Washington official estimates has some 200 foreign jihadists in its ranks, stepped up attacks in early May and now controls most of south Somalia and most of the suburbs of Mogadishu.
Western nations and their allies in Africa fear the al Shabaab insurgents could destabilise the entire East Africa and Horn of Africa region, exploiting widespread discontent with pervasive poverty and corrupt governments and providing safe havens for hardline Islamists from the Middle East and Asia. "We remain concerned about the prospects of an al Shabaab victory," said the official.
HOODED al Shabaab fighters last Thursday used machetes to hack off a hand and a foot from each of four men in a northern Mogadishu suburb as punishment for theft. "We have carried out this sentence under the Islamic religion and we will punish like this everyone who carries out such acts," said al Shabaab official Sheikh Ali Mohamud Fidow.
The men, aged 18 to 25, first screamed for help and then in pain. Some of the estimated 300 spectators, compelled to attend by al Shabaab militants, vomited as the amputations progressed.
When a comparatively moderate Islamist, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, was elected Somalia's new President in January there was hope he could end two decades of slaughter by achieving reconciliation with the hardliners intent on imposing a very strict version of Islam on their countrymen.
But Somalia's national security minister Omar Hashi Aden and 24 other people were killed in a suicide attack on June 18 in western Somalia, for which al Shabaab claimed responsibility. On June 17 Mogadishu's police chief died during fighting with al Shabaab insurgents in the capital, that saw at least 34 other people killed. In March, Osama bin Laden urged Somalis to overthrow President Ahmed, calling him a tool of the US in an audiotape that outlined al-Qaeda's ambitions in Somalia.
"Omar Hashi Aden's death is a huge blow to the government," said Ali Said Omar, director of the Nairobi-based Centre for Peace and Democracy, an independent Somalia research organisation. He said the national security minister had become an important figure in the government because he was successfully recruiting militiamen to fight anti-government forces in central and southern regions of Somalia where the government had few allies.
Before last week's double amputations, al Shabaab had previously carried out executions, floggings, single-limb amputations and the stoning to death of an alleged teenage adultress, mainly in the southern port of Kismayu. Movies, football games and dancing are banned in areas it controls, while men and women cannot travel together on public transport. Al Shabaab's strict practices have shocked many Somalis, who historically have practised Islam in a moderate, easy-going way that scandalises fundamentalists.
Security and defence bosses in Kenya, to the south of Somalia, are openly frantic that Somalia could become East Africa's Afghanistan, attracting extremists from its neighbours to be trained in terrorism in order to return to their own countries to set up al-Qaeda-style networks. According to intelligence sources, a Kenyan Islamist group, Al-Muhajurin, is already fighting in Somalia alongside al Shabaab. Believed to be about 180-strong, some of Al-Muhajurin's fighters are battle-hardened from action in Afghanistan.
Al Shabaab has threatened to annex Kenyan territory. A Kenyan Ministry of Internal Security official said that while Kenya does not feel physically threatened "in the conventional sense," it does fear massive destabilisation and a threat to its already shaky tourist industry - not least because al-Qaeda has released video statements saying its dream is to create a Taliban-type super-state running all the way south to Mozambique.
Already the bloody conflict in Somalia has created in Kenya the world's largest refugee camp. Dadaab, just 50 miles from the Somali border, is home to more than 280,000 refugees in an area meant to hold just 90,000. Some 3500 people escape across Somalia's border with Kenya every week, fleeing the conflict in their dysfunctional country. Dadaab's boreholes are stretched to breaking point and aid workers fear outbreaks of disease if the sprawling site's 35,000 latrines are not renovated. Every day the camp generates 300 tonnes of waste that need to be removed. The UN is trying to find more land to accommodate the waves of new arrivals but faces resistance from the Kenyan government, which would prefer to see the refugees return across the border.
Despite the presence of 2000 US special force troops in Djibouti, to Somalia's north, and an unprecedented international naval force involving more than 20 countries off the Somali coast to fight the piracy that has grown, in large part, out of the chaos on land, non-African countries consistently reject the urging by Somalia's neighbours to intervene onshore, because of fear of the consequences. A UN-backed US intervention in Somalia in 1993 cost 18 Delta Force and Ranger commando lives, with the battered corpses of two of the US soldiers dragged as trophies through the streets of Mogadishu by angry mobs, scenes shown repeatedly on television and later portrayed in the book and film Black Hawk Down. For the Americans it was a catastrophic defeat - elite units of the world's most powerful army humiliated by a few rag-tag militias.
Nevertheless, President Obama has raised the stakes by sending weaponry to Somalia's government. If that does not stabilise the situation, it is unclear what his Plan B is - if he has one.
AN al Shabaab spokesman, commenting on the possibility of foreign troop intervention, said: "Our dogs and cats will enjoy eating the dead bodies of your boys if you try to respond to the calls of these stooges the Somalia government. Somali young Mujahideen will fight any troops deployed here until our last holy fighter passes away."
President Ahmed has appealed to Ethiopia and Kenya to send soldiers to help his forces fight al Shabaab. But both countries are loath to step in. Neither can afford a big military offensive. Ethiopia lost 800 men when it staged an invasion of Somalia in 2007-2008.
Meanwhile, as the West, Kenya and Ethiopia worry about al-Qaeda-inspired events in Somalia, a close eye remains focused on Algeria's AQIM. Its leader, Abu Musab Abdul-Wadud, is believed to have 1000 fighters and his declared ambition is to carry out actions in Spain, France and Britain. Paris is already investigating reported cells of the group in France.
Intelligence agencies are waiting anxiously to see if the Bordj Bou Arreridj attack was just an anomaly - or the beginning of a deadly new trend.
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