IT is becoming ever more clear that the toppling of the old order in the wake of the celebrated Arab Spring, which swept its way along North Africa, has come with a heavy price.
Western intelligence agencies grow increasingly uneasy at the blossoming of terror organisations in the region.
British citizens continued last night to flee Libya’s second city Benghazi after a “specific” intelligence warning of an imminent attack by the region’s strongest terror group, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
This organisation was behind an attack on British Ambassador Dominic Asquith in June last year, which left dead two of his bodyguards.
BP has just issued a recall of foreign workers in its gas plants in Algeria, following the siege earlier this month that saw 37 killed, including six Britons.
Once again, the fingerprints of AQIM were found – in the guise of a former commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
In Mali, AQIM holds a firm grip in the north following a military coup, though this is facing serious challenges after French military intervention.
Both the US and Britain have warned of the region becoming the new centre for global terrorism.
This drum has been banged by the US State Department under Hillary Clinton, who last week told a Senate hearing: “We now face a spreading jihadist threat.
“We have driven a lot of the Al Qaeda operatives out of Afghanistan and Pakistan. We have killed a lot of them but we have to recognise this is a global movement.” This was echoed almost word for word by David Cameron.
AQIM, which numbers about 1,000 fighters according to US figures, can trace its origins to 1991 and the civil war in Algeria. It was here that the GIA (Armed Islamic Group) was born to fight the heavy influence that France and the US enjoyed in the nation’s domestic affairs.
In 1998, infighting led to a splinter group, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which in turn declared its allegiance to Al Qaeda in 2003. In 2006, it became AQIM.
Underestimated at first, it used links to Al Qaeda as an effective recruiting tool and soon changed its focus to a Jihad against US, French, Spanish and British influences.
Though not centrally controlled like its Middle Eastern cousin, AQIM was instrumental in importing Middle Eastern terror tactics to North and Saharan Africa. At one time, 26 detainees at Guantanamo Bay were Algerian.
Dr Oz Hassan, an expert in Middle East affairs from Warwick University, said: “AQIM would send fighters to Iraq, and this became its training ground. Suddenly you begin to see Iraqi-style suicide attacks employed in North Africa for the first time.”
AQIM did not contain its efforts to Algeria, however, and expanded its influences to Libya, Mali and Mauritania – areas where internal strife formed power vacuums ripe for filling.
Dr Hassan added: “It’s no surprise that AQIM now dominates Benghazi. AQIM looks for vulnerabilities, and Libya is the perfect place.”
Some analysts claim the problems in Mali, Algeria and Libya have little in common and are borne from long-standing local issues, including corruption and the disenfranchisement of ethnic groups.
Others point out that, rather than obscuring the issue by focusing on terrorism, it is crime that should be tackled, citing AQIM’s main objectives – the kidnapping of foreigners for ransom and trafficking – as commercial enterprises. Certainly, AQIM received hundreds of millions of dollars from trafficking drugs from South America to Morocco, Senegal, Mauritania and Western Sahara, then on to Europe.
John Campbell, US Ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 until 2007 and a leading expert on Africa, said: “The US position is misleading because it obscures the local origins of the issues as well as the origins of the solutions.
“Some groups see Al Qaeda as a way to increase their own prestige but I don’t see any signs of central funding or tactical and political leadership coming from the remnants of AQ. There is an Islamic rhetoric, but that’s because it’s the only rhetoric on offer.”
Yet even changing the terminology from terrorism to crime does parochialise the nature of the threat.
This was recognised in 2009, when security leaders from Algeria, Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Libya met in the Algerian oasis city of Tamanrasset to formulate a framework to tackle the rising threat of regional terrorism, with a special focus on AQIM.
The Tamanrasset Plan was unique – but the Arab Spring washed it away.
Dr Hassan said: “Suddenly, insecurity in Tunisia and Libya saw the frameworks break down. New Governments are still finding their feet. AQIM has capitalised on this.”
The freefall in Libya has also led to the proliferation of arms to AQIM.
Crucially, AQIM has stated its intention is to reach Nigeria, dubbed the “big ball game” by Mr Campbell due to its ability to stabilise the region.
Once again, the fingerprints of AQIM were found – in the guise of a former commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar
He added: “The basic issue in Nigeria is the increasing dividing of the country between a Muslim north and Christian south, made worse by elections in 2011, which were not seen as credible.
“This has left a marginalised north, where Muslims will no longer have an opportunity to occupy the highest office, in a region that is already poorer than other parts. And this is all wrapped up by spectacular corruption.”
Internally, Nigeria’s largest threat comes from the militant Islamist group Boko Haram, which wants to establish an Islamic state.
Last week Nigeria’s foreign minister Olugbenga Ashiru stated that Boko militants were being trained in Mali.
Nigeria has contributed disproportionately to peacekeeping efforts by the African Union and Economic Community of West African states in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast.
Mr Campbell added: “Strategically, the principal threat won’t be oil supplies but rather that the most stable state in West Africa, one that pursued helpful policies in terms of regional security, will be taken off the board.”