Nouakchott — Mali-based terrorists are now a greater threat to European security than al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, a recent report claims.
Terrorists in northern Mali could expand operations to Libya, Mauritania and Niger, according to a recently published study.
European researchers with the Monitoring Centre for Organised Crime (OPCO) released a report in November stating Sahel states could lose control of their territory and possibly face regime collapse from the growing jihadist threat.
The centre also warned the Sahel could face more chaos in the years to come, according to a December 11th El Khabar report on the study. The researchers also indicated a growing number of Europeans were joining al-Qaeda terror training camps in the region known as Azawad.
These camps have become more of a threat to European security than al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, according to the centre. The study also claimed that between 8,000 and 14,000 people were members of al-Qaeda and affiliated groups in the Sahel and North Africa.
The number is expected to double in a year or two if no action is taken in northern Mali, OPCO warned.
Mauritanian journalist Mohamed Ould Sid al-Mokhtar said the study offered a thorough analysis but was too pessimistic.
"The fact is, this opinion is not widely shared by the countries of the region and the Sahel," Ould Sid al-Mokhtar said. "Most observers expect instead the collapse of terrorist groups. The evidence includes splits within terrorists themselves."
He also pointed to developments in sanctioning and blacklisting terror groups in the region, saying the terror groups' financial resources are drying up as well as "the reluctance of Maghreb youth to join these groups".
"In addition, there is the intention of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to wage a war to liberate the territory of Azawad controlled at this point by the Islamists. Islamist groups indeed represent a real risk, but not to the degree shown in the study," he added.
Al-Qaeda leaders refer to Mali, Chad, Mauritania, Libya and Niger as "The Great Islamic Desert". The Arab Spring provided an opportunity for the growth of influence of Islamist extremists in the Sahel.
According to El Khabar, experts from the centre supported France's decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and deploy them to the Sahel. The paper also cited the European report as warning that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) drew on members from 11 nations, including all Maghreb states as well as Nigeria and Egypt.
Observers are now wondering whether ECOWAS troops can repeat the success of African Union peacekeepers in Somalia, where the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Shabab Movement was ousted.
"The salafi-based danger is real but the appropriate response is a revolutionary method to this challenge by drying up its resources," commented Mauritanian journalist Hassan Ould Ahrimo. "This will be achieved by addressing the problems of development and human rights in the Sahel. Development and cultural confrontation are much more important than security and military solutions."
"Yet, a military solution must destroy the hard drive of these groups now, and not tomorrow," he added. "The availability of a rear base for armed groups in the region would increase the danger and not contain it. There must be an approach as a package or a mixture of urgent security solutions and long term solutions covering development and policy."