Washington, DC (Feb. 2)—A new study by the International Center for Terrorism Studies (ICTS) warns that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) poses a “dangerous threat” to the region and beyond as it seeks to exploit Arab Spring instability and expand terrorist ties to other militants across Africa’s Sahel. The report recommends closing the Polisario Front’s refugee camps near Tindouf, Algeria, which the study says “are a recruiting ground for terrorists, traffickers, and other criminal enterprises.” It calls on the US and international community to “prioritize” resettling the refugees.
The study, “Terrorism in North, West, & Central Africa: From 9/11 to the Arab Spring,” authored by Yonah Alexander, ICTS Director, was released at the 14th annual terrorism review today at the National Press Club, hosted by the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.
“Osama Bin Laden has been killed, but his ideas and al-Qaeda affiliate organizations are alive and kicking,” said Alexander at the National Press Club. “One of the most troubling is AQIM in North Africa, which has links with weapons and narco-trafficking, militants in Nigeria, and Polisario mercenaries who fought for Qaddafi in Libya.”
Among the report’s key recommendations: “Shut down the refugee camps run by the Polisario near Tindouf, Algeria because they are a recruiting ground for terrorists, traffickers, and other criminal enterprises.” It adds that “The US and international community should prioritize permanent refugee resettlement in line with existing international protocols and agreements.”
The study and reliable news media report Polisario members have been arrested and accused of criminal activities that include drug and arms trafficking, gun battles in Mali, AQIM kidnappings in Mauritania and Algeria, and as mercenaries for Qaddafi in Libya. Two months ago, AQIM-linked assailants abducted three Western aid workers from a Polisario headquarters camp, reportedly with help from Polisario insiders who gave the assailants arms and directions to the victims.
“Of grave concern,” says the report, is that AQIM has established links to other militant groups and a “safe haven” in Africa’s Sahel, along an “arc of instability that stretches from the Red Sea and is poised to reach to the Atlantic.” It calls the largely “ungoverned areas” a potential “terrorist breeding ground” and cites AQIM ties to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, al-Shabaab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and Polisario militants in Algeria. The study says AQIM also has links to “Latin cartels for ‘drugs-for-arms’ smuggling into Europe through terrorist-trafficking networks in the Sahel that include members of the Polisario.”
The annual ICTS report, which chronicles attacks by al-Qaeda and other terrorists in the region since 9/11, also offers a nine-country survey of developments since the Arab Spring. Among its key findings:
* Since 9/11, attacks by AQIM and other terrorist groups in the Maghreb and Sahel jumped more than 500% from their low point to reach a new high in 2009, and remain dangerously high level in 2011.
* Al-Qaeda is poised to take advantage of Arab Spring events “to destabilize the region even further.”
* AQIM is taking advantage of the 35-year-old Western Sahara conflict for “expansion and also recruitment of hard-core Polisario members among the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria.”
To read the full ICTS Report, click on: “Terrorism in North, West, & Central Africa: From 9/11 to the Arab Spring.”