RABAT // Last week somewhere in the Malian desert, an army 4 x 4 rumbled into a campsite and retrieved Pierre Camatte, a French botanist held hostage since November by militants allied with al Qa'eda and freed in return for the release of four suspected militants. While good news for Mr Camatte, the prisoner swap has kicked off a diplomatic row between Mali and two neighbours, Algeria and Mauritania, exposing deeper cracks among Saharan countries the US wants working together against terrorism.
As Mr Camatte's liberation was sealed, Algeria and Mauritania withdrew their ambassadors from Mali to protest its decision to cut a deal with his captors, arguing that such moves encourage militants to kidnap again. Mali is increasingly accused by allies of failing to police its northern desert, where militants have gained a foothold in recent years despite US efforts to strengthen the region's armies.
"There continues to be lack of regional co-operation, and it's primarily centred around Mali," said a US official familiar with the region, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with policy. As long as the country fails "to clean up its own backyard, you're going to have ungoverned space". That space is part of the Sahel, a band of arid steppe and scrub acacia along the southern edge of the Sahara, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.
Since adopting the moniker al Qa'eda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in January 2007, Algerian militants formerly known as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat have made the Sahel their main theatre of operations and vowed to unite militants from across North Africa. Meanwhile, the group has continued a low-level Islamist insurgency against the Algerian government, a hangover from brutal civil war in the 1990s. But while army offensives have largely subdued AQIM's northern wing, its Saharan bands have overrun national borders to attack security forces and kidnap westerners for ransom.
"The threat from AQIM in Mauritania, northern Mali and northern Niger can materialise anywhere in these areas, but only infrequently and unpredictably," said Wolfram Lacher, a North Africa expert at Control Risks, a London security assessment firm. Although the group lacks the strength to topple North African governments, "the high-profile kidnaps in particular have attracted a lot of attention and damaged the international profile of these states," Mr Lacher said.
Since 2002, the United States has tried to help those states co-ordinate on security through the Pan-Sahel Initiative and, from 2005, the expanded Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership, a US$500 million (1.83bn) programme that has sent US soldiers to the Sahara to help train and equip local armies for counterterrorism. Despite those efforts, AQIM's southern wing has grown in numbers and daring, analysts said.
The group has claimed responsibility for attacks including gunning down four French tourists in Mauritania, shooting dead an American teacher and attacking the French and Israeli embassies in Nouakchott, Mauritania's capital, and beheading 12 Mauritanian soldiers near the mining town of Zouerate. Meanwhile, AQIM has also been involved in drug smuggling and developed a taste for western hostages, whose ransoms are believed to provide much of the group's funding.
In 2003, it made headlines with the dramatic capture of 32 mainly German tourists in southern Algeria. Most were purportedly traded for around US$6m from the German government. Kidnaps have accelerated since AQIM has based itself in Mali, which has played middleman to western governments willing to pay ransoms, said Salima Tlemcani, a security expert with El Watan, a leading Algerian newspaper. That has raised hackles in Algeria, a key player in counterterrorism that wants an international ban on paying ransoms to terrorist groups.
The US, meanwhile, wants Mali's army to adopt the diligence and tactics that have enabled security forces in Algerian, Mauritania and Niger deny AQIM free rein in their territory. "It's the sort of things that never get in the papers," said the US official. "It's the army patrolling in the right areas; it's professionalism of the smaller units, some of which have received our training; it's standing and fighting as a coherent unit when confronted with insurgents; it's all the things normal armies should do when confronted with an insurgency; it's co-operation between the police, the army and the intelligence services."
However, that level of co-operation may also be lacking between Algeria and Morocco, major military powers in North Africa whose relations have been frigid for decades over the disputed territory of Western Sahara. While both countries are part of Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership, "if there is co-operation between their security services and intelligence services, we just don't see it," said the US official.
Where North African states have too often failed to work together effectively across their borders, AQIM appears to be succeeding. "They've been very successful in a niche area we didn't expect," said the US official. "Training: they've trained a lot of individuals from throughout the Maghreb and Sahel." That leaves a final problem to give North Africa's discordant governments pause. According to the US official, few AQIM recruits have remained in northern Mali, in Spartan camps beneath the acacias. "Most have gone back to their home countries."