When we say ‘al-Qaeda’, most people think of 9/11, the 2004 Madrid bombings and the attacks of 7/7. Less people know of their effect in the Maghreb region. However, since 2002 there has been a significant amount of activity attributed to the Islamic militant group here, the most recent being their attack on the Amenas gas plant in which over 800 workers were held hostage and 48 were killed. Although this is one of their most high-profile, it isn’t their first attack: so how much of an issue is the presence of al-Qaeda in Saharan Africa?
Arguably they have not had a significant effect on the local population of the Maghreb. Over the last ten years their endeavours to create an Islamic state in a secularised and militarised Algeria have only seriously affected those in the security forces and tourists in North Africa. The biggest, most recent militant action was in northern Mali where they captured Timbuktu and this has already been mostly dealt with by French military forces.
Actually al-Qaeda’s presence in the Sahara has had its main impact on an international level. By creating a climate of fear, it has damaged countries like Algeria and Mali’s relations with the rest of the world. In Algeria, for example, the export of natural gas counts for 70% of the economy and, if confidence in security drops, it would spell disaster for the regime.
It is an issue that will remain a serious problem in the region as long as al-Qaeda and its various splinter groups and affiliations have influence there. Like Afghanistan and Iraq, there is no simple solution to the problem and, if left unchecked, there will continue to be serious ramifications both locally and internationally.