US risks fuelling militant Islam: study

Daily Times, April 1, 2005
US risks fuelling militant Islam: study
* ICG says Western and African intelligence considers Tablighi Jamaat a threat

DAKAR: The United States will only fuel a rise in Islamic militancy in countries bordering the Sahara desert if it takes a heavy-handed approach to fighting terrorism in the region, an influential think tank said on Thursday.

Proselytising Pakistani clerics, an Algerian fundamentalist group allied to Al Qaeda and growing resentment of US foreign policy were causes for concern but did not make West Africa a hotbed of terrorism, the International Crisis Group (ICG) said.

“There are enough indicators to justify caution and greater western involvement out of security interests, but it has to be done more carefully than it has been so far,” ICG’s West Africa project director Mike McGovern said in a report.

Mindful of the Al Qaeda training camps that emerged in Afghanistan, some US officials say countries like Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania, which are among the world’s poorest, make similarly fertile hunting ground for militants seeking recruits. US Special Forces and military experts have trained soldiers in all four countries as part of efforts to help them fight the threat in the region’s vast swathes of desert.

But a military policy that offers no alternative livelihoods to already marginalised nomadic populations risked causing resentment and radicalising locals further, ICG said.

Preachers, most of whom are Pakistani, from Jamaat al-Tabligh have been converting former Tuareg rebels in Mali, it said.

Although the movement itself was staunchly apolitical, its converts included British “shoe bomber” Richard Reid and the “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, captured in 2001 during the war in Afghanistan, ICG said.

“Both Western and African intelligence services consider them a significant potential threat,” it said. “Many analysts agree that a turn toward Tablighi ‘fundamentalism’ is sometimes a first step toward a career in violent Islamist militancy,” the group said.

The Tuaregs, a pale-skinned minority who live and work in the Sahara, launched insurgencies in Niger and Mali in the early 1990s because they felt persecuted by a black elite governing far away in the countries’ capital cities.

Resentment remains high among former fighters in the ancient Saharan trading towns of Kidal and Timbuktu in Mali and Agadez in Niger. They say too little has been done to integrate them. US policy in the Sahara has so far focused on fighting smuggling networks and stopping Algeria’s last powerful rebel force, the Al Qaeda-linked Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), from gaining a foothold outside its homeland. Many Tuaregs in Timbuktu and Agadez viewed the presence of elite US forces in their towns with suspicion during training exercises last year, seeing them as a threat to the delicate balance of power that has lasted for generations in the Sahara. reuters

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