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Al-Qaida's Desert Terror.

Al-Qaida's announcement this week of the execution of a sick, 78-year old Frenchman, Michel Germaneau, somewhere in the vast arid wastes of the Sahara, is seen in Paris as a declaration of war. 'This barbaric act will not go unpunished,' a grim-faced President Nicolas Sarkozy declared from the Elysee Palace.

Captured by Al-Qaida in Niger on 19 April and held hostage ever since, Germaneau seems to have been an eccentric do-gooder, who had travelled to Africa on a private humanitarian mission. Although he suffered from a heart complaint, he was denied medication by his captors.

They threatened to kill him on 26 July if some of their men held in Mauretania were not freed. But their demands were vague and the men they wanted released were not named. It was thought at one time that Al-Qaida was demanding the release of a man serving a life-sentence in France for a lethal attack on the Saint-Michel metro station in Paris in 1995, which caused eight deaths and over one hundred wounded. But this was not confirmed. Al-Qaida's real aims in threatening Germaneau with execution remain shrouded in mystery.

In a last-minute attempt to free him, a joint force of Mauretanian and French troops raided an Al-Qaida base at Kidal in the deserts of northern Mali on July 22. They killed six Islamist fighters but failed to find Germaneau.

In response to the raid, Al-Qaida's overall commander in the Sahara issued a blood-curdling warning to France, broadcast over Al-Jazeera television. Abu Mussab Abd al-Wadud, known as Amir Drukdal, claimed that the killing of Germaneau was in retaliation for the death of his six fighters. Sarkozy, he declared, had 'opened the gates of hell for himself, his people and his nation.' He seemed to be threatening to carry the terrorist war to France.

Some French experts believe that the story of Germaneau's execution is a fiction, and that he may well have died several weeks earlier from sickness and from the harsh conditions in which he was held. In any event, Al-Qaida in the Sahara has declared itself a virulent enemy of the French state.

This week, President Sarkozy sent Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner on a tour of Mauretania, Niger and Mali to reassure French expatriates there -- and their host governments -- of France's continued support.

According to Jean-Pierre Filiu, France's leading expert on Al-Qaida and a professor at Sciences Po (the Institute of Political Studies in Paris), Al-Qaida in the Sahara consists of little more than two highly mobile brigades - or katiba - of 150 men each, one operating in the east of the region, the other in the west. Amir Drukdal, a veteran survivor of Algeria's vicious civil war of the 1990s, is thought to be headquartered somewhere in southern Algeria.

The strength and effectiveness of these Al-Qaida units derive essentially from the deals they strike with criminal gangs in the region, who smuggle drugs, weapons, cigarettes and illegal migrants. They exchange services. These gangs sometimes kidnap foreigners, whom they then trade to Al-Qaida.

Professor Filiu explains that, whereas Al-Qaida recruits foot soldiers from the African countries where it operates, its senior cadres are all Algerian Islamists, hardened by their long war against the Algerian regime in the 1990s.

When an Islamic party, the Front islamique du salut (FIS), won the first round of elections in Algeria, the government cancelled the results. This triggered the emergence in 1992 of the Groupe islamiste arme (GIA), dedicated to overthrowing the government and replacing it by an Islamic state by means of an armed uprising. Between 1992 and 1999, the GIA was responsible for at least 1,000 deaths and as many wounded. France, as well as the U.S., Britain and Canada, placed it on their terrorist lists.

In 1998, allegedly because they thought the GIA's tactics too violent, a group of fighters broke away from the GIA to found the Groupe salafiste pour la predication et le combat (GSPC). In reality, the split may have been the result of a power struggle within the leadership.

But, in a dramatic development in 2007, the GSPC declared its allegiance to Osama bin Laden and renamed itself Qaidat al-jihad fi'il maghrib al-islami, better known by its French name of Al-Qaida au Magrib islamique (AQMI). The mission bin Laden gave it was to attack French interests.

The area where AQMI operates is a sparsely populated zone as big as Europe, stretching from southern Algeria through Mauretania, northern Mali, Niger and into Chad. The sheer size of the desert and the inhospitable terrain are no doubt what allow fast-moving Al-Qaida units to escape detection and destruction.

The Al-Qaida chief in Mauretania since 2005 is said to be a certain Bin Mokhtar, who is thought to have been responsible for attacks on French tourists in December 2007 and for an assault on the French embassy in Nouakshott in 2009. His opposite number in Niger and northern Mali is Abu Zeid, a particularly daring and brutal commander. He was holding Michel Germaneau hostage until the Frenchman's death.

Apart from the 300 AQMI fighters in the Sahara, there are thought to be another 700 or so in Algeria itself, where they continue to harass the regime. According to some estimates, since the beginning of this year their ambushes have caused more than 80 casualties among Algeria's security services and the auxiliaries working with them. Since 2005, more than 150 persons have been kidnapped. Many were released after a ransom was paid.

The impact on President Sarkozy's political fortunes of Germaneau's death in captivity remains to be seen. The failed rescue attempt earlier this month is bound to take a toll on his already battered popularity. The comparison may well be made with the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1980, which proved to be a major political liability for the then U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

He suffered a terrible political blow when the attempt to rescue them by military action in April 1980 ended in ignominious failure. The attempt had to be aborted when three of the eight helicopters of the U.S. rescue mission malfunctioned, and when a fourth helicopter collided with a C-130 transport plane in the night-time lift-off.

Sarkozy has not suffered a blow of this magnitude, but embarrassing questions are being asked about his handling of the tragic Germaneau affair.

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Publication:Dar Al Hayat, International ed. (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:Jul 30, 2010
Words:1065
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