Desert Storm

Back in March of this year, I spent a couple of weeks in the far north of Burkina Faso. I slept under the stars on the edge of the Sahara, was offered a live goat at Dori’s spectacular weekly livestock market, and discussed the upcoming hunger season with nomadic Fulani herders. I also spent money (although not on the goat) and contributed a little to the local economy.

Today I could do none of these things. The whole northern half of this beautiful, welcoming country has been declared off limits by the British, American and French governments. Last month, the US evacuated dozens of its citizens from north-western Burkina. Last week, France withdrew twenty-five students from the city of Fada N’Gourma, near the Niger border, and sent them back to Europe. Across that border, in southern Niger, NGO workers helping to deal with that country’s hunger crisis (a crisis which my Fulani interlocutors had foreseen) have been recalled to the capital, Niamey, for unspecified ‘reasons of security.’

Were I to go back to northern Burkina and fall sick or have a traffic accident (statistically by far the greatest dangers to my person), my insurance would not cover the costs of recovery. Were I to be kidnapped by elements linked to Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), which the European governments see as the greatest threat to my safety, nobody would pay my ransom and, like the tragic Briton Edwin Dyer last year, I might well be murdered.

My first reaction to this expansion of the already large map of forbidden West African territories was one of anger. So far, two of the dozens captured by Al Qaeda have died. Edwin Dyer was executed because his government refuses to negotiate with terrorists, and earlier this month the 78-year-old French humanitarian worker Michel Germaneau, whose own government normally has no such qualms, either met the same fate or died of natural causes (it is not yet clear). When I compare this figure to the annual number of deaths in car crashes on the M25, on which the Foreign Office is happy for me to drive, or stabbings in London, which I can freely visit, it seems a disproportionate response to tell all foreign visitors that they must avoid northern Burkina and most of Niger, thereby impeding the famine relief effort, hobbling the fledgling tourist industry, and deterring any foreigner thinking of doing business there.

But on reflection, I wondered whether I would be brave enough to revisit the region myself (as I plan to do next year). In March I did not feel in any danger, but if the intelligence the Europeans and Americans claim to have received is correct and AQIM is actively hunting for foreigners to kidnap, would it not be foolhardy to ignore the warnings? In my two weeks, after all, I did not see a single other white face: it would not have been difficult for a desperate local wanting to earn a fast buck to find me and sell me on to the extremists. Perhaps I was lucky not to be snatched myself, although it did not feel that way and no local people seemed concerned that there was any threat.

Michel Germaneau’s fate was probably sealed when the French military botched an attempt to rescue him. He was being held in Mali, and the night-time raid succeeded in killing six or seven terrorists, but not in finding the hostage. AQIM claims that it subsequently executed him in retaliation, although experienced observers of the group believe he may already have been dead, and that the Algerian government, which some allege to be a supporter of AQIM, joined in the raid knowing that it was too late to rescue its target.

The killing of the six terrorists may not be without consequences. There appear to be two main AQIM factions. One, run by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, has never killed any of its captives, and may be driven more by pecuniary than religious considerations. This faction is currently holding two Spanish aid workers, Roque Pascual and Albert Vialata, who were kidnapped in Mauritania last November (their kidnapper, who sold them on to Belmokhtar, has just been sentenced to twelve years in a Malian prison). The other faction, led by the Algerian Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, killed Dyer and was holding Germaneau at the time of his death. It is thought to be the more fanatical of the two groups, and the six dead terrorists were Abou Zeid’s men. The latter is reported to be furious at the raid, and is trying to pressure Belmokhtar into executing his two captives. So far, Belmokhtar, who is haggling for a big ransom, has refused, but the Spanish government has stepped up its negotiations for their release, and it denied rumours yesterday that the two men had been freed.

This intensification of AQIM activity, and the response by Western governments in evacuating personnel from the region, is likely to jeopardise the Islamists’ activities in the short-term. There are very few Westerners in the region already, particularly outside the main cities, and there may soon be nobody left to kidnap. What they will do then is anybody’s guess. They could extend their hunting grounds south into Nigeria, joining up with like-minded groups there, or northwards into Morocco (perhaps with Algerian backing). Or, lacking funds and widespread support, they could fade away as suddenly as they have emerged.

Whatever happens in the future, AQIM’s effect today on those dying of hunger in Niger or trying to scrape a living from tourists in northern and eastern Burkina Faso is clear. In other parts of the world, Al Qaeda has an explicit strategy of wreaking economic havoc. In this desert region of West Africa, however, whose economies are already destitute, the terrorists’ actions are exacerbating the misery of the poorest people on earth. I wonder what their God thinks of that.

Update: The two Spanish hostages are now confirmed freed. The kidnappers wanted a $5m ransom. It is not yet clear whether that was paid, although given the increased threat in the wake of the botched French raid, it seems likely that it was.

Update II: Spain paid 7.6 million euros for the release of the hostages, according to today’s Sur newspaper. Some of it went to intermediaries from Mali, Mauritania and, mysteriously, Burkina Faso, the rest went to AQIM. That should keep them in business for a while.