A newly declassified Canadian intelligence report warns that parts of Africa are a breeding ground for militant Islam, with “significant potential” for growth for groups such as Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network.
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service brief, which was obtained by United Press International, says religious and ethnic divisions, coupled with state corruption and severe poverty in parts of West Africa provide fertile grounds for al Qaeda and affiliated groups to recruit supporters and plot attacks on Western interests.
“The meshing of religious sectarianism with regional politics, combined with regional and ethnic rivalries, provides radical Islam with a significant potential to serve as a rallying point for social malcontents,” according to the security brief.
It cited “ungoverned areas” and the “presence of members of foreign terrorist organization” as sources of grave concern.
“Many of the poor, young, disaffected and undereducated members of local Muslim communities have proven susceptible to the tenets of Muslim fundamentalism and have provided these terrorist elements with intelligence and logistical support,” the brief said.
Last week, seven men suspected of being members of the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat, an Algeria-based movement with links to al Qaeda, were charged by a Mauritanian court with plotting acts of terror.
The group was identified as an “immediate concern” in the brief. It is estimated to have 300 fighters in the region, is on the U.S. State Department’s list of foreign terrorist groups and is charged with kidnapping dozens of European tourists in the Sahara Desert.
Experts say that local authoritarian regimes that continue to denounce Islamic political groups as terrorists in order to stifle opposition might increase sympathy for the movements.
They say the Mauritanian government of President Maaouyah Ould Sid Ahmed Taya is not alone in inflating the domestic terror threat as a pretext to repress social and political freedoms in a manner that could foment radicalism.
“By giving credence to the notion that Islamists are linked to the armed rebels, Ould Taya runs the risk of leading the state into an impasse,” said a May 11 report issued by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think tank.
“The international community should realize that the terrorist threat barely even exists in Mauritania and that the wrong policies could help create one.”
The ICG says the Sahel — a vast, lawless and largely Muslim region that borders the Sahara Desert — is “not a terrorist hotbed.”