Analysis: After Algerian incident, West Africa fears Mali spillover

Fri Jan 18, 2013 4:48pm EST
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By David Lewis

DAKAR (Reuters) - By seizing hundreds of hostages at a gas plant in the Algerian desert, al Qaeda-linked militants angry at French intervention in Mali sent a clear message: they could strike anywhere in the Sahara.

Many experts now believe the sight of a former colonial power leading unprepared West African armies into war against Islamists in Mali could spark similar attacks across a swathe of smaller, more vulnerable nations to the south.

Islamist fighters who escape the French onslaught are likely to scatter, with some remaining in Mali to fight a guerilla-style war while others trickle across its porous borders into countries where pockets of radicalism already exist.

"This could lead to frustration amongst Muslims towards the French," said young Senegalese man Adama Sall, leaving afternoon prayers at a mosque in the Senegalese capital Dakar.

"In any intervention there is collateral damage, there are innocent people who could die. This could radicalize people."

Security experts have traditionally played down the threat of radical Islam across West Africa apart from Nigeria, where Boko Haram militants operate.

They cite the moderate form of Sufi Islam which predominates across the region, its largely open if ineffectual governments, and the limited number of past attacks by fundamentalist groups.

But the crisis in Mali has radically changed the dynamics in a region where a growing number of international firms operate, ranging from mining and petroleum to transport and construction.   Continued...

Benin soldiers stand in preparation to leave for their deployment to Mali, in the capital Cotonou January 18, 2013. The contingent of around 30 Benin troops will leave Cotonou for the Mali capital Bamako. REUTERS/Charles Placide