Jeremy Keenan is one of the few journalists that does know his way around the Sahel. Published as part of his series on al Jazeera:
Aside from the polemics that surround all of Osama bin Laden's occasional pronouncements, namely whether he is still alive and their authenticity, their importance lies in the extent to which they are believed and acted upon.
In the case of the audio-tape released to Al Jazeera on October 27, in which he castigated France for its treatment of Muslims, its role in Afghanistan and its intervention in the affairs of Muslims in North and West Africa, few of his (or al-Qaeda's) pronouncements have had greater resonance. Certainly, none have had more impact on North and West Africa, France, nor possibly the EU as a whole. It is likely to have profound implications on the so-called war on al-Qaeda in the Sahara and Sahel, as well as on French and European policies in the region.
The first thing to say about this intervention is that the international publicity given to it has ensured that a relatively obscure crisis in the hitherto little known Sahel has attained international prominence - especially in Europe where the Sahel topped the agenda at the EU Council of Foreign Ministers in Luxembourg on October 25.
Indeed, it seems hardly coincidental that bin Laden's audio-tape was released less than 48 hours after the EU Council meeting. In other words, while the Sahel crisis, or perhaps more appropriately France's crisis, was being discussed within the hallowed and scarcely publicized precincts of the European Council, it was bin Laden who brought it to global attention.
Bin Laden's 'blessing'
His pronouncement sent out several messages. Firstly, it will be seen as a 'blessing' on those who abducted seven hostages - five French nationals, a Togolese and a Madagascan - in the Niger uranium-mining town of Arlit on September 16. "The kidnapping of your experts in Niger," bin Laden said, "is in retaliation for the tyranny you practice against our Muslim nation."
Secondly, such a 'blessing' is likely to have transformatory implications. This is because al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the Sahara-Sahel was a creation of the Algerian DRS (Direction du Renseignement et la Sécurité) with its three main emirs in the Sahara-Sahel - Abdelhamid abou Zaïd, Yahia Djouadi and Mokhtar ben Mokhtar (all with many aliases) - being strongly suspected of being DRS agents.
Between the end of 2008 and this year, as the group's estimated strength increased from around 200 to some 300 to 400, its composition changed. As young Mauritanian Islamists have become increasingly attracted to the Sahara Emirate, as they call it, so they have come to outnumber Algerians, possibly diminishing DRS influence and control over the group.
Indications are that AQIM recruitment from young and more 'Islamist' and 'jihadist' elements in the region leapt in the wake of the disastrous Franco-Mauritanian raids into Mali on July 22, ostensibly to liberate the French hostage Michel Germaneau, and again after September 16 when France's ally ('proxy') Mauritania, which had joined France in 'declaring war' on AQIM, was given a very bloody nose by AQIM fighters at Ras el Ma (west of Timbuktu).
The outcome of this surge in recruitment, for which France must take much of the credit, is that it will almost certainly lead to changes in AQIM's internal organisation with the possibility of the Islamists, as distinct from the DRS, exercising more influence and control over its general strategy and operational activities.
Bin Laden's 'blessing' will almost certainly have accelerated this transformation by giving both a huge pat on the back to the more Islamist and jihadist elements of the organisation and a boost to their further recruitment. This will be of particular concern to the EU.
A French crisis
Thirdly, bin Laden's message may give clues as to the nature of the demands that AQIM may make of France for the release of the seven hostages and thus how those demands might be negotiated.
France's plan to ban the wearing of full face veils in public could quite easily be dropped, but a withdrawal of France's 3,500 to 4,000 troops from Afghanistan, or a withdrawal from uranium mining in Niger, if that is what is meant by "taking a lot of our wealth in suspicious deals," are likely to be 'no deal' areas.
If that is the case, then the message could perhaps be interpreted as a warning of either the hostages' execution or long drawn-out negotiations designed to humiliate France. These two possible outcomes are believed to reflect the possibly different goals of the DRS and Islamist elements within AQIM.
France's reaction to the audio-tape is indicative of the precarious and uncertain nature of the direction in which this crisis could move. While bin Laden's message has raised the security alarm even higher in France (and Europe), with Brice Hortefeux, the interior minister, saying that France is under a "real" terror threat which needs "total vigilance," Bernard Kouchner, the foreign minister who is the subject of resignation rumours, has tried to down-play the significance of the audio-tape by saying that the threat was expected and that bin Laden has little influence over AQIM.
France is facing a crisis to which there are no immediate and obvious solutions. After seven weeks, AQIM has still not stated its demands. Nevertheless, one can envisage possible face-saving and realistic options for France. But, they remain unspoken as they concern the 'elephant in the room' - Algeria.
Let me explain: If, as many believe, Algeria's DRS has such influence over AQIM in the Sahel, it is conceivable that it could arrange the release of the hostages, possibly on religious, humanitarian or some other such grounds, along with a series of not too onerous gestures by France.
The price demanded by Algeria would be high, involving perhaps greater freedom of operation for the DRS in France, French influence either directly or through the EU on weakening Morocco, etc. These would be politically acceptable to Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, who is primarily responsible for getting France into this predicament, as they would not be of direct concern to or much understood by the French public.
A loss for Algeria?
Far less positive for Algeria is a scenario which could conceivably result in Algeria, not France, coming out of this situation as the ultimate loser. This is as follows: Most of Algeria's neighbours have recently begun to accuse it of being in some way responsible for the development of the AQIM 'terrorist' threat in the Sahel.
Cheikh El Moctar Ould Horma, Mauritania's minister of health, recently 'suggested' that Algeria was the 'porte-parole' (spokesperson) for AQIM; elements in the Moroccan media have accused Washington of appeasing Algeria in its relationship with and use of AQIM as a 'terrorist' organisation; a senior member of Mali's security forces accused the DRS of being 'at the heart of AQIM'; Niger is angry with the role played by Algeria's DRS in the political destabilisation of its northern regions; while Muammar Gaddafi, Libya's leader, has suggested euphemistically that the problem in the region is Algeria's DRS.
This increased regional antipathy towards Algeria was clearly evident at the security conference held in Bamako on October 13 and 14. The conference, initiated by France, angered Algeria, the one regional power with the military capability to eradicate AQIM in the Sahel.
Algeria, however, with the broad support (or what Morocco might call appeasement) of the US, has been using AQIM's presence in the Sahel to further its own hegemonic designs on the region. It is therefore strongly opposed to any external intervention and has consequently established, somewhat theatrically, a number of regional security-intelligence institutions that are exclusive to Algeria and its three weaker neighbours - Mauritania, Mali and Niger - and thus designed to maintain Algeria's management and control over the situation.
Mali's temerity in suggesting that Morocco, who Algeria has been trying to exclude from any participation in the Sahel security situation, should be invited was a red rag to a bull.
Algeria's boycott of the conference - attended by anti-terrorism experts from all G8 members, namely Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the US, and their counterparts from Burkina Faso, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal, as well as representatives from Spain, Switzerland, Australia, the European Union, the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was its most noteworthy aspect.
This much higher than expected attendance at Bamako could be interpreted as an international repudiation of Algeria's role in the fabrication, exaggeration and even management of 'terrorism' in the region since the DRS's involvement in the abduction of 32 European hostages in the Algerian Sahara in 2003.
If the regional tables continue to be turned on Algeria in this way, then France might have an opportunity to re-establish and perhaps even enhance its influence and standing in the region. While this scenario might not necessarily secure the lives of the hostages, it could conceivably ensure that Algeria and not France is the ultimate loser.
However, there is only one outcome of this situation that is certain. And that is that the countries of the Sahel - Mali, Mauritania and Niger - stand to acquire a huge increase in development/security aid and related assistance from the EU in the New Year.
Jeremy Keenan is a professorial research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University, and author of The Dark Sahara: America's War on Terror in Africa.