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I received word via official sources in the region this week that the situation in Northern Mali, Northern Niger, and SOuthern Algeria is rapidly worsening. I noted on another thread the passage of a fellow Hubber up through Niger via Arlit and into Algeria, and his subsequent observations that there was little to raise concern en-route. I am now being advised very strongly not to continue my walk either in Algeria or Mali.
I am at this stage able to get a visa for Algeria so I intend to continue as planned, although I will have to buy new camels there rather than continue with my old ones. But I am both confused and concerned regarding the reality of the situation; the voices from within Algeria seem to be saying it is no more dangerous than normal (ie: the customary bandits, traffickers, etc) whereas official channels are saying (and saying rather more strongly than the usual 'smart traveller' scare mongering) that things are very, very shaky. You all know how quickly 'very shaky' can turn into full blown nightmare in the Sahel. It seems poised on a knife edge. I am planning to carry on with my walk in September in Algeria (at least with the planning of it) but remain concerned that circumstances will explode into outright chaos before then. On the other hand, if I had heeded official advice regarding where it is and isn't safe to walk, I would probably never have left England. But there is no point in deliberately walking into an unravelling nightmare, so I am at least agreeing to bypassing both Mali and NIger for the time being, and commencing on the Algerian side of the border.
I have never received such blunt and forceful communiques regarding security in the region before, and they cause me to stop and seriously consider what is actually happening.
I know there are no guarantees or certainties. But I am curious to know what everyone else is hearing on the grapevine.
I went to Algeria with family (including my 2 small children, 7 and 5) last Dec/Jan just before the Austrians were taken in Tunisia and reportedly transported through Algeria to Mali. Algeria was fine then, although it was eerily quiet from a tourist perspective. I am much more worried in places like Joburg.
Given the events of the last few months (ramp up in activity in N.Mali + the Austrian story) I would be happy enough to go back myself but would be jumpy about taking kids. This sort of says that there is an objectively greater risk of something happening now which I can cope with personally although I would not want to take responsibility for bringing anyone else into the region. That said, I would have thought you're better off on foot provided you keep your route well under the radar - in other words, keep all the details about your precise travel plans to just yourself and throw in a few dummies e.g. leaving towns at unexpected times, change plans here and there. In the end the is some risk of kidnapping now (less perhaps since the Austrian story has not been resolved easily) and it depends how you think you'd be able to deal with several months of unknown at the hands of whoever in N Mali.
Having travelled through Algeria and Northern Niger(February 2007) on motorbike, my thoughts are the following.
1. You are not worth targetting. You are travelling by foot with camels, basic food stuff, etc...you will be afforded the respect that goes with that, despite your gender, skin color, nationality, etc. I believe you've noticed that in your prior travels.
2. The Austrian kidnapping mentioned is an Al-Quaeda issue, not a tuareg issue. It happened in Souther Tunisia to a group travelling by Land Cruiser.
3. Tuaregs are tourist friendly as tourists represent an huge source of income to their region.
4. Tuaregs have an issue with the local gov'ts and companies doing business with the local gov't. The local gov't and those companies are exploiting the resources in the Tuareg regions of their country without sharing it equitably.
Nevertheless, it is your safety and your adventure. You must gather the facts/information first and develop your opinion. There are many opinions out there...but yours is the one that matters the most. So good luck in your decision-you seem to consistently make the right one
"2. The Austrian kidnapping mentioned is an Al-Quaeda issue, not a tuareg issue. It happened in Souther Tunisia to a group travelling by Land Cruiser. "
Motoedde may be right - no one knows for sure what the situation is. But elsewhere, on the main thread of the Austrian Kidnapping (see Travellers Advisories) it is reported by Ulrich that the Austrians were 'sold' by Al-Q in Northern Mali. No source is quoted for this but if true, it points to rebel collaboration with Al-Q. Given the contacts that have been happening in northern Mali recently between the rebels and the army, Al-Q would in any case be involved with the insurgency if they did have 'possession' of the Austrians still. They are basically in the thick of it there. The rebels need to finance a war and the kit they need to do so is expensive. If the report about the Austrians being sold is true, then this will be a new way for the rebels to finance things. It can't be easy to raise cash many other ways in N Mali. For these reasons I don't think it is straightforward to separate Al-Q's interests and the insurgency in N Mali, although it is probably no more than a marriage of convenience for the moment. Such opportunities have come and gone in the past, for example when the 2003 kidnappers tried something similar in Chad and things worked decisively against them. In short, the possible collaboration between the rebels in N Mali and Al-Q makes it more dangerous rather than less dangerous for travellers in Algeria at the moment. If tourists can be kidnapped all the way through Algeria to Mali from Tunisia, then it must be even simpler to do so from southern Algeria. It is precisely this issue which makes me more cautious than usual about going to Algeria at the moment.
It largely corresponds with my own experiences and the information coming through. I feel little worry for my own safety in that being on foot and with camels tends to lighten the concern of being hijacked in any way; my experience also is that the rebels are way more angry with the governments and their agencies than with individuals.
Regardless, it is looking increasingly difficult for me to operate in Northern Mali. Out of the question in Northern Niger. The main reason for my hesitation in Mali is the difficulty in getting my camels out of Niger and into that country; I am getting nowhere trying to move the animals out,whether I do it or someone else does. This means I will just be starting in Algeria; I am really not overly concerned about the situation there, and I agree with keeping my movements low key.
I remain slightly skeptical about 'Al Qaeda' presence. Dissatisfied, socially and economically disadvantaged people will go to great lengths to express their anger and outrage at being marginalised. That this is immediately interpreted as religious based terrorism is partly due to the fact that international media are quick to report it as such, leading in turn to those with a vested interest to claim responsibility for it. The fact that the attacks tend to occur around areas where the socio-economic imbalance is most obvious, eg: Algiers, would suggest a closer parallel with the Casablanca bombings - which were not percieved within the country to have anything to do with Al Qaeda, but were widely interpreted externally as being exactly that. I realise it is a bit of a moot point - if bombs are going off then it is largely irrelevent who sets them or why. Nonetheless, it would be an explanation as to why there is collaboration between them and the Tuareg - both locals with the same gripes.
As many travellers in the region would be aware, it is not overly common to come across hardline or antagonistic muslims in the Sahel or Sahara, so I find it a bit of a stretch to think that there are rampant cells of Al Qaeda in the region. However, this is a personal opinion, and one I realise most media outlets disagree with.
The reality is definitely that there is rather less than stability in the region as a whole. Again, I am inclined to think this poses little danger to the independent traveller, but actually getting permission through to do the travel in the first place remains the hard part....
"I remain slightly skeptical about 'Al Qaeda' presence. Dissatisfied, socially and economically disadvantaged people will go to great lengths to express their anger and outrage at being marginalised. That this is immediately interpreted as religious based terrorism is partly due to the fact that international media are quick to report it as such, leading in turn to those with a vested interest to claim responsibility for it....."
Its worth commenting on the Al Qaeda story, partly because it does relate to safety issues in the region. I see the perspectives on Al Qaeda as follows: The Algerian government has interests in making the link between the fundamentalist insurgency and Al Qaeda because the Algerian Government has been fighting the insurgency since the annulment of elections in 1992, largely without the sympathy or help from the west. By making the link between the fundamentalist insurgency and Al Qaeda, the Algerian government now stands to benefit from western resources which are being dedicated to the Al Qaeda question - e.g. the American base being built or already built in Tam and the recent news that the EU is now getting involved in region-wide security (see thread elsewhere on the Sahara forum). I have written this bit as impartially as I possibly can. I have a muddled personal view on the rights and wrongs in the Algerian case, esp in relation to the 1992 elections.
The insurgency in Algeria would most likely have continued with or without the post 911 events. But the insurgency has probably intensified because of the solidarity with the broader Al Qaeda mission, possible additional intelligence and possible additional resources which Al Qaeda more broadly have accumulated. I dont have much evidence for this, but it makes sense logically.
I do think that the net effect of a loose Al Qaeda affiliation across the region has been to decrease the security of westerners travelling in the region. In the last decade, the only 3 events somehow involving westerners in the Algerian desert that I know about (2003 mass abductions, 2008 Tunisia-Algeria-Mali kidnapping and a much shorter lived event near Arak where some Swiss guys - I think - were forced to drink out of a muddy puddle once their captives discovered whiskey in their truck!) have involved kidnappings and have made some kind of a link to Al Qaeda at some stage.
The uprisings in the north and occasional outbursts in Tam and Djanet in recent years seem to be more local politics which have minor consequences for tourists. The hits on Algerian army and frequent bombings are much more the work of the fundamentalist but again, all these have mercifully had little connection to desert tourists.
So all in all, the issue for travellers in Algeria is v.occasional but quite consequential kidnapping. In the last decade I dont know of any examples of robbery (different story in Niger of course - its been routine there).
Finally, the link with Al Qaeda does have consequences for the desert tourist whatever way we might see Al Qaeda, particularly if you are travelling on a UK passport. Put bluntly, I would NOT fancy being at the hands of kidnappers when I was relying on the UK diplomats to straighten things out. They have few connections and very limited history in the region. In the Iranian-GB navy saga in 2007, the UK had a tough time knowing how to proceed. It would be no different in North Africa. In these sort of cases, hostage taking is resolved through some 3rd party that does have connections in the region and comms then have to work through several parties - taking an awfully long time (that's the bit I dont fancy).
I think Al-Quaeda has become a red herring in many places, including this discussion.
Paula's issue is that Niger won't allow her to take her camels out of Niger and into Algeria. Algeria is fine with her trekking.
In Niger, Al-Quaeda has no known ties to the Tuareg rebels do they? If i were in Paula's shoes, I would not worry about the Tuareg rebel activity in Northern Niger...their activity typically doesn't involve tourists. Unless somebody has recent proof to the contrary.
My worry would be Algeria and their ability to control Algerian rebels. BUT if the Algerians commit to Paula that the route she proposes is safe, does Paula have reason or evidence to doubt the Algerian gov't to the contrary?
My dealings with the Algerians have been limited compared to Chris and Yves and many others, but they are serious, don't mess around and are worthy of trust in terms of security, no?
I agree with motoedde and Constanttrek, but it is hard to get a reliable assessment of the situation. I run a tour into the area and if i speak to my guides they all insist the situation is now calm and as long as you stay clear of Kidal you will be fine. They are in Aguelhoc - constanttrek I can give you their number if you like, they are very well connected and could pick you up at the border if you decide not to risk it. I am very sure you will be safe with them.
I tend to be very suspicious of this Al Q link. I just cannot see how in the long run any link with them would forward the Tuareg cause. Does anyone know of any incident recently where a tourist witha guide has got into trouble? All incidents that i have heard of are people in the desert unguided which smacks of opportunistic banditry. Why would ALQ only attack unguided people? - surely if Al Q were operating in the area the message would be "don't work with tourists".
But then if i talk to people who work out in Mali but are not in the region they play up the tensions.
Then again another guide of mine who has no interest in making it sound good for the Tuaregs said it is only now one man that the army are after and he is holed up outside Kidal.
If you do go please post up some info as to how it is out there.
Actually I dont think the views in this thread are very far apart. Its just that we've been answering slightly different questions.
Most of my replies have been about the situation in southern Algeria, specifically to part of Constanttrek's query about Algeria ("the voices from within Algeria seem to be saying it is no more dangerous than normal (ie: the customary bandits, traffickers, etc) whereas official channels are saying (and saying rather more strongly than the usual 'smart traveller' scare mongering) that things are very, very shaky"). I have been trying to make sense of why the official warnings are dire. I haven't been to Niger since 2003 and so cant say much about Niger other than what I've read.
Much of the rest of the discussion in this thread is about the Taureg rebellion and Al Qaeda links. So for clarity, here goes:
Is the Taureg rebellion now linked with Al Qaeda?
No. I agree with what others on this thread are saying on this. Al Qaeda and the Tauregs are chasing different goals. But they do have occasional interaction (which I described as a marriage of convenience) and there is a possibility that the Austrian kidnapping saw some cooperation between the GSPC and Taureg rebels. On the other hand, the GSPC has come very unstuck in the past in Chad when trying to make similar links. The fundamentalist insurgents ended up being kidnapped by the Chadian rebels! I would be extremely surprised if the Tauregs insurgency were ever linked formally with Al Qaeda in the future. Its just a very different scene.
Is southern Algeria more unsafe since the Taureg Rebellion in N Niger and N Mali ramped up?
Yes, but no one can put a number on it and not by very much. I agree that Taureg rebels are NOT after tourists, apart from perhaps some of their kit (vehicles, phones, money) which would help with their effort -although never it seems in Algeria. Although several tourists have made it safely through N Niger recently, it would be hard to argue that they have travelled in the same relaxed way as others did 6 years ago, say. There is a chance of being caught up in things that simply are not aimed at tourists. Its a war afterall. So the Taureg rebellion is making N Niger and N Mali much, much more unsafe than S Algeria.
Is the Al Qaeada (for want of a better word - note I didn't use it in full in my first posting, largely because I too am a little sceptical about the depth of the GSPC-Al Qaeda links) story making Southern Algeria less safe?
Yes, but the amount is uncalibrated. We only know when tourists go there (I dont mean the Tam to Assekrem fly-ins) and do or don't come back. So it is low probability- high risk.
Do guides make a difference in Algeria?
They seem to, in the sense that no one has got nabbed with guides. But then the only other major event to occur in Algeria itself was the kidnapping of the 32 in 2003. So its hard to be scientific because there is only one case to compare with. But note that the argument that "guides make things safe" was also applied to the Gilf region in Egypt (see http://www.horizonsunlimited.com/hub...-warning-32826). Tourists who, unsually, were without a guide were robbed. Some blamed the robbery on the lack of a guide. But the latest postings on this thread show that another robbery took place, this time with a guide.
Finally, for me the interesting question is why southern Algeria has been so safe. I've been to the Algerian desert 5 or so times without incident. With GSPC having made formal links with Al Qaeda and with the US and UK involved in very unpopular wars in two countries, I find it quite strange that nothing has happened in southern Algeria since 2003. I agree that the military does a reasonable job (most African states have a military but in Algeria the military has a state). But then the Austrains were taken across the length of Algeria apparently without detection. Which makes you think.
The Austrians held captive in N Mali for the last 4 months must be wishing it was all a red herring.....
Again, they were kidnapped in Tunisia and smuggled through Algeria to get them into Northern Mali. The Algerian gov't and the Tuareg rebels there had no part in this(unless somebody can provide verifiable evidence aside from hypothetical conjecture). The gov't and the Tuareg rebels have more to lose involving themselves in something of this nature. Now the GSPC...they're another story...they're looking to gain more stature and a purported allegiance with Al-Q may help them from a media perspective, but in reality...its probably not worth much.
Paula's issue is Northern Nigeria and Algeria...the Al-Quada link is not there...unless of course George W said so...and we all know how often he's right about that stuff
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