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An in-depth report by our senior reporters and team of correspondents from around the world. Every Saturday at 8.40 pm Paris time.

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Latest update : 2011-11-07

Mauritania: fighting the invisible enemy

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is getting stronger by the day. The organisation has got its hands on the weapons that disappeared from Colonel Gaddafi’s arsenals. To try to stop this, Mauritania has created special anti-terrorist units. We followed one of them in a prohibited area of the Sahara desert.

Fighting terrorists with their own weapons - this is the strategy implemented by the Mauritanian army to fight against the North African franchise of al Qaeda. The SIG, special intervention groups, are highly mobile units equipped with powerful Toyota pickups armed with heavy machine guns.

The soldiers don’t have a base; they live in the desert and move according to intelligence and aerial surveillance. A hard life in areas where it is impossible to build a temporary camp without being detected. The men sleep on the floor close to their weapons, ready to respond if attacked.

An 800 km- long 'no man's land'

To detect potential terrorists more easily, a large portion of the Mauritanian desert was declared a closed military zone in 2008. An area 800 km long and 200 km wide that runs along the land borders of the country. No civilian is allowed to enter, so all vehicles are suspicious. Convoys are immediately identified, stopped and searched by the SIG.

A costly but effective technique. Previously, this desert was traveled by nomadic herders and caravans. Today it is completely empty. Traffickers have also ceased operations; the area was a hub of drug, fuel and cigarettes trafficking; activities that funded al Qaeda.

Despite the creation of this buffer zone, attacks still occur on Mauritanian soil. Earlier this year, police prevented two car bomb attacks on the outskirts of Nouakchott. In June, the army destroyed an al Qaeda base in Mali a few kilometres from the border. In retaliation , the organization launched an attack with 20 pick-up trucks on a Mauritanian army base on July 5th. Mauritania has not yet managed to completely eradicate AQIM on its territory.

'The Tamanrasset group has stalled'

The only solution to ending AQIM's operations in  the Sahara is real cooperation between the countries of the region. That's what the Joint Special Military Command, based in Tamanrasset, is trying to do. It includes the armies of Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. But for the moment, on the ground, nothing has really changed.

Mohamed Mahmoud Aboulmaaly, editor of the "Nouakchott Info" newspaper and AQIM specialist, explains: "The Tamanrasset group has almost stalled. They have done nothing on the ground; there are meetings, there is coordination, Mauritania intervenes in Mali. Mali accepts that there is fighting on its territory. Algeria spends its time warning against the French presence and not giving any support, the same goes for Niger. The interests of these countries are all totally divergent. "

AQIM now has ground-to-air missiles

This situation benefits AQIM. The organisation has more and more roots in northern Mali, in areas controlled by Tuareg rebels. According to observers, the organisation is now conducting humanitarian actions to win the support of the population. It has networks of informers and cultivates relationships with certain Tuareg factions.

Mauritanian intelligence says that some of the weapons "lost" during the Libyan revolution are now in the hands of AQIM. They even mention surface-to-air missiles like Sam 7 that are capable of shooting down an airliner during takeoff and landing...

By Taoufik MJAIED , James ANDRE

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