Al Qaeda `building bunkers` in the Sahara

Al Qaeda members are building bunkers to guard militants from air attacks.

Updated: Jun 25, 2010, 11:16 AM IST

Timbuctu: Militants linked to al Qaeda are building fortified bunkers in the Algeria and Mali areas of the Sahara desert to shelter militants from air attacks, security experts claim.

The members of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have hidden themselves in the desert without any notion of national boundaries, according to the experts.

"We have different verifiable reports which enable us to state that AQIM is currently in the process of building shelters, or bunkers, in which to hide against attacks in the desert shared by Mali and Algeria," a Malian source told the news site, Middle East Online, reported AKI on Thursday.

"There is no doubt these people are giving themselves a means to their ends," the highly-placed official in Mali`s northern operational command, added.

An official from one of Mali`s neighbours confirmed the reports, saying, "The terrorists are building fortified bunkers in mountain areas because they fear coming under air attack.”

"Some have already been constructed in Mali and Algeria, and others have been started along the Niger border."

Well-organised and highly mobile, the local al Qaeda group is considered by many to be unassailable in the Sahara, but the countries where they operate have recently been offered assistance from France and the United States.

Experts stress that aircraft are vital to track them down and attack them.

"I think they are worried at the prospect of every country in the region joining in a widespread conflict, hence their decision to take counter measures," former Malian defence minister and intelligence chief Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga said.

Malian academic Hamed Maiga is currently preparing a thesis on AQIM and regularly visits northern Mali.

"At night witnesses have reported hearing the noise of machinery in the mountains or rocky regions where the Islamists are building bunkers against air attack," he said.

Hamed Maiga said the fighters had already laid minefields around their desert hideouts to guard against assaults over land.

Their construction of more permanent fortifications also showed their determination to make the region their permanent base, he said. "Otherwise they could just move elsewhere to avoid attacks."

Founded in the late 1990s by radical Algerians, the Islamist organisation transformed into a local branch of al Qaeda in 2006.