Wednesday 23 February 2011

Travel in the Sahel: how safe are tourists in Northwest Africa?

The recent deaths of two Frenchmen in eastern Mali, kidnapped from a restaurant across the border in Niger, was widely treated by the media as an example of a brazen new audacity by southern offshoots of the so-called “Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” (AQIM). With foreign ministries in many countries, including Britain, France, USA and Australia, beefing up their advisory notices to travellers and expatriates in Mali and other parts of the Sahel, and various alarmist reports beginning to appear in the media, I think it’s a good moment to look at what has actually happened over the last few years and try to assess the real risks of travel to the Sahara and Sahel.

Although the earliest major incident took place in 2003, when 32 tourists in different groups were kidnapped in coordinated attacks in Algeria and held for ransom, the 27 cases described below (nine killed, twelve freed, six still held) go back to 2007 and cover Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, Mali and Niger.

The current perception of a crisis began in December 2007 when four French tourists were murdered during a roadside robbery in southern Mauritania. In June 2009 a British tourist kidnapped in southeast Mali was presumed executed (his body has never been found). In the same month an American aid worker was shot and killed in Nouakchott. In mid-2010, an elderly French kidnap victim died or was executed in Niger. And then in January 2011, two Frenchmen were abducted in Niamey and killed less than twenty-four hours later over the border in eastern Mali, either before or during a rescue raid by French and Nigérien forces.

Freed abductees
Since the beginning of 2008 a total of twelve other travellers and expatriates have been abducted and released unharmed, some after more than a year in captivity. Of the twelve, two were tourists kidnapped in southern Tunisia early in 2008 and eventually released in Mali; two were Canadian diplomats kidnapped in Niger in December 2008: four were abducted in two different incidents in January 2009 after the Andéramboukane Music festival on the Mali-Niger border and subsequently held together, and five were abducted in Mauritania, again in two different incidents, also in 2009.

Current captives
Five French mining expatriates abducted in Niger in 2010 (together with two colleagues from Togo and Madagascar) and anItalian tourist kidnapped near Djanet in southern Algeria in February 2011 remain in captivity at the time of writing.

Sahel travel in the balance
It’s a depressing tally, and the impact on the victims and their families is impossible to overstate. Nevertheless, when measured against attacks attributed to Al-Qaeda around the world over the last decade, including bombings and other attacks in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Turkey, Kenya, Tanzania, London, Madrid, Bali and of course New York it’s an extremely small number (more about the statistics below). Although we never get to hear the full story about hostage negotiations and ransom payments, it is widely believed that millions of dollars were paid by government intermediaries on behalf of the Italian, Spanish and Swiss hostages (the French and British governments are notable for publically declaring they will not pay ransoms to hostage-takers).

Ransom money is the main factor in the Sahel abductions, not ideology. If AQIM is a jihadist organisation, its methods are different from those of Osama bin Laden’s other followers. Rather than planning coordinated suicide bomb attacks on iconic targets such as embassies and hotels, AQIM is content to extort money from susceptible European governments, much after the style of Somali pirates hijacking tankers in the Indian Ocean. And perhaps surprisingly, too, AQIM don’t seem to be spending their millions on new attacks (although they did recently launch an abortive assassination raid on the president of Mauritania) or even on ramping up their hostage-taking.

It seems clear that the initial capture of hostages is often carried out by freelance bandits who sell their victims on to AQIM, who then run the propaganda and negotiations, invariably in the same remote region of northeast Mali. The same freelance gangs, also traffic cannabis, weapons and migrants across the desert and run major cocaine rackets, taking part in the shipment of South American cocaine consignments from coastal creeks in Guinea-Bissau to North Africa and Europe.

Somewhere in all this, you also have to reckon with the deep-seated and well-founded resentment of some of the Tuareg nomad communities of the southern Sahara over their treatment as second-class citizens by the national governments of Algeria, Mali and Niger. Major Tuareg uprisings in the 1990s in Mali and Niger ended with a successful peace agreement in Mali, but fizzled out inconclusively in Niger, only to rage into life again as a full insurrection in 2007. Since then, anti-government hostilities, banditry and AQIM attacks have often been ascribed to Tuareg perpetrators, without much clear evidence. Tuareg websites have been vociferous in dissociating their community from any links with AQIM and there is certainly no cultural affinity between hardline interpretations of the Koran and the more pragmatic and tolerant lifestyle of Tuareg communities.

Whatever the truth about AQIM’s membership and origins*, the repercussions for travellers have been many: closed routes across the Sahara**; threats to Mali’s music festivals***; and a very uncertain future for the nascent tourist industry in Mauritania, which was just beginning to enjoy the fruits of success with the opening of the new tarmac road from Nouadhibou to Nouakchott, allowing overlanders to drive on tarmac the whole way from Europe to Dakar, and regular charter flights on the French airline Le Point to Atar, Tamanrasset, Djanet and Agadez.

While Niger’s tourist industry has effectively dried up completely because so much of the country is deemed too unsafe to travel in, the relatively healthy tourist industry in Mali has been steadily growing for many years, fuelled by the lure of the Niger River, the music festivals and the scenery and culture of the Dogon country east of Mopti. The new travel warnings – especially the British FCO’s lurid map of Mali – treat completely safe regions, including Mopti and the Dogon country, as “too unsafe to travel”. This sledgehammer approach to travel advice is confusing to travellers who cannot see its logic, and damaging to local communities that rely on a steady trickle of tourist income for much of their cash needs. I’d say there’s also a strong chance that one of the consequences of advising against all travel to Timbuktu, Djenné, Mopti and the Dogon country is exactly the kind of incident that the British embassy in Bamako is hoping to prevent. For those travellers who robustly cross the line, having spent long enough on travel forums to realise how many others are doing the same, being pickpocketed or robbed seems more likely in a region whose economy has been slammed by a diplomat’s red infill on a map.

My advice
Of course it’s extraordinarily difficult to give advice when any new event can change the map. In Mauritania, my sense is that travelling on the main tarmac highway between Nouadhibou and Nouakchott, is currently relatively safe. The Mauritanian security forces are out in numbers patrolling around the country and the fight seems to be more with them these days and less with tourists. So if your plans are to travel overland between Morocco and Senegal, you should have no serious worries about following through. I would still be extremely cautious about venturing out and about in the interior of Mauritania, however, and especially in the southeast.

In Mali, I can’t explain the recent blanket “we advise against all travel east of Ségou” government travel advisories. To me these seem like a massive over-reaction to a spotty catalogue of incidents over many years that have all taken place many hundreds of miles to the northeast. You don’t have to search far on the travel forums to find glowing accounts by returning travellers of their recent experiences in central Mali – in the Dogon country, in Mopti and Djenné, along the Niger, and in Timbuktu – and mystification at why their governments are advising against anyone following in their footsteps. Admittedly, crossing the Niger River feels like a genuine increase in risk, especially if you’re planning to cross it at Gao. I personally would not visit Gao at present or travel along the north bank of the Niger anywhere between the Niger border and Timbuktu, and obviously from what I have said I wouldn’t venture further east or north, or go to either of the festivals in the area. I’m prepared to accept even this may be an exaggerated response to perceived threats. Timbuktu itself reportedly feels perfectly safe and the recent Festival au Désert was a great success. What I find remarkable is the statement on the FCO Mali travel advice page that not a single British person in Mali required consular assistance between April 2009 and August 2010. That seems a pretty good record.

Niger, sadly, is bearing the brunt of the current security situation. I think a repeat of the January attack in Niamey itself is extremely unlikely – particularly as it was so spectacularly unsuccessful for the kidnappers – so the idea of flying to the capital feels safe enough. As does, frankly, taking the road east along the Nigerian border as far as Zinder. To the north of this route I think you would be pushing your luck and I wouldn’t go into northern Niger myself at present. The British travel advisory map seems reasonable enough, bearing in mind their generally over-cautious approach, though it doesn’t quite match the references in the text to the road between Niamey and Gao.

Statistically, how safe is the Sahel?
In terms of numbers, somewhere around 100,000 European and North American tourists, business travellers and expatriate workers visit Mauritania, Mali and Niger annually. The total area of the three countries, including the empty desert areas, is more than 3.6 million square kilometres, and although their combined population of 33 million people live in only about a third of that area, that slab of land – the one third that is inhabited – still accounts for an area that is twice the size of Texas and five times as big as Britain. By my calculation, based on the nine visitors who have been killed since December 2007, the “tourist murder rate” in these three Sahel countries is around 3 per 100,000. The homicide rate for the USA is currently 5 per 100,000 and for the UK and Australia it is 1.3 per 100,000.

So there you have it. The Sahel does carry some increased risk of kidnap or murder compared with staying at home – although that will depend on your neighbourhood (no doubt there are feisty travellers who could demonstrate that staying back home in LA, Glasgow or Jo’burg is much more dangerous). The small increased risk is spread very thinly over many years and among hundreds of thousands of visitors and you can reduce it considerably by staying out of the more risky areas. Be sure to take out travel insurance, and if your insurance broker won’t cover you for certain countries or regions, then find one who will, or ask what the extra premium would be.

Further reading
There’s very useful information on the security situation in the Sahel on the brilliant Horizons Unlimited; at the always thoughtful Sahel Blog; in a couple of posts on a blog I hadn’t heard of before called Selected Wisdom, here and here; and in this interesting article about Organized Crime and Terrorism in the Sahel.
And of course there’s lots of pertinent information in the current edition of the Rough Guide to West Africa.

Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree has a huge international user base and you’ll get feedback from people on the ground, including many whose first language isn’t English. It’s fairly loosely moderated, however, and if you like to subscribe using RSS you can only do so at the Africa level.
Trip Advisor, while very Anglophone and less adventurous than Thorn Tree, can be subscribed on RSS country by country.
Guide du Routard, in French, is very useful for the Sahel, and again you can keep in touch with threads on each country using RSS.
Horizons Unlimited, principally for motorcyclists, runs two carefully monitored and relevant Horizons Unlimited Bulletin Boards (HUBB), one for North Africa and the Sahara and one for Sub-Saharan Africa where you’ll often find the most up-to-date and informed travel advice for the region.

*Some Sahara analysts believe AQIM is little more than an agent provocateur organisation, created by the Algerian intelligence service to justify the country’s authoritarian government and draw their American military partners into the region in the “Global War on Terror”. The picture is almost impenetrably complex, with the identity of participants sometimes altering (jihadist one day, businessman the next) according to company and circumstances. Jeremy Keenan at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies is a well known exponent of this view. There’s a fascinating interview with him in German.

** The Tanezrouft route between Adrar and Gao, closed for most of the 1990s during Algeria’s civil war, was sporadically open to tourists and trans-Saharan trade between 2003 and 2008 but is currently closed, while the Route du Hoggar, between Tamanrasset and Agadez has remained technically open, but requires great flexibility and confidence: if you’re not robbed by bandits you may well be ripped off by demanding local officials as they insist you be escorted, at great expense, on sections of the route.

*** The Festival au Désert at Timbuktu takes places each January, and hundreds of foreign visitors attend, so far without incident. The lesser known Festival sur le Niger, in Ségou, is acquiring a similarly devoted following. There are other festivals: the Tamasonghoï festival at Bourem north of Gao and the Tamadacht festival at Andéramboukane in the far southeast of Mali. Four Europeans leaving the latter festival in January 2009 were held hostage for a number of months before their respective governments paid ransoms for three of them. The fourth, a Briton named Edwin Dyer, was executed.


  1. At last, a good, common sense report on the region. It would be wise also to point out that several of those kidnapped, were traveling at I'll advised times. Travelling remote roads at night is foolhardy, providing opportunity for opportunists who might be willing to play into the hands of AQIM and their profiteering. The three Spaniards were taken at night, after allowing themselves to be separated from their convoy. The Italian with his Malian wife, were taken in the middle of the night, traveling alone. Yes there are points of danger, there are areas to be avoided, but the response and travel advisories far out weight the reality. In cases like the American aid worker Christopher Leggett, who was apparently targeted, there is no defense. However, in the normal run of life, common sense measures will infuse a strong measure of safety, while benefiting the economy of the region, forgoing on part the hardships which foment the desperation which plays into the hands of AQIM and their purposes.

  2. True, and I haven't taken any such details into account - though night travel or travel on remote roads shouldn't be any kind of a justification for extra vigilance in any truly safe environment.

    There's been a positive development in the last few days - the release of the French woman and the two non-French hostages from the Areva group kidnapped last year in northern Niger. Link here: That leaves four Frenchmen and an Italian woman currently being held.

  3. Great article. It is very balanced and paints the situation as it is. The entire Sahel is not a warzone and it should not be painted as such. It is a pity the foreign offices that are continually bagging the Sahel region do not appear to have done enough research on this whole subject. No sensible person would deny that some deplorable acts have occurred in the Sahel and Sahara region over the last several years. It is also undeniable that the desert region north of Timbuktu is currently not a safe place to be right now and realistically, it has never been the safest place to travel. This is not just because of local conflicts and banditry. Well planned and properly prepared expeditions gave people the opportunity to see this place and minimised the risks involved. Isolated incidents in remote areas should not then lead to a blanket ban of a quarter of the African continent. The knock on effect of the current travel advisories is that they are destroying an avenue of income for a vast amount of people in the Sahel region. If groups like Al Qaeda prey on the destitute and the disenfranchised then why deliberately destroy the tourism sector that brings money directly into the hands of the local population. This then creates opportunities for these fanatical groups to grow. When America and Europe were ‘attacked’ and created their war on terror our leaders continually told us that if we change the way we live then we are letting the terrorists win. It seems this only counts when you are talking about your own people and the ‘American’ way of life. We all need to be more aware of things these days as horrific acts like the one perpetrated in Norway recently will continue to happen. If governments just blanket ban entire regions because they are out of the public’s eye then what hope does the developing world have.

  4. Thanks Matt, I agree with everything you say, and I'm increasingly concerned about the assumptions made by the mainstream press about terrorism in West Africa.

  5. Thanks for putting things into perspective, Richard!

  6. I've done a revised and updated version of this post, with a slightly more analytical nuance, on the Royal African Society's "African Arguments" blog at

    Comments there seem to be taking a while to be moderated, but they will go up eventually.

  7. It is not a comment but a question:
    we would like to travel to the Festival au desert in January, but we are hesitating because of recent reports about destabilisation in the Sahel as a result of Gadaffi's death. Would you still consider it as safe to travel to Timbuktu (by car, by pirogue from Mopti, by plane)?
    Thanks for an answer Elisabeth

  8. Hi Elizabeth. Your concerns are understandable, but I can only say that after my most recent trip to Mali, last month (Oct 2011) my sense is that the travel advisories and many media outlets are badly out of touch with the facts on the ground. We travelled in a small bus through Dogon country, to Mopti and Djenné and then a flight from Mopti to Timbuktu - all areas advised by the FCO as not to visit for any reason. In Timbuktu we went out into the dunes a few kilometres north of the town for a Tuareg dance and a dinner under the stars, then drove back to town in the dark. Much later that night, a group of us took a cab to a tiny disco and had a great time mingling with locals (mostly quite young!) and having a few beers.

    Throughout this trip, the level of security was low and any sense of tension or threat completely absent. Compared with Kenya (I was there a couple of weeks ago and had no problems, but its security is a concern and it has been in the news a lot recently for legitimate reasons), Mali feels utterly laid-back. Our hotel in Timbuktu, for example, had no security beyond what you would normally do in terms of fencing to discourage petty burglary etc. We had no physical security checks at any time during our stay in Mali, and we saw no sign of such checks ever being carried out on anyone.

    When the president came to open a tourism fair in Bamako, several of us were right in front of him, taking pictures and generally getting in the way - the most relaxed and low-key head-of-state entourage I've ever seen, and not to my mind the sign of a country or a government worried about terrorist threats.

    In sum, I would definitely go to the festival - by air, by pirogue if you have time, or by 4x4 from Douentza. There'll be a lot of people there - the festival organisers had a big stand at the tourism fair.

  9. Hi Richard, thank you very much for your detailled answer. Actually my husband and I live and work in Bandiagara and we feel completely safe in Dogon country. We spoke with different people here and in Mopti, and it is good to have different views to make the decision.

  10. Unfortunately, I think today's news about the kidnapping of two French men in Hombori, between Douetnza and Gao, 142km east of Douentza, devastates the sense of Mali as essentially safe south of the Niger River. The Hombori region isn't real desert country though, and we'll have to wait to see how the Malian police and military deal with the situation as it could be very difficult for the kidnappers to get across the river to the north.

  11. Hi Margot, I'm afraid the news isn't great. Very few people are travelling in Mali these days. Which is largely why there has been no sixth edition of the Rough Guide to West Africa. :-(