By Alistair Thomson
DAKAR (Reuters) - The Dakar Rally's 11th-hour cancellation dramatically highlighted the growing lawlessness of the vast Sahara, a hotbed for armed groups ranging from al Qaeda to Tuareg rebels and drug gangs running cocaine to Europe.
For 30 years the 6,000-km (3,750-mile) race has snaked its way through West Africa to the Senegalese capital, often bypassing danger spots as one or other country en route has become unsafe due to violence or tourists being taken hostage.
The race has becoming synonymous with sporting risk as dozens of competitors have died in some of the world's toughest terrain but for the first time in its history, just a day ahead of the scheduled start on Saturday, organisers called off this year's competition due to security threats.
Sources close to French intelligence services said there had been a specific al Qaeda threat against the Rally, which draws some 500 competitors and thousands of racing enthusiasts from all around the world.
Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, the group's North African unit, issued a statement on several Islamist Web sites on December 29 branding the race neo-colonialist and accusing Mauritania of collaborating with "crusaders, apostates and infidels", echoing previous calls to arms.
After suspected al Qaeda militants shot dead four French tourists as they enjoyed a Christmas Eve picnic by a roadside in southern Mauritania, and days later killed three army soldiers further north, race organisers had to take threats seriously.
"Al Qaeda in the Maghreb has been instructed by Osama bin Laden and deputy Ayman al-Zawahri to step up attacks in the region," said Mohamed Darif, an expert in radical Islamist groups operating in the Maghreb.
Al Qaeda's global second-in-command called in September for Muslims to "cleanse" the Maghreb "of the children of France and Spain", and the attacks in Mauritania fuelled fears the group may try to extend the sphere of its operations southwards.
"We are the weak link in the chain compared to other Maghreb countries who have put lots of resources into fighting al Qaeda," said a Mauritanian sociologist who declined to be named.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb sprang from the former Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) Islamist group based in Algeria, where it has carried out bloody suicide bombings targeting security, government and western interests.
Some note the Mauritania attacks differ from al Qaeda actions elsewhere, reflecting the branch's guerrilla origins as well as local conditions and pressures.
"The killings of French tourists could also indicate that al Qaeda needed to kill them for their money to fund more operations in Mauritania and elsewhere in the region," he said.
To counter the growing threat, Washington has been channelling military and development aid into countries on the southern side of the Sahara, running high-profile joint training operations and promoting education.
During last September's Operation Flintlock, a joint exercise between U.S. forces and the armies of several Sahel countries, a U.S. plane was hit by gunfire while resupplying Malian troops fighting Tuareg rebels on the Algerian border.
The incident demonstrated the complexities of combating Islamic militants in a region where they are just one of a number of armed groups roaming the thinly policed Sahara.
Most analysts agree the light-skinned Tuaregs opposing government authority in northern Mali and neighbouring uranium-mining Niger have few close links to Islamist militants, but their presence adds to general insecurity.
"HAZE OF DUST"
Because of their lack of political identity, the criminal groups trafficking Colombian cocaine and Moroccan hashish across the Sahara are more difficult to pin down.
Many observers believe that armed groups operating around the remote borders of the Sahara are at the very least profiting from the established smuggling channels, which often follow ancient trading routes across the huge desert.
A 2005 paper by Harvard experts found crime, especially smuggling vehicles, cigarettes, drugs and arms, was a key form of funding for Algeria's then-GSPC.
Yet the lack of hard facts is a constant impediment to governments' efforts to tackle militancy and crime in the area.
"Almost nothing is known with any certainty, all is shrouded in a haze of dust," lamented analysts Baz Lecocq and Paul Schrijver in a paper on Saharan militancy published in the Journal of Contemporary African Studies early last year.