RE: Algerian build up [UPDATED]

[UPDATEEl Watan reports the Algerian diplomats held in northern Mali were freed on Sunday morning; the report does not provide details or locations but presumably their correspondent, Salima Tlemcani (who wrote the El Watan report discussed in this post) will fill in the blanks eventually. Another El Watan report says the Algerians were kidnapped by MUJWA, not AQIM or Ansar Eddine as some outlets had reported (although others did report MUJWA initially) — or, that is, that MUJWA claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. Another El Watan report says the release of the Algerians was negotiated with Belmokhtar by way of Ayad Ag Ghali, who was pressured by the MNLA to “seek out the hostages himself”. The report says the group that seized the Algerian consulate was mainly Algerians together with Ansar Eddine members; the report also describes how the MNLA has been reluctant to move against Ayad because of his tribal influence but how the group does not want other groups operating in its “territory.” Another reports have the MNLA furious with AQIM and vowing to hunt down the kidnappers (including an interview with Moussa Ag Ahmed in which he says that after the kidnapping “never again will a weapon that is not in the hands of the MNLA be allowed to circulate.”; filed on 6 April). These reports contradict the report about MUJWA and MUJWA is not mentioned in the other reports (the report on the negotiation with Belmokhtar and the report on MUJWA claiming responsibility for the kidnapping and the report about the hostages being freed are all from 8 April). The release of the hostages has not been confirmed by Algiers. [UPDATE, 9 April 2011: Algerian Foreign Minister Murad Medelci confirms the hostages remain captive.]

El Khabar reports that the Algerian gendarmerie is reviewing its patrols of the border with Mali (in the 6th (Tamanrasset) and 3rd (Bechar) military regions, and that Algiers may close the border; the objective is to crackdown on smuggling of “fuel, tires, spare parts and rubber that could fall into the hands of smugglers and terrorists”; it reports that people in a village near the border heard helicopters, gunfire and explosions, speculating this was “an air strike carried out by Algerian forces against armed groups trying to take control of a road linking Algeria and Mali.” The report cites security sources saying many arrests were carried out on the border in the last week. The elite troops deployed to the south may have been sent for this mission, clamping down the border and hitting smugglers and others who might help sustain armed groups operating in northern Mali while increasing leverage for Algerian and MNLA efforts to free the Algerian diplomats; what that would mean for the MNLA which has repeatedly stressed its concern about running out of fuel and arms is as yet uncertain as many things are in the Sahel today.]

Press reports from Algeria (briefly here, and more detailed reports in El Watan and El Khabar, for example) have Algiers mobilising forces in response to the kidnapping of seven diplomats from the Algerian consulate at Gao, in northern Mali this past week. This comes in the context of the MNLA declaring the independence of the Azawad and comments from Ahmed Ouyahia, the Algerian Prime Minister, that Algeria supported the territorial integrity of Mali and that it viewed the partition of the country as a “threat”. Those comments also came in the context of calls for Algeria to play a stronger role in the rapidly deteriorating situation in Mali and comments about the region uniting against AQIM from the French Foreign Minister. Andrew Lebovich, Baz Lecocq, and Gregory Mann all have excellent summaries of the situation up to this point, worth reading in full. Below are some thoughts on the reports about potential Algerian intervention in northern Mali in order to free the diplomats held there.

Media reports have identified the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) as being behind the Gao kidnapping. As a splinter group of AQIM which has thus far focused its attacks on Algerian targets: a kidnapping in Tindouf, a suicide attack at Tamanraset and now the kidnapping of seven Algerian officials in Gao, where the group is said to control military positions. Algerian press accounts pointed to MUJWA, which is believed to have links to Ansar Eddine in Gao, and perhaps elsewhere (the same is said for AQIM, which has taken a strong presence in Timbuktu). If this is the case the Gao kidnapping is a direct challenge to Algeria’s official policy of non-negotiation with terrorist groups, a line it has pushed in international and regional bodies, and in the Sahel, more or less convincing Mauritania but having much less success in Mali. But other media sources have credited the kidnapping to Ansar Eddine. Other, more recent reports, finger AQIM: indeed, Le Point quotes the son of an imam in Gao as saying that AQIM leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar arrived in Gao recently, meeting with religious clerics. The report cites a Malian security source as saying that after his meeting with religious leaders Belmokhtar then visited the Algerian consulate. El Watan refers to AQIM as the kidnappers in its report.

The Algerians will probably not seek to negotiate the release of the men from Gao, especially if MUJWA or AQIM is regarded as being responsible for the kidnapping [It is unclear how long the Algerians have operated their consulate at Gao and it may have operated as an intelligence collection activity, at least in part, regarded terrorist, smuggling or other criminal activity (in other words, some of the seven men may have worked under some kind of cover; or they might not have, though it is interesting that the Algerians would leave at a minimum seven people in Gao after the fall of Kidal when other foreigners there were making preparations to be gone and cutting back numbers; another El Khabar report says that the families of Algerian diplomatic staff were evacuated from Mali, mentioning those of the men in Gao as well).] The Algerians are being tested, and likely see things this way. Ouyahia’s comments suggest a hardening posture; in other circumstances such things might come from Foreign Minister Murad Medelci, or from Abdelkader Messahel who usually coordinates Sahel affairs for the president. That Ouyahia, who is identified closely with the military-security establishment (an “eradicator”) and who was an Africa hand during his previous carrier in the Foreign Ministry (when he served abroad in West Africa and as the head of the Africa Directorate, as Undersecretary for African and Arab and Africa Affairs and as Ambassador to Bamako in the early 1990s, leading negotiations in 1992 which involved Ag Ghali but not many of who became the senior MNLA men) signals a significant shift in posture from Algeria’s more passive attitude toward Mali in recent years, scattered reports about cooperation of one or another kind aside.

El Khabar’s report has transport aircraft the 3rd, 4th and 6th military regions being placed on high alert and mobilised for possible action in northern Mali, and President Bouteflika calling together Algeria’s service chiefs and DRS leadership for a meeting to coordinate the use of Algeria’s special operations forces in activities meant to free the Algerian hostages. Some reports have 3,000 elite troops in the south, together with these transport aircraft and drones (probably something like the Fadjer 10), in addition to probably many more elite gendarmerie and army units. These forces probably draw from the paracommando regiments (12th and 18th, potentially from the other three paratroop regiments ) and GIS forces (which is a DRS rapid response unit). Images that have accompanied some articles show men from the  “Various lines of communication” have been opened between Algeria’s military-intelligence services and the MNLA, including tribal sources and others. It says MNLA cooperation has been arranged through a Mauritanian intermediary, and that various proposals from the MNLA leadership have been brought to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. El Khabar writes that the MNLA’s Bilal Ag Cherif (whom it previously interviewed near the beginning of the rebellion, and who has used fawningly friendly language toward Algerian audiences) initiated the effort to cooperate with the Algerians on tracking the kidnappers.

El Watan’s report is filed from Acherbrache, northern Mali. It quotes an MNLA military commander as saying that the group is in “direct contact” with Algeria and that its “top priority” was finding and freeing the hostages unharmed. The article reports on various rumours about the release of the hostages and about them being taken into the desert in a convoy of 4X4s and so on; nothing is confirmed. It reports that in Gao “no one knows who is who”, that the difference between Ayad Ag Ghali’s Ansar Eddine men and AQIM is unclear to sources and residents. It reports that trust between Ag Ghali’s men and the MNLA cadres “seems broken” by recent events. The report shows the MNLA continues to present itself as a secular nationalist force and that it hopes outsiders will see it as a counter force to AQIM and thus offer it military support, which it would then probably also use to consolidate any gains it might make.

It appears the Algerians will attempt to free their hostages using their special operations forces and MNLA elements. The Mauritanians had been reported to have provided the MNLA with weapons early in the conflict on the condition that they would fight AQIM. They did not do this and AQIM and the other armed Islamist factions appear to have seized momentum from the MNLA, despite the MNLA’s numerical superiority, especially in the last week, especially in Timbuktu and Gao. The political situation now provides the MNLA with a greater incentive to make good on these claims, though nothing is certain. The MNLA has been hesitant to move against Ansar Eddine since it began to become clear that the group had strong divergent objectives, even in areas where strong tensions supposedly exists between their forces and Ansar Eddine like in Timbuktu, because of Ag Ghali’s tribal and political weight. At the end of the day Ansar Eddine, which has probably at most around 300 men, manipulated the MNLA leadership cadre into believing the two groups had a common cause in independence and seized the benefits of the rebellion swiftly and cunningly during the push south. Ansar Eddine has, it seems, gotten together with AQIM to cement its position. The MNLA has probably not moved on AQIM while talking about its differences and hostility to the group because it was seeking external support and/or tolerance and found it was not forthcoming. And in both cases, especially during the move south, the MNLA could not afford to provoke a second (Ansar Eddine) or third enemy (AQIM and/or MUJWA) in addition to the Malian military, given its sources and depth of resources.

Algeria has been reluctant to become more directly involved in the affairs of neighbouring countries for fear of expanding and deepening existing problems, provoking unrest on the Algerian side of the southern border (where Algeria’s Tuaregs live), and because they viewed Ahamdou Toumani Toure and the Malian security establishment as unreliable and complicit with AQIM — it saw Mali as the “weak link” and preferred to cooperate with Mauritania or even Niger. It was a big step for the Algerians to send advisors and beginning joint patrols with the Malians, Mauritanians and Nigeriens at the end of 2011.  At the same time, the Algerians have strenuously opposed outside (western) intervention in the region, seeing it as their “back yard” and have sought to portray themselves as the regional leader in counter terrorism, a view which outsider actors have come to sympathise with. (This report from February discusses some of this, although it is imperfect and some points are worth arguing about at an other time.) The advisors it did send to Mali in December 2011 were withdrawn at the beginning of the Tuareg revolt (despite MNLA accounts that they were left behind to reinforce Malian forces). Given Algeria’s past unwillingness to become engaged directly in conflicts in northern Mali and its tendency to let the “shadow” of its military power draw other actors to it for consultations and in pursuit of support, this could be a build up designed to pressure the kidnappers or the MNLA into getting the diplomats back to Algeria.

Meanwhile ECOWAS has warned it “shall take all necessary measures, including the use of force, to ensure the territorial integrity of the country”. This seems to point toward some form of military intervention coming from the south as well.

Mauritania has deployed forces to its eastern border with Mali in response to the crisis there. It reportedly provided weapons to the MNLA immediately before the rebellion, having been promised these would be used against AQIM, and lagged behind other regional states in rejecting the MNLA’s unilateral declaration of independence. It’s air force bombed a suspected MNLA convoy as rebel forces were moving south; one of its key assets in Timbuktu was kidnapped by AQIM in retaliation. Mauritania, which houses thousands of refugees from Mali in addition to several thousand recent returnees from Libya, is under stress: bad weather, hunger, political discontent and multiple other associated factors have led to massive protests in recent months. The country will supposedly have parliamentary elections (which were moved up from their original date last autumn do to poor organisation). President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz,who came to power in a 2008 coup has taken a hardline on AQIM, but it increasingly unpopular. A new law recently put military finance administration under civilian control (the military has historically managed its own affairs), causing consternation and even anger among officers and stress will continue to build if the army is provoked into heavier engagement in Mali or if similar internal problems continue to brew and the forces are brought into the conflict some other way. Mauritania, though has been very aggressive when presented with opportunities to confront AQIM, especially in the Timbuktu region.