A Way of Thinking About Algeria and Mali

SUMMARY: This post follows other posts that have looked generally at Algeria’s perception of the Mali crisis and its role in its resolution. It examines the role of the Algerian press and the availability of public sources for analysts trying to make sense of a vexing problem. Pleased by Peter Tinti’s writing on the subject of late (see ‘Understanding Algeria’s Northern Mali Policy,’ Think Africa Press, 05 October 2012; which is great because it is concise which this blog never is), which tracks closely with this blogger’s own view expressed in the past, this blogger has decided to continue to dump thoughts and analysis on the subject in hopes of advancing a better analytic understanding and approach to the situation insofar is this is possible until time allows for more detailed and aggressive treatment elsewhere.

From late 1999 and 2000, the Algerian military has purposefully and deliberately presented itself to western governments as a capable, professional and self-reliant counterterrorism and antiterrorism actor in the Arab world, North Africa and the continent at large. This self-presentation has been integral in the country’s construction of its ‘role’ in world politics under Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who presents himself as a post-war leader having negotiated Algeria out of its decade-long civil war and established the country as ‘guarantor’ or stability in North Africa. The Algerian regime – its military high command and post-war civilian political leadership – talked up the country’s experience fighting, adapting to and defeating an aggressive and multilayered multi-actor Islamist insurgency from to western and other audiences as evidence of the regime’s legitimacy, relevance and as  a means to restore its place in the international system and facilitate the fulfilment of institutional and individual interests from 1999 onward.¹ This framing of Algeria’s war experience and its military leadership was coupled with a relatively adroit information operations campaign meant to compete with dissent narratives about the conduct of the war and the motives of its leaders. A desire to insulate ranking military officers from prosecution for war crimes or other breaches of the laws of war, the acquisition of a wider range of materiel and hardware for the modernisation of the Algerian armed forces,² and the facilitation of controlled foreign investment all factored into the development of this effort. Algerian officers have attended seminars and conducted exercises with the NATO and other ‘Mediterranean’ militaries (including Israel, on occasion); its officers have had English language requirements and learned the arts of ‘communications’, public relations, or soft psychological warfare, spin and employed them to great effect.³ Despite notable upsets, including quite recently with the detention of Khaled Nezzar and the legal efforts brought on him in Switzerland, this effort has put Algeria’s government in a more favourable position with respect to its relations with Europe and America, and indeed much the rest of the world, today than it was ten years ago.

Years after it is strongly evident that this effort was successful in achieving its broadest objectives. The Algerians presented themselves as an African and Arab country that could offer assistance in the field of counterterrorism rather than one that was out to receive it; it was a country that coordinate and serve as an example to others. Western policy makers, whatever their misgivings or doubts about the popularity, skilfulness or efficacy of Algeria’s leadership or its model of government (such as it is), generally took in this narrative and applied to the policy process. This view of Algeria’s military and security services – as not only ‘hardcore’ but also highly competent – has evidenced itself in public statements from western officials describing Algeria’s ‘natural role’ and responsibilities in northwest Africa, especially since the beginning of the rebellion in Mali and the rise of AQIM and other armed Islamist factions. This set of expectations thus colours the way Algerian behaviour and statements are perceived and analysed by outsiders. Also influencing views of Algerian behaviour is an understanding that decision-making and policy-making processes are opaque, informal and somewhere close to exceptionally complex by the standard of the region. Because Algeria’s longstanding and deliberately projected self-image has consistently diverged from its policy choices with respect to the crisis in the Sahel and northern Mali. Perceptions of its considerable military and financial resources and ‘experience’ in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism have coloured a number of responses to the country’s perceived ‘ambivalence’ toward military and other solutions to the crisis, as well as the ‘ambiguity’ surrounding its perception of the conflict and its actors overall. It is necessary to strip back these preconceptions and expectations and place them in the context of Algeria’s own regional and internal priorities, as well as in what the country’s leaders have said about their views and objectives in the region (and acknowledge that the difference between image and action may also be the result of restrictions in capacity and vision). Statements by Abdelkader Messahel and Mourad Medelci, from the press office of the Foreign Ministry and its spokespeople, in El Djeich, in the African Journal for the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism, in the major Algerian papers, and APS have conveyed more or less consistent public messages. The conflict between anticipated and actual behaviour — given Algeria’s economic and material advantages as well as its stated political priorities — contribute to confusion and misperception rather strongly.

Algeria’s primary objectives in its relationships with its neighbours, especially from 2010, has been to contain the overflow from revolutions and rebellions in Libya, Tunisia and Mali and elsewhere. In official communications this always discussed in terms of increases in illicit trade in weapons and people, the encouragement of subversive Islamist movements by external actors, the growth in the drug trade, overflows of refugees and price increases and other economic shocks. Above all, the Algerians hope to avoid the development of a large scale, popular opposition movement on the model of those that overthrew governments and initiated civil wars in Tunisia, Libya and the Arab east. This sentiment is shared among official and unofficial members of the political class. At the military-political level, there is a widespread perception that Algiers may seek to defeat the remaining AQIM insurgents in northern Algeria without eradicating them; that is, to maintain a level of urgency in order to justify security and emergency procedures that would otherwise appear extreme as means of maintaining tight political control and the military’s institutional benefits from the security premium. From this perspective that AQIM had been pushed out of Algeria, into the Sahel countries benefits the Algerian state by displacing resistance outward and by making the enemy the responsibility of others while not terminating its relevance at the political level inside Algeria.

Algeria’s historic role as a mediator in conflicts in northern Mali has led some to speculate it has maintained influence or contact with elements of Iyad Ag Ghali’s Ansar Ed-Dine. Ag Ghali’s relationship with Algiers remains unclear at the present time, though the descriptions in the Algerian press suggest the Algerian view of his group is more pragmatic that that of MUJWA and AQIM. Reports in French and Arabic language Algerian newspapers citing security service or military sources frequently discuss deployments of Algerian forces to southern Algeria and Algerian coordination with regional military, intelligence, police and other state officials. The Algerian press also readily stresses the official line out of Algiers that the ‘solution’ to the Mali crisis is through ‘dialogue’ and negotiation. The Algerians have openly leaked and mentioned in public their meetings with interlocutors in northern Mali and have made no secret of their opposition to military intervention in Mali. This is a consistent point made in statements from the Algerian Foreign Ministry – both from the Minister Mourad Medelci and the Minister Delegate for Maghreb and African issues Abdelkader Messahel. [For a list of these up through a few months ago, see here.] There is relatively little ambiguity on this point (surely somewhat less than in those of some major Security Council countries). What actors the Algerians consider acceptable parties in the dialogue it habitually promotes is somewhat hazier; while this presumably does not include AQIM, and probably significant parts of MUJWA, it is less clear whether the Algerians include Ansar Ed-Dine in the same category as the other factions. The characterisation of MUJWA as alternately as ‘narco-traffickers’ and ‘terrorists’ – this is after all a group that habitually lashes out at Algerian targets and claims to have executed Algerian diplomats and soldiers (though Algiers hesitated to confirm that their attaché in Gao was indeed executed) – reflects a view of the group has a mixture of local interests (the ‘drug barons’ and traffickers from the local Lamhar and Gao Arab communities) and hardcore jihadis whose relations have yet to be parsed sufficiently enough for political or other action designed to divide them out into opposed camps. Furthermore, distinctions between Ansar Ed-Dine as a jihadi vehicle as opposed to one for Kidal (Ifoughas) Tuaregs are readily apparent in pro-government reports as well as in some comments from purportedly official sources in the press. Descriptions of AQIM are rather uniform and reflect a public red line, though in reality there is likely contact and manipulation between the Algerian services and elements in Ansar Ed-Dine, which Algiers likely looks at as potential party to negotiation if peeled away from its most hardline factions. Accusations that Algiers has meddled or played individuals or elements of Ansar Ed-Dine have circulated widely for months, especially among MNLA supporters. Public writing treats this as the ultimate game of cloak and dagger. It is likely Algiers has not looked at the factions in northern Mali in black and white terms for some time; that Algiers has sought to position itself as a negotiator rather than a direct patron of one or the other faction has been evident for several months (as this blog has pointed on in posts and conversations).

Over time the Algerians have been more and more open about their consulting, receiving, and negotiating with varied elements in Mali. Its leaders openly state they are speaking with multiple ‘parties’ and have been relatively pointed in their comments — anonymously and officially — on these points.⁴ This is the Algerian default – assert a diplomatic solution workable on regional and continental terms, and leveraging notable and subterranean networks to divide and move parties toward a regionalised framework.⁵ Press reports mentioning that particular elements of Ansar Ed-Dine were convoked for meetings in Algiers or with Algerian officials strongly suggest that the Algerians have, as has been reported in some instances, seeking to divide and indeed ‘manipulate’ sectors of what is frequently seen or portrayed as part of a nefarious plot aimed at undermining military or political projects emanating from western countries or ECOWAS, or part of Algiers’s effort to retain control or influence over cocaine trafficking networks or any number of other grimy activities. These Ansar Ed-Dine elements are frequently those seen as less ideological and more Kidal or Ifoughas-focused than the rest of the group, and who have been associated with Algerian mediation or political objectives in the past. Rather than evidence of Algerian ‘complicity’ in the creation or ‘running’ of Islamist militants or the destabilisation of northern Mali (as some writers, observers and actors occasionally interpret these rumours and reports), this is likely part of Algiers’s publicly stated objective of resolving the Mali problem through ‘dialogue’⁶; whether such efforts are worthwhile, partly sufficient in the face of other talks or processes underway within Mali and in the broader region is unclear. It appears likely that French efforts to assert control over the regional setting through ECOWAS will go ahead, as its leaders have said ‘with or without Algeria’; what success or buy in these will get from Algiers is not clear to this blogger at this time. What Algeria is seeking to work out in Mali, beyond avoiding military intervention and the expansion of AQIM and its fraternal organisations beyond Mali, is also relatively obscure; the Algerian end state has not been articulated clearly as much as its preferences for a process, or style of process, that allows Algiers to remain central and with some measure of control (or perception of control) especially with respect to the parts of Mali bordering southern Algeria. Since last winter Algeria has been seeking out its traditional role as a mediator and facilitator in northern Mali; this comes from both internal priorities as well as regional ones.


1 This is described in some detail in Isabelle Werenfels’s Managing Instability in Algeria (2007) and in Miriam Lowi’s Oil Wealth and the Poverty of Politics: Algeria Compared (2009). Werenfels describes attending some of the first such dialogues and their design, supporting them with interviews with Algerian and other planners.

2 This is especially true in aviation, signals and similar areas; it will likely expand other, lethal hardware over time if embargoes and blockages are negotiated out within the various interest groups in the US Congress and bureaucracy.

3 The Algerian military and intelligence services obtained experience in psychological warfare throughout the 1990s and in the years previous (especially in the management and repression of opposition groups). The counterinsurgency campaign during the 1990s produced a number of tendencies in Algeria’s media and social environment, including the active use of the press both to communicate the government’s narratives and to manipulate and deceive its enemies and segments of the population. Since no less than 2000 this has been directed at external audiences; the case involving the fall out fro the 2006 arms deal with Russia (especially in the 2008-2009 period) is a case in point, which led to responses in official and unofficial Russian presses because it was seen to damage Russia’s prestige among key export destinations in southeast Asia and elsewhere). Today this can be seen in the coverage of the Arab uprisings and the Malian crisis in Francophone and Arabophone papers; of course this is perhaps no different from the manipulation of the press by anonymous sources in any country, let alone the United States and France. During the Libya crisis, and since the deterioration of conditions in Mali, the Algerians have used their news media as a means of communicating sentiment, influencing perception and the like. Major policy initiatives recieve heavy coverage along with related stories that reinforce the narrative underwriting official activities. See, for example, the stories accompanying Messahel’s recent visit to Nouakchott (to be followed by trips to Bamako and Niamey) in El Khabar; all of these reinforce the Algerian preference for ‘dialogue’ and Algiers’s competence in managing the situation in the meantime, by including stories on the arrest of terrorists on the Algerian border and divisions in international opinion over military intervention.

4 The relationship between Algeria and the MNLA, which is now heavily marginalised but nonetheless significant, deserves separate analysis. The MNLA, having succeeded alienating itself from many northern Malians through parts of its agenda and conduct (which was heavily assisted by MUJWA and Ansar Ed-Dine’s own use of psychological warfare and superior leadership in Gao especially), eventually succeeded in alienating Algiers through its media campaign especially after its battle field defeats; the disfunction of this campaign is perhaps best illustrated by its association with radical and otherwise dissident Kablye diaspora elements where its leaders have web columns and pontificate on the supposed threat posed to Algeria by an independent Azawad state which would allegedly encourage Kabyles to seek their own republic or the like. Of course, the Algerians have dually succeeded to some degree in alienating themselves from the wider fold; they will likely end up as part of an Algerian ‘solution’ given their ideological distinctiveness from the other armed groups in the region.

⁵ This includes CEMOC, various African Union counterterrorism centres, offices and commissions centered in or on Algeria; being a non-member of ECOWAS and likely also due to doubts over the competence and suitability of an ECOWAS force, Algeria is likely to fear losing control over events in its close proximity and will probably continue to fuss over a French-backed ECOWAS intervention at least until it is passed through a UNSC vote or takes place.

6 In some public writing there is a sense of shock or surprise that Algeria, itself a supporter of the Polisario Front and one of the countries recognising the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), would not support the MNLA’s bid for a state in Azawad; as this blogger has pointed out: no states of any import in Mali or the region have rushed to recognise Azawad. Indeed as early as April 2012, the gazette of the African Union Commission carried a prominent headline reading: ‘ANNOUNCEMENT OF A SEPARATE STATE IN MALI “NULL AND VOID” — AU COMMISSION’. This position was echoed by all the key parties involved or concerned with the Mali crisis; and the Algerian position is not abnormal in this sense. The Algerian position on this flows directly from the legalistic and political principals that support its recognition of the SADR, namely the inviolability of colonial borders (under the AU and previous OAU charters); the self-determination issue in the Western Sahara comes from its peculiar colonial history, written and argued about at length in various places over many painful years; no such peculiarity exists in Mali — the preservation of Mali’s colonial borders from internal secessionists fits perfectly within the mandate and legal framework of the African Union, which Algeria has been strongly attached to since independence and contributed to constructing. Algeria’s specific objection to an independent Tuareg state like comes more from this at least as much if not more so than fears of Algerian Tuareg secessionism or restiveness or some narrow desire to undermine the MNLA.

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