Some Long Thoughts: Algeria Plays Defence

SUMMARY: This post is several posts  originally written in January and February merged together. These posts were put off from being posted for reasons of time, attention deficits and levels of satisfaction. They were all originally experiments in ways of thinking about recent events to do with Algeria’s defensive posture (which has been the subject of so much writing lately). It is concerned with some of the public writing and analysis on Algerian foreign policy, especially with respect to Mali immediately before and during France’s intervention there. The main gist is related to Algeria’s strong attachment to its national sovereignty in foreign policy, its defensive (also called ‘paranoid’) posture overall, and the country’s self-image in world politics and their influence on its behaviour in the world. It is not concerned with evaluating or making a case for how Algeria or other ought to do one or the other such thing in foreign affairs. It is however interested in considering adjusting some common assumptions about Algerian foreign policy in general.

It also includes some thoughts on issues such as the assumptions and expectations seen in some public writing about Algeria’s military capabilities, its ‘success’ in fighting terrorism, the extent and scope of its ambition as a regional ‘hegemon’ mainly in the post-Qadhafi period, opacity in Algerian decision-making and its origins; it also includes some remarks related to the complications of Algeria’s ongoing generational transformation. It is not meant to be definitive or authoritative, just one grain of sand on a long beach. Continue reading

A Mauritania Outlook

SUMMARY: In December this blogger spoke to small audiences about some of the issues facing Mauritania going into 2013. This post is built on the bullet-point notes prepared for these presentations, which were open to the public and represent only his views. This blogger is often more pessimistic than others (bias, admitted) and anticipates an eventful year in Mauritania. Protest movements are likely to grow in size and intensity. In thinking about Mauritania at this stage it is important remember that in trying for the best case it is possible to produce the worst. Much depends on whether fair elections are held and if the government fulfills its responsibilities to fill constitutionally mandated offices. At the same time, elections or appointments regarded as suspect by opposition currents may reinforce stalemate and gridlock. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that increasing western support for Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz will feed into existing opposition sentiments that regard the current regime as illegitimate and the international community as more or less complicit in its exploit and excesses. The strong likelihood that Mauritania will be drawn into the French/ECOWAS-led intervention (this construction is deliberate) in northern Mali increases this possibility as Ould Abdel Aziz is likely to continue be seen as a basically reliable partner in regional counter-terrorism efforts (for a summary of this view in the American press see here; for a Mauritanian rebuttal of this line of thinking see here). Furthermore, the president’s reputation and relationship with the military may be a source of further instability emerging from potential war casualties, internal personal and political disagreements and potential shifts in the political scene. Trouble can be avoided but outsiders have serious challenges to ponder and should not assume away or downplay the very significant risks in the country stemming from basic qualities in its leadership and political system.

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Clinton in Algiers: Coverage of the 29 October Visit

SUMMARY. This post surveys some of the public discourse on American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Algiers on 29 October 2012, looking at official statements and Algerian press coverage of the visit. It is the base from which this blogger’s recent article in the CTC Sentinel (‘An Algerian Press Review: Determining Algiers’ Position on an Intervention in Mali‘; the title is perhaps somewhat misleading) was written. As such it was mostly written in early November. This post is primarily concerned with the press coverage of the visit than with Algeria’s Mali policy as such.

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New Papers on Algeria & Mali

Over the last few months the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has published several useful papers on security problems in the Sahel. The latest report, by Anwar Boukhars, ‘The Paranoid Neighbor: Algeria and the Conflict in Mali‘ is a useful introduction to the perceptions and questions at play for practical people approaching Algeria’s stance on intervention in northern Mali.  Previous papers include Wolfram Lacher’s excellent ‘Organized Crime and Conflict in the Sahel-Sahara Region‘ (September 2012) which follows up nicely with his previous paper on related subjects from January 2011, ‘Organized Crime and Terrorism in the Sahel‘. On the Algeria paper, some of the views expressed there have come out of Carnegie working groups, such as one from July 2012 (summarised in ‘Algeria’s Ambivalent Role in the Sahel’).

In general, this blogger believes more discussion needs to be had about Algerian foreign policy in general and that discussions about its Mali policy should be had within this framework in addition to the priorities of European and American regional interests (too often one gets the impression from western analysis and actors that Algeria has no foreign policy of its own other than to resist good ideas from Paris and Washington; this is changing though — although we probably need more studies on Algerian policy at the African Union and Arab League and with specific countries over time, such things interest specialists and not general audiences but one misses a lot as a result of the scanty attention these issues receieve); fortunately Boukhars spends some time in his paper going through Algerian assumptions about the problem in Mali and describing the Algerian perspective on the problem in Mali. Given the mood in Washington and much of Europe, the paper’s broad focus on what othercountries see as beneficial for the Algerians to do is understandable; and if the fallout from Libya is any kind of even vague guide, Algerian warnings about the consequences of intervention should not be ignored (a point Boukhars raises). The Moroccan angle, regarded with strong skepticism by the Algerians is dealt with in a fair manner, though when Boukhars writes that ‘as in the Libya intervention, Morocco is expected to play a discreet but active role in any military campaign in Mali’ the reader must wonder what this means and what it would mean for the Algerians (it is not hard to see this being no problem at all, but the point raises questions, especially given the well known méfiance between Algiers and Rabat). One does wish Boukhars used more Algerian sources.

For English speakers, and even Francophones, there are still not great deep studies or histories on Algerian foreign policy writ-large. This is particularly true of the post 1992 period — most of what is available are real time or journalistic accounts of Bouteflika’s policy. Prior to the civil war there is Mohamed Reda Bougherira’s dissertation (Algeria’s Foreign Policy 1979-1992: Continuity and/or Change, June 1999), which approaches Algerian foreign policy systematically from a theoretical perspective and outlines the key themes and movements in Algeria’s regional and technical policies up through the Chadli years. We also have Assassi Lassassi’s “Non-Alignment in Algerian Foreign Policy” (1988) and numerous articles by Robert Mortimer and Yahia Zoubir (who has been publishing quite a bit of late on these issues in the Maghreb), Judith Scheele (who for, for example, explains the rationale for the presence of the Algerian consulate in Gao from a logistical standpoint in Smugglers and Saints of the Sahara: Regional Connectivity in the Twentieth Century, Cambridge, 2012 pp.97, note 3), Peter Tinti (on the Mali file) and by Alexis Arieff. There are others as well. More and more is likely to come out as a result of Algeria’s positions in Mali and Libya and during the Bouteflika presidency in general.

The bad press and pressure the Algerians have felt over the last several months regarding the ‘opacity’ and alleged ambiguity of their position in Mali — both their perspective of the armed groups in the north, the level and ease of cooperation with other parties, and the motivations behind their contacts with various actors in the north — appears to have led to some statements from Algerian officials and ranking officers that give the impression of an easing on their opposition or hard skepticism of intervention in the north. The position itself does not appear to have changed much and it is likely the Algerians would provide intelligence or other support to an intervention if only for fear of probable spill over. All yet to be seen, though.

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.

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RE: Canard Enchaîné, Qatar in northern Mali and Algeria

SUMMARY: This post considers reports from the French press that Qatar has been funding armed groups in northern Mali in light of Algerian press coverage of the story and uncertainties in the region and strong claims.

Last week the satirical French paper Canard Enchaîné reported that Qatar has allegedly been funding armed groups in northern Mali made their way into Algerian and west African outlets. Suspicions that Ansar Ed-Dine, the main pro-shari’ah armed group in the region, has been receiving funding from Qatar has circulated in Mali for several months. Reports (as yet unconfirmed) that a ‘Qatari’ aircraft landed at Gao, full of weapons, money and drugs, for example, emerged near the beginning of the conflict. The original report cites a French military intelligence report as indicating that Qatar has provided financial support to all three of the main armed groups in northern Mali: Iyad Ag Ghali’s Ansar Ed-Dine, al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). The amount of funding given to each of the groups is not mentioned but it mentions repeated reports from the French DGSE to the Defense Ministry have mentioned Qatar’s support for ‘terrorism’ in northern Mali.

Jeune Afrique mentions that the report is likely to increase tensions between Algiers and Doha, pointing to possible contention over hydrocarbons in northern Mali and disagreements over Qatar’s aggressive support for Arab uprisings, which has irritated Algiers. (The original report mentions discussions between Total and Qatar on energy in Mali.) The first question to ask about a story like this is what and where is the source for the French source on this? While knowledgeable sources in west Africa have alleged Qatar has been ‘supporting’ at least one armed group in Mali their reports tend to mention Ansar Ed-Dine specifically and not the secular MNLA, the well known al-Qa’ida affiliate AQIM or its splinter, MUJWA. That Qatar is backing all of these groups is new and unique to the Canard Enchaîné report. One wonders if Algerian reporting (the French had to have gotten this information from someplace) has to do with this particular accusation going beyond Ansar Ed-Dine. Even if this is not the case the Canard Enchaîné report is worth thinking about in the wider political context. Continue reading

Some Things We May Think About MUJWA

SUMMARY: This post is a general description of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA, also known by the English acronym MOJWA and the French MOJAO)[1], following on previous posts on the group’s origins and activities in northern Mali. It discusses the group’s origins, activities, leadership and relationships with other armed groups in northern Mali, including Iyad Ag Ghali’s Ansar Ed-Dine and al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). It also points to recent analyses of the group’s origins. Unlike previous posts on this blog dealing with MUJWA, which deal with competing explanations for the group’s origin it is preoccupied with its activities and recent comments by its leaders. Among the strongest formal descriptions of the group in English (such as they exist) comes from Dario Christiani for the Jamestown Foundation, published in Terrorism Monitor, Vol. 10, Issue 7 (6 April 2012). Mauritanian journalist Mohamed Mahmoud Abu al-Ma’ali has dealt with the emergence of the group in overviews of the Islamist armed groups for al-Jazeera, first in Arabic and now in English (PDF). Though relatively little is known about MUJWA with certainty and any analysis of the group must cautious to stress this, more information has become available with time and certain observations and even claims can be about the group. Continue reading

RE: Mauritanians in Northern Mali

Alex Thurston at the Sahel Blog notes news reports of military exercises being held on the Mauritanian border with Mali. Mauritania’s armed forces have been on heightened altert since at least last November, with increased patrols and excercises on the border in response both to kidnappings and the rebellion in Mali. During last week’s exercises ‘a heavy artillery bombardment could be heard outside Bassiknou for two days. Meanwhile, military aircraft carried out sorties over the area and bombed virtual moving targets as part of a training drill supervised by French experts.’ These sounds caused some local residents to believe there was actual fighting going on, between the Army and AQIM or ‘the Tuaregs’ according to sources. The Mauritanians have been especially active against AQIM in northern Mali, launching several air and land raids across the border in the last three years. In March 2012, the Mauritanian air force bombed convoys in northern Mali, killing what it claimed with AQIM militants, Malian sources told wire services civilians were killed. The Mauritanians retain an aggressive posture. In 2010 and 2011 AQIM had taken to claiming its dead — posting statements and obituaries on jihadist forums for example, following up on their own accounts of the fighting — or attempting to exploit civilian casualties by claiming the victims of such raids were civilians and not their men. The Mauritanian raids were relatively lethal, causing what were probably embarrassing casualties for AQIM; this coupled with AQIM suffering heavy defeats in northern Algeria during the same time period made it more difficult for the group to put consistent effort into Internet propaganda following more recent raids. Thus there are fewer accounts of the fighting (at least from AQIM’s perspective) for more recent raids and relatively few obituaries for members killed. The fighting has continued and the Mauritanian military and intelligence services undertook offensive measures aimed at intercepting and interdicting AQIM operatives and uncovering its plots in the country (which include plans for kidnapping soldiers and an attack marking the anniversary of Usama Bin Laden’s death), due to increased monitoring on the border and in the refugee camps there as well as apparently, if Algerian media reports and the recent killing of an alleged Mauritanian spy at the hands of AQIM are any indication, a relatively aggressive intelligence gathering activity which may have included the penetration of AQIM itself. These actions were made possible by Mali’s unwillingness to confront AQIM and Mauritania’s perception of northern Mali as a strategic space where AQIM’s presence made the country vulnerable to the group’s emphasis on armed action against the Mauritanian state. The collapse of state control in northern Mali contributes to the sense of urgency on the Mauritanian side of the border.

While Mauritania’s internal politics  have brought the legitimacy of President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz into question since his disputed election in 2009 (and those disputes appear to be coming to a head this year) there has been relatively little controversy over the army’s raids into Mali (though members of the opposition did attempt to paint Ould Abdel Aziz as reckless early on, the raids did not appear unpopular in Mauritania and most political parties tended to back them). Ould Abdel Aziz is far more controversial for his internal policies (while range from corruption in financial management and resource allocation to his stalling of the electoral process to what many see as open contempt for the opposition), which continue to provoke agitation and controversy.

The March raid was reported to have resulted in at least a few civilian casualties; the Mauritanians have also killed civilians in previous raids. On one occasion, AQIM used the opportunity to express is sympathy and solidarity with the tribes in the surrounding region (in Timbuktu) in subsequent statements; it is unclear as yet what wider result civilian casualties have had or might have in the future on AQIM’s ability to hold onto control in Timbuktu together with Ansar Ed-Dine. The border zone is an area to look, especially in terms of any potential ECOWAS (of which Mauritania is not a member) intervention in Mali.

Three Brothers

ATGM points out that a trial on appeal confirmed a death sentence for Mohamed Abdellahi Ould Ahmednah (and a three and twelve year prison term for Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Khouna and Didi Ould Bezeid, respectively) for the 2009 murder of American aid worker Christopher Leggitt. Ould Ahmednah is one of three brothers who were recruited in AQIM, sons from a relatively wealthy family but whose father died when they were young. Momhamed Abdellahi Ould Ahmednah’s brother, Abdelkader was killed in combat by a Franco-Mauritanian force in northern Mali in June 2010. A third Ahmednah brother is also in Mauritanian prison; the two of them identified Abdelkader’s body to the authorities after his death. Those clashes and Ahmednah’s death were covered in this post.

Rolled Up in Azawad

Al-Akhbar recently published a video of a man in his forties, according to the write up, confessing to a number of acts of spying on behalf of Mauritania in northern Mali. He collected names, phone numbers, positions and other information about AQIM in the region. He says he was hired by the head of the Bureau d’Etudes et de Documentation, Mauritania’s foreign intelligence service, Gen. Mohamed Ould Meguet, to work with a commander Hbibi Ould Delloul and a captain Kheiry in collecting intelligence on AQIM in Mali. The write up quotes sources close to Ould Meguet the Mauritanians have not investigated the circumstances of his capture or death and did not attempt to negotiate or otherwise obtain his release. He was eventually executed, according to the report. According to the report his family has received ‘modest compensation’ from the authorities. The article describes the military’s handling of the affair as ‘cynical’.¹

He also worked at the service of the walis (governors) in the eastern provinces bordering Mali scouting for the military, traveled in northern Mali tracking the movements of AQIM and monitoring westerners traveling on the Rue d’Espoir (the Brazilian-build high way that links eastern and western Mauritania, the Highway of Hope). The al-Akhbar report places the video in the context of AQIM’s leaders’ reported purges of Mauritanians accused of spying for the Mauritanian intelligence service, which has been reported on in the Mauritanian and Algerian press; in late 2010 and early 2012 Algerian papers began reporting on paranoia in the AQIM command (mainly Abu Zaid’s katiba) about penetration by Mauritanian intelligence and more recently there are reports that there has been an effort to diversify the southern katibas’ ranks which for some time were dominated by Mauritanians (estimates are that at as many as 70% of AQIM recruits/fighters to particular katibas in the Sahel were or have been Mauritanian).

This comes amid the dispatching of gendarmerie counterterrorism units to the military garrison at Bassiknou as part of an effort to beef up security on the border after plots linked to AQIM were discovered at a border check point; the article describes Mauritanian gendarmes’ efforts to seek out AQIM operatives traveling in civilian clothes, searching for possible operatives in the camps housing refugees from the conflict in northern Mali. “Mopping up operations on the border began on 12 May 2012, according to Sahara Media.

(1) Last month the Mauritanian press reported that AQIM captured a Malian Arab who had been spying on the terrorist group in the Timbuktu region; he was held out in the city as an example and taken off to the outskirts by the group who at the very least beat him severely, according to rumours. He was accused of scouting and relaying information on the positions of AQIM targets in northwestern Mali to the Mauritanian military, in support of their cross border operations there.

Another Take on ‘The Malian Crisis as seen from Algeria’

The Malian crisis seen from Algeria,’ by Thomas Seres (19 April 2012) presents an analysis of Algerian perceptions of the upheaval in northern Mali. This analysis is insufficient in explaining Algerian behaviour in response to the rebellion in northern Mali or to the March coup d’etat and misidentifies Algerian priorities in relation to the ‘Sahelo-Saharan Space’ and Algeria’s relationships with extra-regional actors in the west.  Additionally, its underlying assumptions about Algerian foreign policy in the Sahel and the west do not match with observations of Algerian behaviour in the past or at the present time. Seres’s analysis also highlights some of the problems facing those seeking to analyse Algeria’s foreign policy and the relationship between its internal politics and external behaviour.

This post does not cover all parts of Seres’s analysis. Instead, it looks at the assumptions Seres starts with upfront, examines some of the claims made and thinks out-loud about some of the problems it shows in popular thinking about Algeria’s relationships with its neighbours. Many of these issues have been raised or discussed on this blog at various times on this blog and so this post proceeds casually; it will be followed by a series of posts looking at problems in analysing Algerian politics and foreign policy in the next several weeks.

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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.

More General Thoughts RE: Mali, AQIM, armed groups, etc.

Events in Mali are developing rapidly; for the moment, readers may refer to this blogger’s Twitter feed and those of others better informed (for example: Martin VoglMartin Plaut,Peter DorrieHannah ArmstrongTommy Miles, and Andrew Lebovich, and the articles here). Media reports have AQIM and MUJWA operating together with Ansar Eddine in Gao and Timbuktu; reports are mixed and the situation continues to be fluid. The MNLA appears to have been sidelined in some areas by Ansar Eddine, which is reported to have a heavy presence with members of AQIM in Timbuktu, and in others to be operating in proximity to MUJWA and/or Ansar Eddine. At present it is clear there are at least partial divisions in that Ansar Eddine may seek to expand beyond the Azawad, while the MNLA is more likely to attempt to hold territory in the north toward its goal of establishing a state there. Ansar Eddine (and the other Islamist/Salafi groups), though, look ready to try and extend their reach further south. In such a case they may find themselves at an even greater cross purposes than they did early on. The MNLA, highly media conscious, may attempt some kind of manoeuvre  to take some of the initiative from the Ansar Eddine and other armed factions. Ansar Eddine appears much stronger than previous reports suggested, and it may have come to an agreement or understanding with AQIM or MUJWA as a result of a common worldview or revenge politics directed toward the MNLA or a need to find ins at the local level in Timbuktu, for example. But there in particular if reports about AQIM having established itself there with the rebels moves beyond the group’s usually more low key and more pragmatic style; a prominent role there exposes it to targeting by the Mauritanian air force or others. This is especially true if reports about AQIM leadership figures showing up in Timbuktu or returning to Mali from neighbouring countries are true (including Yahya Abu al-Hammam and Belmokhtar; they are reported to have taken control of some military bases/installations in the area). The heavy hand in Timbuktu or Gao could also instigate pressure from ethnic militias in the area and with tribes. At the same time such figures may also help Ansar Eddine, whose leader Ag Ghali draws much of his support from Kidal, cement control in the area. From the distance and without more reliable reporting and definitive accounts from locals questions remain numerous and assumptions and contingencies must be reconsidered and interrogated vigorously.

General Thoughts on the Tuareg rebellion and AQIM

This post continues some of the questions raised in the post immediately preceding it, with respect to AQIM, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), the Tuareg rebellion in Mali (and the subsequent coup) and other similar problems. The proliferation of arms and  armed groups in northern Mali since the fall of the Qadhafi regime in Libya has created opportunities and probably the necessity for AQIM to move men and activity into southern Libya, and potentially Nigeria. The Mali safe haven, for the time being, looks less hospitable to the group and conditions there mean that AQIM will likely seek out space and links in Libya to compensate for short-term losses in northern Mali and may evolve its leadership to seek a more deliberate and longer lasting presence in Libya, which is likely to become a priority for AQIM in the future. This post explores this possibility in context of recent evens in the region as it relates to armed groups in northern Mali and instability in southern Libya. It does not claim to provide any answers or satisfy all readers but mainly to explore possibilities emerging in a fluid environment.  Continue reading

Back from a minor hiatus

Your blogger has been absent from this space for some time. This is unintentional; other projects have taken up much time. This post tries to touch on something the things this blogger has been considering in the interval since the last regular post went up — on Algeria, Mauritania and MUJWA in very general terms. It is incomplete, more posts will continue on a more or less regular basis from now on.

Since the last post, which drew many comments because it was incomplete and was written more or less on a time crunch. The comments left by readers are worth reviewing as they clear up confusion on some important points on what were then recent events in Mauritania. That post was trying to get at something that still stands: Mauritania is facing many structural political problems at several levels and these almost certainly take first place when compared to issues like the terrorism file (which is important on its own and in its own way and more so when added on to these other troubles). The last two months saw impressive and in some cases unprecedented manifestations of popular protest; this week Nouakchott saw what was perhaps the largest single demonstration in its history, numbering, depending on what source one looks at, 40,000 people (and possibly more) a number which speaks for itself in a country of roughly 4m people, close to a quarter of whom live in or near the capital city. The discontent mentioned in the last post and several others before has grown over the last several months, owing to  the standard inequalities and injustices suffered by Mauritanians and others in north-west Africa, not to mention the relatively dire food security situation, the upsetting of grazing patterns in the eastern part of the country brought on by the conflict in Mali, the not so special style of corruption preferred by the current president and leadership which is more narrow that in the past and less satisfying to key parts of the tribal and business and social fabric. This blogger has more thoughts on the last part of this and has written about it before (and will put more on the blog soon); in the meantime there are multiple fine resources for some of the recent events in the way of protests. The youth movement, which looked as if it were going to petter out a few months ago has increased its online presence and has put up much in the way of images and videos on Facebook, Twitter and the rest of the social media board. The trouble likely to come from the election fiasco will be a key flash point soon enough (probably more so than in Algeria, for some comparison). It used to be said that nothing ever happened in Mauritania (aside from coups), that it was a “quiet” country. This idea is less and less appealing. Great coverage of recent events, including Nasser Weddady’s recent posts herehere and especially here where he has posted the opposition coalition’s 43 page manifesto demanding a national unity government (in Arabic), on the grounds that the government has been essentially extra-constitutional since the government pushed back last year’s elections (this situation sort typifies the kinds of challenges facing Mauritania this blogger has tried to emphasise in the last several months) and Lissa Hunt’s recent tweets and posts. Right now is a critical time for Mauritania.

Your blogger no longer agrees with himself in whole when it comes to the Algerian elections. He wrote a piece for Fair Observer at the end of December (which was published at the beginning of January) regarding the prospects for Islamist parties in the May elections there. The view was the elections do not particularly matter; at that point it was difficult to say what “might” happen other than that one can say it is likely few Algerians will vote with relative confidence. It is now clear the consensus in the regime is that some iteration of Islamists, be it the MSP-led coalition of Islamist parties taking seats from parts of the FLN and RND or some of the small secular parties or the several recently formed Islamist parties getting seats on their own and thus making up a divided but more numerous stake out for the religious trend generally. Whatever the case the lower house less important than much foreign press coverage and commentary has made it out to be — do not forget the upper house, the Majlis al-Ummah, a third of which is appointed by the president and which has veto power over the lower house. What will come out of the constitutional reforms that are being ginned up for this year may change this, though it is doubtful. And if “Islamists” perform in line with the trend seen elsewhere in the Maghreb the outcome will probably look more like Morocco, with palace Islamists (the MSP, which as this blog and many, many Algerians have noted, has been in government for close to a decade and its members still serve in the cabinet in important and lucrative posts such as public works; meaning there are probably thick files on them held by the security services which may help regulate them if they attempt to get out of line as has happened in the past), than Egypt or some such. There are plenty of other trends more interesting than the elections to watch in Algeria and to take as indicators of the mood in the country; some of these overlap with the elections (or will do so) and some of them stand on their own. The succession issue at the top of the regime and in the deep state probably matter more than how the lower house get rearranged. There was the notable resignation of Sa’id Sa’di from his post as the chief of the Rally for Culture and Democracy which has earned a bum rap from many for various reasons — its more or less supporting for the military, its aggressive secularism, its ideological direction, whatever one wants. This blogger wrote about its (ex-)leader’s links with the head of the security services last spring and its participation in the February protests. That well known relationship is yet another dingy point on Sa’di’s reputation with many Algerians who pay attention to him. Rumours after his resignation, though, suggest he probably suffered some pressure from the regime as a result of his activities and rhetoric in 2011; realignments and subtle shifts look likely for small factions and cosmetic elements supportive of or tolerated by the regime.

The Movement for Unity and Jihad (MUJWA) has been described in various ways: a “splinter” from AQIM, a reorganisation of the group’s southern front, a victory for Algerian or some other intelligence service in infiltrating and splitting up AQIM, and other things. There is not enough information available on the group or its membership to assess the validity of such claims. One has to start up with certain assumptions in order for most of these theories to work out. Some of these have more support based on what is known of MUJWA’s leaders and recent AQIM activities – or rumours and reports of AQIM’s activities – other have less support. As yet not many of them are particularly convincing based on the available information about the group.

The narrative in the group’s initial (and thus far only) propaganda video does not jive easily with the theory that the group is a “reorganisation” of AQIM’s operational structure and that the group is not really a splinter faction — it announces a break with AQIM, and essentially rephrases and reframes AQIM’s narrative against western powers and jihad for its own purposes. The group’s first operation, the kidnapping of European aid workers in October 2011, and its first announcement in December suggest it may have formed in the early autumn or that the group’s members went rogue from AQIM after the October operation. Relatively little is known about the key individuals associated with the organisation: Virtually all of them, from the group’s reputed leader, Hamada Ould Mohamed Khayrou to Sultan Ould Badi appear to be Arab Mauritanians or Malians from the Azawad (from north of Gao especially). And their attacks thus far, the October 2011 kidnapping of European aid workers and the recent suicide bombing at Tamanrasset, suggest a north-ward orientation, not surprisingly done in a fashion similar to AQIM itself. At present the group’s objectives and trajectory appear contradictory and even confusing. This blogger is not prepared to make conclusions as his friend Andrew Lebovich has in terms of the group’s true motives or nature based on such little information at this stage, though his analysis has important points, for example on possible coordination/communication between MUJWA and AQIM make some sense and are compelling. His point on both groups demanding the release of Major Abderrahmane Ould Meidou is also worth considering; and as he reocognises in the update to his original post on the issue, social and personal relations between the group are somewhat inevitable given MUJWA’s genealogy. This is one of the more important elements — Hamada Ould Mohamed Kheirou (also Khayrou/Khayri/Kheiry) is an individual whose background and relations with AQIM’s leadership is worth considering and comparing with other Mauritanian leaders of late such as Khaled Chinguitti, who was promoted at some point in 2011 and had taken on important operational leadership roles and was reportedly killed some months ago fighting with MNLA men in Mali, though his death was reported by only one source (ANI; though readers may be aware of other reports that do not rely on the ANI account, if they exist). As more information stacks up a more or less clear picture may materialise. Or it may not. At this point this blogger does not agree or disagree with any particular analysis of the matter per se.

The group presents interesting questions: What tensions exist in the relationships within and between AQIM’s southern katibat and suryiat in terms of their ethno-national composition? Much attention goes to supposed tensions between two of AQIM’s southern commanders, Belmokhtar and Abu Zeid; what about tensions at lower echelons? What personal factors would contribute to driving a group of Mauritanian and Azawadi Malians out of AQIM into a new group oriented southward (at least in its rhetoric)? (This could speak to their area of operation and potentially their relationships with other groups operating in the area.) What kind of longevity will this group have in a competitive environment where it must compete with groups such as the MNLA and Ansar ed-Din in addition to AQIM? What will AQIM’s ultimate response to MUJWA be? At present there are more questions than answers.

AQIM Link Roundup

A short roundup of links related to al-Qa’idah in the Islamic Maghreb from the last few days. In the main these stories deal with relations between Mali and the Polisario (there were reports of a deterioration in relations and Bamako withdrawing from ties with the Polisario and then that Mali had agreed to allow the Polisario right of pursuit into its territory), the issuance of arrest warrants by the Mauritanians that includes alleged AQIM leaders but also an individual called Mustapha Ould Limam al-Shafe’i who is an important figure in regional politics and an opponent of the Ould Abdel Aziz government,¹ reports on developments within AQIM (leadership changes and divisions on national lines) and the breakaway MOJWA group (‘ ‘ on ethno-national divisions), the relationship between AQIM and Boko Haram and new reports of al-Qa’idah recruitment efforts and emplacement in Libya. As many have said recently, these are interesting times in northwest Africa. Additionally, the rift between Nouakchott and Rabat was a continued point of discussion in Mauritania in particular, where the Foreign Minister told parliament the expulsion of the MAP correspondent (see the last update) had contributed to improving Mauritania’s relations with Morocco. The Algeria angle also got attention in media. Also on the list is a piece this writer wrote for the great blog Al-Wasat (30 December) on the promotion of Gen. Bachir Tartag to head the DSI within the Algerian intelligence service (DRS), looking at the media coverage of the appointment and putting it in political context.

Continue reading

AQIM Links Dump, Very Short Thoughts

Since this post goes up in the late evening it will include, for now, a few links on recent complications related to AQIM and its offshoot, Jama’at at-Tawhid wa al-Jihad fi Gharbi Ifriqiyya (MOJWA). Some thoughts on these links form the last few weeks may come in the morning; the focus will be on the recent attack and kidnapping on the Mauritanian gendarme post at Addel Begrou and the Algerian advisors sent to Mauritania and Mali, especially if there is new information available. (Sahara Media reports fifteen trainers sent to Mali; El Watan‘s report on this also mentions a joint Polisario-Mauritania anti-terrorism operation on 8 December; the Algerians are also beginning joint patrols with Niger). The Moroccans have also been invited into Sahel security set ups by the Algerians (and the Mauritanians are still moving off toward Algiers, as the expulsion of the MAP correspondent in Nouakchott probably indicates). Brief notes are tucked under links where something can be said immediately. Interesting things going on in the region of late. UPDATED: See after the jump. Continue reading

More Links

Some worthwhile links:

An excellent series from The Atlantic on Libya’s Berbers in the wake of the revolution there. Installment one and two are here and here; a third is due Friday.

A backgrounder on AQIM from Cross the Green Mountain.

Lyes Laribi’s history of the Algerian secret services, Du MALG au DRS (in French).

Marc Lynch on ‘The Big Think Behind the Arab Spring,’ where he argues ‘the Arab peoples’ have returned to regional politics and that the Arab uprisings:

generated a marvelous range of innovative tactics (uploading mobile-camera videos to social media like Facebook and Twitter, seizing and holding public squares), they did not introduce any particularly new ideas. The relentless critique of the status quo, the generational desire for political change, the yearning for democratic freedoms, the intense pan-Arab identification — these had all been in circulation for more than a decade. What changed with the fall of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia was the recognition that even the worst tyrants could be toppled. It shattered the wall of fear.

Emily Parker on ‘Tunisia’s Election Results and the Question of Minorities,’ focused on Christians and Jews there.

The minority question is important; both in terms of non-Muslim sects and atheists (who are often neglected in questions of minorities in both predominantly Muslim and Christian society, it should be noted) and non-Sunni Muslim sects — which do exist in North Africa, especially in Tunisia (at Djerba), Libya (in Jebel Nafusa) and in Algeria (in Ghardaia). Most of these are Ibadhites though there are smaller numbers of converts to Shi’ism. This sometimes overlaps with rights for ethnic minorities, as North African Ibadhites are usually also Berbers. It will be interesting to see how minority rights issues are resolved in the countries which have recently had uprisings, especially because religious minorities are generally smaler in the Maghreb than in Egypt and the Levant (where there are very large numbers of Christians of multiple denominations), especially as Islamist parties come to the fore in government (and how secular or other non-Islamist parties treat these questions, too).

Finally there is an El Khabar article from yesterday on recent kidnappings in Mali and the Sahel, citing Algerian security sources as it warns of immanent kidnappings and describes AQIM units responsible for kidnapping foreigners and some of the politics between and within them. Below is a short listing of some of the interesting points: Continue reading

Three Links on AQIM

This week yielded some interesting summaries and analyses in English on AQIM-related problems, some of them looking at Mauritania. Readers may have seen these on their own already; those who have not should take a look.

Kidnapped Europeans, AQIM, and shady dealings in northern Mali

over under sideways down (updated)

Some thoughts on Mauritania to come later in the next few weeks.

Fast Thoughts

There has been a flurry of commentary and analysis in recent weeks and days focusing on the implications of weapons scattered about the Sahel in the wake of the collapse of the Qadhafi regime in Libya. It ranges from the alarmist to the sensible. There highly technical pieces and more general ones; some have also focused on the out-migration of Nigerien, Malian and Libya Tuareg out of Libya since the conquest of Tripoli and the socio-politics this may lead to in the wider Sahel. These tend to focus on the Tuaregs as (foreign) mercenaries, infrequently mentioning the many Libyan Tuareg who fought on either side of the conflict or  who have been and are being drastically impacted by the conflict’s course. Given the very little attention Tuaregs receive from English speakers in general, one notices many problems in these articles, especially in the middle-brow magazines and newspapers that have recently discovered the Sahel. A more systematic attack on some of the assumptions and assertions guiding these would probably be done by some one like Tommy Miles, with the expertise to give a really strong break down. For sure, the return and/or migration of large numbers of Tuareg former fighters, refugees and others into countries like Niger and Mali, coupled with the political troubles that might to places like Burkina Faso and Chad as a result of the loss of Libya as a strong backer and/or patron will shake things up in the region. Sophisticated weapons in the hands of smugglers, “bandits,” rebel factions, terrorists (read: AQIM) and other criminal elements is a serious threat to everyone in the region; the Mauritanians have favored areal assaults in recent engagements with AQIM. Imagine if the group had surface to air misiles. The recent summit in Algiers was noted for its focus on the conflict in Libya, leaving the conventional conversations about AQIM in its shadow. It was also notable for the criticism offered up by the Nigeriens over the lack of “concrete” action in Algerian-led efforts. Tensions between the new government in Tripoli and Algiers could slow down any effort at successfully managing these problems.

For several years, analysts have looked at the Sahel as a potential “hot spot” for terrorism and other symptoms of weak states and poor/low capacity governance. A recent Time magazine piece reiterated this theme this week. A Twitterized version of this general debate took place this evening between Christopher Boucek and Clint Watts (of Selected Wisdom).

Later posts will look at the Sahel as a “hot spot”; having followed the region for a little while this blogger believes there are two things to consider: (1) that many assumptions and predictions are easily challenged and overturned, quickly; and (2) the traditional areas AQIM has targeted (northern Algeria and Mauritania) and AQIM (as an organization) have evolved in the last two years especially, in governmental approaches and AQIM’s composition and locality. Not having much time, one can argue that the Libyan episode has significantly changed the balance of power and the function of space in the region (though not necessarily fundamentally or in the long term). The region is different this summer than last summer; and last summer AQIM did not look especially threatening in macro-perspective for all sorts of reasons even if it was awash with ransom money and snatching up Europeans. The weapons factor is important and the solvency and levels of political risk facing some countries is higher. AQIM is not a strategic threat to global security. It remains a basically technical threat as opposed to a political one. The Mauritanian government’s approach to AQIM, if imperfect, looks more sensible in 2011 than it did in 2009-2010. The Malians and Nigeriens are somewhat more engaged though the Algerians’ posture seems to have remained constant throughout (which may or may not be in itself productive so far as the Sahel states are concerned; one sees the Algerians’ rigid commitment to principles like national sovereignty and non-intervention playing out in the Sahel as in Libya — such ideas have serious weight among Algerian military and diplomatic officials, more than many outsiders often give them credit, and their reluctance to bring western powers deeper into regional security arrangements are not necessarily evidence of a tangled conspiracy). In any case, the region is likely to get more interesting in coming months.