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

Early Perspectives on the Mali Crisis from a Jihadist Forum (II)

Since the beginning of France’s intervention in northern Mali (Operation SERVAL), users of the Ansar al-Mujahideen forum have posted continuous news updates on the situation in northern Mali. During much of 2012, forum users have seen Mali as an unqualified success for Salafi-jihadism in Africa, posting long essays and poems praising and theorising the potentials that an Islamist emirate in Azawad would offer their cause. Mali’s jihadist groups allayed suspicions over their legitimacy and authenticity by posting increasingly voluminous threads featuring videos, photographs and newsletters with news from the region showing the implementation of shari’ah in Timbuktu and Gao, and documenting the Islamist coalition’s battles against the MNLA and the Malian Army at various points. Previous analysis of jihadi posts on Mali on this blog focused on user produced content – poems, essays and so on. This post focused on the same in light of Operational SERVAL. Generally speaking, these user contributions focus on depicting France within the narrative of a ‘Crusader’ state seeking to oppress Muslims and stunt the practice of Islam in a Muslim country. the proliferation of posts by a number of different users points to a general expansion of interest since the onset of the French intervention; previously there was limited interest compared to Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia; threads discussing Mali have dominated the front three pages of the Ansar al-Mujahideen forum since last week. Some posts feature links to articles or essays or announcements from groups based in Mali (AQIM, Ansar Ed-Dine especially)[1] or jihadist clerics (for example, Abu Mundhir al-Shinqiti’s new essay on Mali – interestingly titled ‘The Battle for Shari’ah in Mali’[2]). These occasionally produce interesting discussions but are beyond the interest of this post. Continue reading

Some Early Algeria Perspectives on the Sahel Situation

SUMMARY: Thus far Algerian press coverage of France’s military intervention in northern Mali (Operation SERVAL), in reaction to additional thrusts south by Mali’s jihadist coalition, is divided. Scepticism that has been prevalent in Algerian media coverage of calls for the internationalisation of the Malian crisis remains a strong thread in opinion and editorial writing nonetheless. While significant strands of elite opinion (especially at the political level) appear to have somewhat rallied to support military intervention in northern Mali. At the same time, the Algerian government’s longstanding position in favour of ‘dialogue’ and a ‘political solution’ to the crisis remain evident in press reports, government statements and scepticism over the prospects the intervention will successfully resolve Mali’s troubles persists. Comments from Algerian intellectuals (depicting the campaign as a ‘proxy war’ of the United States or as destined for failure) and highlights given to the opinions of certain French voices suggest some level of discomfort over France’s intentions and the Algerian government’s role in the crisis; this is to be expected to some extent given the background of distrust between Paris and Algiers over Mali as well as the nature of Franco-Algerian relations in general. Outside of the major dailies, some confusion does appear to exist over Algiers’s position in the ongoing struggle – a result of the government’s stinginess with public comments.

The Algerian government’s decision to allow over flight rights to the French Air Force, along with troop and helicopter movements in southern Algeria suggest Algiers will likely play an enabling role by opening airspace, attempting to block off escape routes, and intelligence sharing (the targets and locations hit by the French suggest Algeria and other countries may be assisting in this manner). The Algerians may also seek to assist in negotiating post-war planning, despite the [apparent] failure of its diplomatic efforts vis-à-vis Ansar Ed-Dine and Bamako; the timing of Malian Prime Minister Diango Cissoko’s two-day visit to Algiers speaks to Algiers’s continuing desire to impact political conditions in Mali. France’s aggressive (speaking descriptively, not legally) moves in Mali appear to have given momentum to international and regional efforts to push forward an intervention in Mali and may be bringing along Algeria at the same time. The messages coming out in certain (especially French-language) Algerian press accounts, via anonymous security officials, is that Algeria decided to abandon dialogue with Ansar Ed-Dine and others in northern Mali in favour of an immediate armed campaign when its leaders renounced non-aggression pacts they signed at Algiers’s egging and participated in attacks in Konna and elsewhere with AQIM. This post only reviews French-language media, Arabic-language media will be covered in a separate post. It looks at perspectives through the beginning of the week of 13 January. Continue reading

Early Perspectives on the Mali Crisis from a Jihadist Forum (I)

SUMMARY: The following is an excerpt from a longer write up from summer 2012; it comes from the same write up as the post ‘Creative Responses to the Rebellion in Mali: A Look at the Forum Poetry‘ (06 July 2012). This post is one of two; a second excerpt will be posted in the future. The longer paper surveys posts dealing with the Mali criss on the Ansar al-Mujahideen Arabic forum, a top tier jihadist Internet forum. The focus is mostly on user-produced content — essays, columns and debates, as opposed to content posted by the Islamist groups in northern Mali (AQIM, Ansar Ed-Dine, MUJWA, etc.) or their media groups. It describes posts on the Ansar al-Mujahideen forum from January through early August 2012 by summarising and analysing three general categories of user/member-generated content (essays, articles, discussion threads, etc.):

  • News and Analysis of Northern Mali and Its Jihadis
  • Northern Mali and Jihadi Strategy in Africa
  • Creative Responses

This post addresses several threads representative of key narratives emerging among jihadist forum users regarding the conflict there. Generally, forum members view events in northern Mali as reinforcement for their existing political and religious views. Posters appear to percieve events in the region — from the arrival of Islamist armed groups in Timbuktu and Gao to corporal punishment for violations of shari’ah – as evidence of an unbridled ‘awakening’ to jihadism in west Africa in an international context. Some debate over the origins and legitimacy of the Islamist groups in northern Mali does take place, largely due to a lack of propaganda material released through conventional jihadist Internet media outlets; late in the summer of 2012 this began to change, as both MUJWA and Ansar Ed-Dine began posting more content to the jihadist forums in the form of videos and newsletters. Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Index I: El Djeich and the Sahel, Jan.-Sept. 2012

It is well known that in Algeria lines of decision-making and even the broad outlines of specific foreign or military policies are generally opaque to outsiders. Finding and making sense of various official statements and interviews and reports about the activities, orientation and intentions of the Algerian government toward political change and instability in Libya, Tunisia and the collapse of Mali and the domination of its north by the armed Islamist groups is both time consuming and difficult; rumour and conjecture and disinformation from all quarters mingle with, distort and even illuminate the ‘truth’ for those seeking answers. What the state presents and says can hardly be taken entirely at face value but is of as much use as anything sitting in public or in the shadows. For sometime, the Algerian military has used official journals to publicise its ideological, strategic and political intentions for both internal and external audiences; these must of course be taken in context and for what they are and are not, as all sources must.

El Djeich is the premier journal for these purposes, to say nothing of technical and bureaucratic journals and bulletins. El Djeich is also relatively accessible: it is published in print and online (though issues before 2010 are harder to come by than more recent ones); most issues mentioned here can be obtained for free from the Algerian Ministry of National Defence’s (MDN) website. This monthly (published since 1963) provides the official rhetoric of Algeria’s general staff as communicated to an internal audience frequently (it is policy relevant); it also provides information on meetings between the Algerian armed services and foreign military and civilian delegations, military exercises and operations, training regimes and other elements pointing to the personnel and disposition of the moving parts that make up its armed and civilian element. It also provides context for major political decisions (for example, the February 2011 issue includes a long section detailing the rationale and implications of the lifting of the emergency law in place since the 1992 coup d’etat) and frequently provides the text of speeches, letters and messages from senior Algerian officers and diplomatic officials on various issues. It also includes interviews and articles by military and civilian subject matter experts from Algeria and abroad on various technical fields.

The spreadsheet linked below is an index of direct and indirect references to what might can be generally called the ‘Sahel Crisis’ (or crises) brought on by uprisings, rebellions, narco-trafficking and destabilising corruption in the Maghreb and the Sahel during the last two years in the journal of the Algerian armed forces, El Djeich. The first installment of the index includes the January -September 2012 editions of El Djeich, with titles (in French) and subject, section (in French), page and ‘key word’ references; the second installment will include the January December 2011 editions. These are meant to help the reader find articles by category and supplement his research. Several feature stories on criminal-terrorist activities on Algeria’s borders, humanitarian aid operations in Mali and other border regions (including Libya) give insight into the way the Algerian official discourse continues to juxtapose Algeria as a guarantor of stability and a bastion of stability in north-west Africa both to the public at large and to its own personnel; indeed the crisis in the Sahel was the cover story in October 2011, and the subject received heavy attention in the January 2011 issue as well. In the 2012 editions, comments, statements from Abdelkader Messahel, the minister delegate charged with Maghreb and African affairs are frequent and conspicuous, as are meetings between Messahel and foreign military delegates.There is an obvious emphasis on humanitarian operations within Algeria and in its immediate vicinity; at the strategic level emphasis is placed on the African Union, multilateral-regionalist ‘solutions’ and on bilateral military-military activities.

Since El Djeich habitually dedicates a large part of its articles to military sports (both within Algeria and on the continent), this section is ignored; thus in some issues one can find articles about Burkina Faso or Nigeria or some other such country of interest only in this section. These are omitted.  El Djeich is published in French and Arabic (as many official things are in Algeria); this blogger assumes readers will have as easy a time or an easier time with the French version and thus the index refers exclusively to the French language edition.

[2012 El Djeich stories RE%3A Sahel Crises - ED12 (1), PDF]

UPDATESee this sheet for 2012 El Djeich Stories on the Sahel – January – December 2012.

More on Qatar and Algeria and northern Mali: Two Reports

This post is a follow up on a previous posting addressing mainly Algerian press reporting on supposed Qatari support for militant movements in northern Mali (‘RE: Canard Enchaîné, Qatar in northern Mali and Algeria‘). It particularly looks at the involvement of the Qatar Red Crescent in this context, which was taken by some observers as evidence (or non-evidence) of supposed Qatari ‘involvement’ in the conflict. This blogger viewed this as part of Algerian propaganda on the conflict mixed with natural paranoia in Malian circles over the role of powerful external actors in the conflict. Similar reports and suspicion about the presence of the Algerian Red Crescent appear to have fit into a similar narrative, especially for those supportive of the MNLA which has put out a large good deal of messaging accusing Algeria of undermining its activities or of supporting the Islamist terrorist and rebel groups in the region. There does not appear to be support for the view that Qatar has sponsored all or some of the main rebel and terrorist groups in northern Mali; and while Algerian involvement in the conflict behind the scenes or via established links to various elements in the region is probable it is unlikely that it is using humanitarian groups as agents of influence. In both cases, though many scenarios are possible and there is no reason to discount such possibilities.

Continue reading

A Response re: Perceptions of northern Mali

Below is a guest post by Thomas Seres, author of ‘The Malian crisis seen from Algeria,’ by Thomas Seres (19 April 2012), focused on views of the conflict in Mali in Algeria’s domestic politics. This blogger wrote a response focused on the piece’s implications for discourses on Algeria’s foreign policy using the piece as a launching pad for discussions of other related issues, especially among Anglophones. This is necessary since this blogger wrote that Seres’s analysis was ‘insufficient’ in getting at Algerian foreign policy on the crisis; he fairly points out that his piece was not about foreign policy even though this blog was eager to use it as a means of discussing that issue. Seres is sharp and points to the flaws in this blogger’s analysis of his as well as points of disagreement and agreement on levels of analysis and the framing of particular problems. The response provides clarifications (especially on certain problems lost in translation, as his English piece was originally in French), rebuttals and arguments which add to the debate on these issuesHis response, in French, is reproduced, unedited below. Continue reading

Creative Responses to the Rebellion in Mali: A Look at the Forum Poetry

While West African countries weigh a military solution to the Mali crisis, Islamist group Ansar al-Din has turned to the internet to muster support.

The group’s media official, Sanda Ould Bouamama, recently held a series of discussions on global jihadist forums, including the “Ansar Al-Mujahideen Network”.

The Touareg Islamist group affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) called on “brothers and members” of the network to submit questions about the organisation’s ideology and the situation in the Azawad region.

Bouamama stressed the group’s salafist background and intent to implement Sharia.

Analysts say that the move has to do with the death of Abu Yahya al-Libi, who was responsible for recruiting fighters using modern technologies. His demise caused the organisation to look for alternatives to preserve its narrowing support base, observers say.

Ansar al-Din turns to jihadist forums,’ Magharebia, 02 July 2012.

The International Criminal Court’s prosecutor on Sunday warned Islamist rebels to stop destroying ancient Islamic shrines in northern Mali’s Timbuktu, saying it amounted to a war crime.

“My message to those involved in these criminal acts is clear: stop the destruction of the religious buildings now. This is a war crime which my office has authority to fully investigate,” Fatou Bensouda told AFP in an interview.

She said that Mali was signatory to the Rome Statute which established the ICC, which states in Article 8 that deliberate attacks against undefended civilian buildings which are not military objectives are a war crime.

“This includes attacks against historical monuments as well as destruction of buildings dedicated to religion,” said Bensouda.

Destruction of ancient Timbuktu shrines a ‘war crime’: ICC prosecutor,’ al-Arabiyya English, 01 July 2012.

The rebellion in Mali has inspired particular forum users to rejoice at the victories of AQIM, Ansar Ed-Dine and MUJWA over the Malian Army and the MNLA through poetry. Members of the Ansar al-Mujahideen forum have posted at least three poems including praise or reference to the Salafi-jihadi effort in Mali. Two of these are focused specifically on events in Mali; one posted in April 2012 praises the ‘conquest’ of Mali by Islamist forces and another posted on 02 July 2012, after Ansar Ed-Dine and its allies in Timbuktu took to their second attempt to destroy the city’s fabled Sufi shrines, widely condemned in north and west Africa (especially among Muslims) and in the rest of the world as an assault of the city’s religious and cultural heritage. These poems are reviewed here because their content and context and responses to them can be taken as indicative of political and ideological sentiment among forum members and a kind of constituency to which groups like those currently carrying on in norther Mali have sought to appeal to beyond the physical areas they control.

They also illustrate one kind of worldview that is interpreting events in northern Mali in a manner sympathetic to the jihadist groups there, largely from afar, as the majority of people in northern Mali, especially places like Gao and Timbuktu, generally lack the time,  access or spirits to churn out poems on Internet forums (this is part of why northern Mali’s jihadist groups, including AQIM and Ansar Ed-Dine have tended to make their key announcements to regional and international (‘kafir‘) news agencies such AFP, ANI, RFI and the like as this is where their target audiences get their news). So this is a way at getting a specific kind of reaction to what is generally called the ‘crisis’ in northern Mali. Continue reading

More on MUJWA: The Battle at Gao and Even More Questions

This a very brief post, reeling from the event in Gao. It makes no claims to definitiveness, and predominantly asks questions and wonders.

The week of 25 June saw the MNLA expelled from Gao by Islamist militants belonging to the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa and Ansar Ed-Dine, the latest in a string of tactical and strategic defeats for northern Mali’s pro-independence and more or less secularist rebel group. The group has been outmaneuvered at nearly every turn by Ansar Ed-Dine, AQIM and MUJWA since the armed rebellion began to move south to Timbuktu and Gao from Kidal. MUJWA appears to have deftly leveraged its local connections in Gao among local Arabs to exploit strong animosity between Songhai armed elements and the Tuareg-dominated MNLA. The MNLA’s pro-session agenda and abuses of the local population on arrival in Gao coupled with long-standing hostility between members of the Ganda Iso and Ganda Koy militia groups (elements of which were involved in atrocities against Tuaregs during previous rebellions) appears to have allowed MUJWA to direct popular discontent with living conditions in the city resulting from the rebellion onto the MNLA, marginalizing it and forcing its members in the city to take flight (resistance to the MNLA’s behavior in the city is not difficult to hard to imagine, especially given reports of the the group’s pillaging and abuses related by Amnesty and Human Rights Watch and how the group declared unilaterally declared independence for the Azawad in an area that was the capital of the Songhai Empire, without even mentioning previous conflicts in detail). The victory of Islamist forces at the Battle of Gao is, as things stand now (with MNLA forces on the run from both Gao and Timbuktu) a significant development in the conflict in Mali; armed Islamists are happily setting out to destroy sacred Islamic shrines in Timbuktu, inviting foreign jihadists (some of whom are reported to have already arrived) to help fortify their victory in Gao and guard it from an external intervention. The brief rumor that MNLA forces had killed the elusive AQIM commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar, like so many other instances where the group has attempted to demonstrate value to outsiders by talking smack about AQIM, appears to be utterly false.

MUJWA’s propaganda during the Battle of Gao displays its intelligent exploitation of local grievances. A video released to regional media (and posted to the jihadist forums) shows the group’s effort to link its narrative to Songhai nationalist feelings; the video bears the name “Askia,” the name of a Songhai emperor with strong symbol power. The video shows MUJWA’s men defending anti-MNLA demonstrators from MNLA gunfire, with subtitles carefully narrating the events; how this demonstration was initiated is unclear but it believed that it may have begun as a protest against the city’s Islamist groups but was flipped at the MNLA with the help of provocateurs or other means. The video itself is evidence of northern Mali’s Islamsits’ increasingly sophisticated media operations and use of psychological warfare against their adversaries. The video made it to the Internet only a day after the events occurred, edited and sound-tracked; how the video made it to the Internet so quickly from a city where Internet access is severely limited and sparse is an important question that needs to be answered in time. It also shows the group’s local focus; in previous posts this blogger has pointed out MUJWA’s links to Gao’s local criminal and Arab communities and the concentration of its activities in and around that city (though its armed actions have been strongly focused on Algeria, including a suicide attack in Ouargla which is important not only for its distance from the Mali border but also because MUJWA claims the attacker was from Ouargla which could mean he was an AQIM fighter who joined MUJWA when the group formed late last year or more seriously that he joined the group at some later stage). MUJWA has moved from former AQIM subcontractors, members and even drug runners to finding tactical support among members of the city’s other ethnic groups in the city, in the process projecting an image of ‘popular support’ which may or may not reflect sympathy with the Islamist groups per se as much as a perception of a common enemy. Interestingly, Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s communique setting out his version of events during the fighting in Gao makes no mention of MUJWA; he denies any sectional or ethnic ‘conflict’, specifically between Arabs and Tuaregs (which perhaps speaks to the view that MUJWA is heavily composed of Gao-area Arabs), and states that ‘we didn’t intend to declare war on any party, and neither any of the members or groups of the movement, as have been claimed by one of the leaderships of the movement, as it was an ending for this deliberate injustice, aggression and killing, which came from the main headquarters of the movement.’ [Here 'the movement' refers to the MNLA. See a PDF of the statement from the Ansar al-Mujahideen English forum here, in Arabic here and on ANI here. The events in Gao received relatively significant attention from members of the Ansar al-Mujahideen Arabic forum where three or four threads are running covering events in Gao, focused on the initial video from Gao, reports that Mokhtar Belmokhtar was leading the fighting in the city and news updates on the situation; as with most posts covering Mali on the forum, members posting are generally ecstatic and view events there as proof of the rapid progress of the jihadist movement in Africa since the beginning of the rebellion, though posts on northern Mali remain sparse if interesting and sometimes lengthy. Ansar Ed-Dine spokesman Sanda Ould Boumana will answer questions from members of the Ansar al-Mujahideen forum soon enough (a 'sticky' thread with seven pages of questions is open on the 'Events and Issues of the Islamic Ummah’ sub-forum); his answers there may clarify some of the group's relationships with AQIM, MUJWA and the MNLA and its attitude toward foreign fighters, who appear eager to travel to the area to get some of the action if we [unreasonably] judge by the comments on forums and elsewhere, though there are many reports about fighters from Algeria, Tunisia, and beyond in any case. MUJWA made a public invitation in an AlAkhbar interview to foreign jihadis last week as well.] MUJWA’s relationship with Belmokhtar appears as though it may still be auxiliary if not subordinate; the group continues military activities in Algeria and elsewhere, while being evidently focused on Gao. How do the overlapping relationships between northern Mali’s Islamist armed groups function, where does AQIM end and MUJWA begin? Where does Ansar Ed-Dine begin and AQIM end? At what point do such distinctions begin to matter, where do they fade? There is much to learn.

To the lay observer, MUJWA’s actions continues to be vexing; the group’s initial rhetoric speaks of a campaign to spread jihad in west Africa but most of its actions appear to have been against Algerian targets; it has emerged from a Salafi-jihadi organization and milieu but has used local ethno-nationalist imagery in its messaging and the group’s funders are also widely rumored to be involved with drug trafficking and other dirty tasks seemingly at odds with its ideological orientation. Questions emerge: what is MUJWA’s purpose in relation to Ansar Ed-Dine and AQIM? How thoroughly has it expanded its membership and appeal to locals in Gao and the surrounding region? Why and how does it continue to reach relatively (Tamanrasset) and absolutely (Ouargla) deep into Algerian territory, in areas widely considered to be heavily militarized and guarded by the Algerian military and security services (it should be mentioned that many of these areas have relatively high levels of security but this may be insufficient in terms of orientation or emphasis in terms of disposition or posture with respect to the current situation, especially since reporting from last year onwards indicates that major build ups took place in the southern provinces and these exact arrangements are not well known as yet)? Who are its key funders and political leaders, strategists and tacticians and to what extent to they overlap with AQIM proper and Ansar Ed-Dine? If the group is soliciting outside jihadists to Gao, how might their arrival, combined with hardcore elements in the organization itself, cause the group to overreach or make itself less welcome in Gao (especially if, as some have wondered, it begins attacking shrines in the city)? What is to be made of reports from June that MUJWA escorted convoys of the Qatar Red Crescent in Gao, and that these ambulances provided its fighters with support during the fighting in Gao ‘against the MNLA‘ (especially in light of other reports about Qatar providing support to ‘all’ the armed groups in northern Mali seen in the French and especially Algerian presses)?  As always there are at the moment more questions than answers and sustained interest.

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.

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.

Continue reading

Opportunities Taken in Mali: Ethnic Dimensions & Additional Explanations on the Emergence of MUJWA

Readers should check the TMND Twitter account for news updates on the situation in Mali, Algeria and Mauritania, where links are posted, along with occasional analysis or comments. The feed is hosted on the sidebar on this blog and also here, on Twitter.

New Armed Groups and Changing Ethnic Politics

A new militia in northern Mali, the Front de libération nationale de l’Azawad (FLNA) has emerged, opposed to both shari’ah (promoted by AQIM, Ansar Eddine and MUJWA) and independence for the Azawad in northern Mali (promoted by the MNLA); the group is being described as an Arab armed group, drawn from members of the Arab militia that fled Timbuktu following the advance of the MNLA, Ansar Eddine and associated forces; the group is led by a Mohamed Lamine Sidad (also transliterated as Mohamed Laime Sidat). The Arab ethnic focus speaks to distrust between Arab and Tuareg residents in the Timbuktu region especially. Historically, smuggling groups were often run by Arabs and Tuaregs separately and many Arabs in Timbuktu have feared being dominated by Tuaregs, and losing access to trade routes, during the course of the uprising. This highlights an increasingly important ethnic dimension to the evolving situation in northern Mali which has been ignored in some reporting that takes a macro-level view of the MNLA-led rebellion, although this is becoming less and less the case: Tuaregs are one of several ethnic groups in northern Mali and themselves are divided along tribal and caste lines; not all ethnic groups in the “Azawad” support the MNLA or Ansar Eddine; not all ethnic groups or castes support the rebellion at all. Individual members of one ethnic, tribal or caste group may support secession whilst others may not. The Songhay, Arab, Tuareg and other ethnic groups in northern Mali have not all rallied around the rebellion or any one faction. Many things remain in play.

An article worth reading, or summarising, from Al Jazeera by Mohamed Mahmud Abu al-Ma’ali, a Mauritanian journalist who also has worked with ANI sheds some light on this. “A Salafist Emirate in Azawad….Has the hour of its birth come?” the article discusses the relationships between the main armed groups in the area and the possibility of a “Salafi emirate” being established in northern Mali. The article provides interesting details on the relationship between AQIM, Ansar Eddine and MUJWA, and fits with some other reports about these groups working closely together, overlapping in objectives, personnel and even leadership. The recent announcement that Iyad Ag Ghali, who leads Ansar Eddine was naming Yahya Abu el Hammam (an AQIM man) as the leader of the Timbuktu region also fits into the basic narrative provided by Abu al-Ma’ali. Because there is suspicion of Ag Ghali and Ansar Eddine among many Arabs in Timbutuku, the group has probably allowed AQIM to take a leadership role, since the group has stronger commercial and tribal links there and its membership is more heavily Arab. Other reports have AQIM or MUJWA taking a leadership role in Gao as well.

Abu al-Ma’ali’s article begins with an overview of three of the main armed groups operating in northern Mali: The MNLA, Ansar Eddine (or Harakat Ansar ed-Din al-Salafiya) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa. The essay analyses the social and ideological background of each group, as well as its ideology.

The article describes the MNLA as a grouping of “secularists and independents” whose ideological orientation is not well understood among the general population of the Azawad. Although the MNLA claims to represent all tribal and ethnic groups in the Azawad its recruits and leadership are limited to the Idnan Tuareg.

The writer describes Ansar Eddine as a “popular Salafi-jihadi movement” (without commenting on its size), and describing Iyad Ag Ghali’s transformation from a secular leader of the 1990s Tuareg rebellion and nobleman of the Ifoghass Tuareg  into a Salafi-jihadi leader after spending time as the Malian Consul General in Jedda, Saudi Arabia. It does not mention specific religious scholars, leaders or movements associated with Ansar Eddine or Ag Ghali. “Under the eyes of the al-Qa’ida and with blessings from it, Ag Ghali founded the new organization ‘the Ansar Eddine Movement’. The writer claims that the new movement attracted “hundreds of people from the Ifogass tribe [. . .] and other Tuareg tribes’. Further, “it has become clear that Iyad Ag Ghali took advantage of his social status and the intellectual direction of Salafism to reap the fruits of ten years of work done by al-Qa’ida in this region, who have clearly been spreading the call of  Salafism among the population during that period”. Although the writer believes that al-Qa’ida “planted the seeds of Salafism in the virgin soil” of the Azawad, h writes that Ag Ghali has successfully made the population “respond to [his] call by meeting the dismensions of tribal separatism, Tuareg nationalism, and brining it harmony with the call to jihad”. The article goes on to describe the attacks on  Agelhok and Tassilit, saying that Ansar Eddine established shari’ah in these areas, “preventing women from going out unveiled…making men wear beards in the streets and with people started to talking about life there as they did about life in Kandahar on the eve of the Taliban’s victory.”

The author describes MUJWA as a dissident faction of AQIM, which emerged when leaders refused to take advice from sub-commander about setting up a separate katiba made up “especially from the sons of the Arab tribes in the Azawad”.  The writer says that AQIM’s leaders, “having learned from their experience with internal fighting in Algeria” decided to led the MUJWA men leave the organization while continuing “coordination with them, as a separate movement, allied in direction and goals.” In addition to former AQIM subcommanders Mohamed Ould Lamine Ould Kheirou (Abu Qaqa) and Malian Sultan Ould Badi, the writer claims MUJWA has “attracted dozens” fighters from the tribes in northern Mali and “the interface between jihadi groups and the Arabs of the Azawad just as Ansar Eddine has become the interface of jihadist groups and the Tuareg.”

A previous post on this blog, speculating about varied explanations for the emergence of MUJWA look at only three ways of thinking about the group. Abu al-Ma’ali’s is somewhere in between two of the three (see here). These developments also recall some of the arguments about AQIM’s appeal among Moors, Saharan Arabs, in Mauritania and northern Mali some time ago. This writer and others have speculated that Ansar Eddine would probably seek to use AQIM as a means of making headway in Timbuktu for these ethnic and tribal reasons (see this post) and Andrew Lebovich (see here) have speculated that Ansar Eddine and AQIM would seek to leverage AQIM’s links to the Arab Berabiche communities in Timbuktu and Abu al-Ma’ali’s analysis points in this direction as well.

The next section in Abu al-Ma’ali’s article, “Al-Qa’ida: ‘The Official Sponsor of the Emirate of Azawad’”, describes the evolution of AQIM and its predecessor groups in northern Mali and the Sahel from 2003 onward in terms of changes in strategy in waging jihad against the governments of the region. It describes how members of the organization’s affiliate groups in Mauritania made truces with the government there, setbacks for AQIM in northern Algeria and how it “enhanced its military arsenal and organization” in Libya in 2011. The author then declares that the group has prepared with MUJWA and Ansar Eddine to “announce” the establishment of an emirate in the Azawad.

This is followed by “Preparation for Military Control,” which describes how the the three Salafi-jihadi groups in northern Mali have plotted to control the three main cities in the Azawad. It describes how the group took towns by besieging them or by negotiating with local leaders. Ansar Eddine “waited to pounce” on the Tuareg majority city of Kidal, the author writes. Meanwhile MUJWA and AQIM moved on Gao and Timbuktu, because the groups’ connections to Arab tribes would help allay tensions between Arabs and Tuaregs that might arise “as a result of the chaos that defined Mali after the coup” of Captain Sanogo.

Opportunities — Presented and Seized

This writer has repeatedly stressed that AQIM is not fated, destined or predetermined to be the key actor in northern Mali or the Sahel generally. A particular set of relationships and power relationships between the MNLA, Ansar Eddine, their tribal and ethnic support bases and  the decaying Malian state and its leaders, agents and constituents offered AQIM and MUJWA the opportunity to engage in a new kind of activity and to assume a degree of direct they had not previously in northern Mali.

The MNLA, reportedly the largest of the armed groups in the north (and according to some accounts the better armed) was played by Ag Ghali’s faction, which kept its cards and intentions close to its chest before springing once events began to move more rapidly. They were out politicked and in the course of this phase of the struggle in northern Mali, they have been set back. AQIM, by far, is the winner at this stage in the rebellion. It leaders now stand poised to enter governing positions as opposed to marginal, criminal ones. AQIM is in a different position as a result of the rebellion, perhaps stronger than ever in northern Mali, more deliberately provocative and confident than ever — and surely more visible. This also makes its leaders more vulnerable and open to perhaps the kind of arrogant mistakes that make some men resentful, jealous or wrathful. There are still other armed factions forming and operating in northern Mali; the equation has not been worked out and already regional forces, whose capacity to roll these problems back is unclear, are prepared to enter the fray, adding new variables and uncertainties. If the men speaking confidently with the chests puffed out on Al Jazeera were targets before their “conquest” in Azawad, they surely remain so and offer ever more incentives to their enemies.

Where this group had been a parasite, feeding on state corruption and weak will. There is a view that was held and is probably still held by many that regardless of what name armed or criminal elements in northern Mali went by they were all seeking to exploit the security vacuum in the region; in the autumn of 2011 and winter of 2012 the MNLA seize the opportunity to pursue political objectives, profiting from an arms windfall, desperate socio-economic conditions and crumbling legitimacy in Bamako. This also presented other opportunities for the armed groups, in the way of exposing tribal and ethnic differences and creating a crisis scenario that also produced a race for control, physically and ideationally. Ansar Eddine and AQIM and MUJWA have been the main victors in this phase of the rebellion. AQIM’s Salafi-jihadi ideological framework was given an opportunity — as a result of Ansar Eddine’s need to fill ethnic and military priorities as it moved south and as it competed with the MNLA — to become manifest at a political level. The first step in that direction has been their active participation in taking populated areas during the advance south. This was a group whose origins had largely been as a financing operation for AQIM’s northern operations; it is now in a position to apply a political program. As their relationship with Ansar Eddine is clarified by means of deeds — the application of shari’ah, their dealings with local elites and the MNLA, the handling of the hostage situation with Algeria and so on — the area will become a target for regional militaries and their allies. As things stand there is probably no going back to the way things were before the rebellion, particularly the tolerance allowed to AQIM’s operations (and other groups involved in illicit trade, particularly those linked to the extremely lucrative drug trade) from by the Malian state which allowed the group to fester and grow. Things might have been different if at various points Malian or external actors made different decisions about AQIM, about the Tuareg file, about how to address “root causes” and in which contexts they addressed them. Such things do not just happen, they are made to happen.

A Few Good Articles

Some articles worth looking at given the rapidly deteriorating situation in Mali, from the last couple of years (not intended as an exhaustive or complete list in any way; readers are welcome to share but, please do not post such things as “this list needs to include…” or “this list is incomplete because it does not have such and so”; yes, it is short and incomplete — please share good articles, though!).

Merret. “Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb: A ‘Glocal’ Organization,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Vol. 31, No. 6, 2008.

Filliu. “Could Al-Qaeda Turn African in the Sahel?” Carnegie Middle East Program Working Paper No. 112, June 2010.

Taje. “Vulnerabilities and factors of insecurity in the Sahel,” Sahel and West Africa Club Secretariat (SWAC/OECD), No. 1, August 2010.

Guidere. “Al-Qaida au Maghreb Islamique: Le tourant des revolutions arabes,” Maghreb-Machrek, No. 208. 2011.

Lohmann. “Who Owns the Sahara?: Old Conflicts, New Menaces: Mali and the Central Sahara between the Tuareg, Al Qaida and Organized Crime,” Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, June 2011.

European Parliament  Committee on Political Affairs. “Working Document on the impact of the Libyan conflict on neighbouring ACP and EU states,” 24 October 2011.

Marret. “Al-Qaida au Maghreb Islamique (AQMI),” 11 January 2011.

Fabiani. “Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM): Implications for Algeria’s Regional and International Relations,” IAI Working Papers 11/07, April 2011.

Oris and Arenas-Garcia. “AQIM and Mauritania: Local Paradoxes, Regional Dynamics and Global Challenges,”  IECAH, 2012.

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.