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.

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

Another Opinion

A reader, by email, on the situation in northern Mali:

Just read your blog post on the Sahel. I think the situation is a lot more critical than the Economist article suggests – particularly in Mali. Probably somewhere around 1000 – 1500 fighters returned from Libya, a significant proportion of them with weaponry and pick-ups. The majority of them appear to have been in the Libyan army for a while, another group was associated with Bahanga’s rebellion, and a third group was recruited spontaneously during February and March, although part of that recruitment also appears to have taken place through Bahanga’s networks. Of course, there are different factions among them, including Imghad who may be easier to integrate into the army through El Hadj Gamou’s offices. But a significant minority among the returnees come from the Ifoghas families that led the rebellion of 2006-09. Idnan and Chamanamas have also returned, and have been joined by deserters from the Malian army. In sum, it is quite possible that a new Tuareg rebellion is imminent; in fact, it may have already begun.

This blogger has no way of verifying the numbers here and has no firm assessment as yet.

Jeune Afrique reports that Nigerien forces ‘intercepted a large column’ of Tuaregs who had faught with Qadhafi and who were affiliated with Ibrahim Ag Bahanga before his death earlier this year. The article reports the men were hoping to join others in Mali. The deaths include thirteen Tuaregs and one from the Nigerien Army. The Nigeriens reportedly found RPGs and machine guns in their vehicles. It also reports the Nigeriens were alerted to the convoy by US satellite intelligence.

UPDATE: Tommy Miles, another well informed reader comments:

I think we should be careful here. Especially as I AM NOT in Mali, I’m very hesitant at drawing conclusions. Sources within northern Mali on all the points above are contradictory, and both Hama Ag SidiAhmed & nationalists in the south are spinning a lot of stuff that appears untrue. I also would not paint direct lines between tewsiten rebel groups/leaders (let alone proclivity to fight Bamako).

Recent statements from the Kidal big men like Alghabass ag Intallah, scion of the Ifoghas’ ruling Kel Afella, are pretty cagey. These guys, regardless of tewsit or tribe, are hip deep in Malian power politics, and don’t seem like they’re sending their cousins out to shoot up the joint. See here.

So just one of several possible points. Several reports claim only a small portion of the Libya returnees broke away to camp with Ag Bahanga’s Chamanamas fraction (to be clear a portion — one of something like 52 — of a not large tribal group) near Tin Zawatten. Most are in cantonment, and interviews suggest they’re not there to fight. They’re tired, hungry, broke, and scared. It was also reported that many of the soldiers, while tied by family to their officers who were born in Mali, have never left Libya, and speak only Arabic, neither French or Tamashaq.

Previous rebellions have been funded, if not by neighboring governments, then by rich sympathizers in neighboring countries. There will not be much cash coming from Libya or Libyans to support this. These folks will likely be destabilizing in many, potentially violent ways, but please be aware that there is a concerted effort being made in some quarters to sell this coming rebellion to outsiders. That alone makes me skeptical, even as it convinces me there is a group — small and marginalized and angry because of their marginalization from northern networks — who are planning an uprising.

RE: AQIM, UBL and Retaliation; brief thoughts

From Reuters, on AQIM and the UBL killing:

(Reuters) – The killing of Osama bin Laden raises the stakes for French hostages being held by al Qaeda allies in the Sahara, who may mount a retaliatory attack in the region.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is a mostly autonomous wing which sprung from the Algerian Salafist movement in 2007 and will be unaffected operationally by bin Laden’s death in a U.S. assault on his compound in Pakistan.

Aside from an attack on the United Nations in Algiers and hits on local armies, AQIM has mostly raised its profile through kidnapping dozens of foreigners across the Sahara-Sahel zone.

Most hostages have been released after reported ransom payments. But several have been killed by the group, which blends ideology and crime as it operates alongside local rebels, desert bandits and arms and drug-smuggling networks.

The immediate concern will be for four French hostages held in the Sahara since they were kidnapped in Niger last September.

“I think there is a likelihood of retaliation. Their fate has gotten decidedly worse,” Geoff Porter, a political risk and security consultant specializing in North Africa and the Sahara.

France said in March it would not negotiate on AQIM’s demands for 90 million euros ($134 million) for their release.

[. . .]

“AQIM will want to seek revenge, that is for sure … everyone in the Sahel-Sahara must remain vigilant,” a Nigerien military intelligence official told Reuters.

“We had better hope that his death does not have a negative impact on the talks to free the French.”

AQIM’s links with bin Laden have been mixed, with the group operating largely independent of al Qaeda central, though some of its members are veterans of Afghanistan and bin Laden directly backed the kidnapping in September last year.

A number of analysts say the group is under pressure to carry out a spectacular attack to boost its jihadist credentials.

[. . .]

A Malian defense official expected reprisals but did not believe the hostages would be killed as AQIM needed them as part of its strategy to remain high profile.

After initially profiting from the easy pickings of Westerners in remote, desert locations, AQIM has become more ambitious in its attacks.

The September kidnapping, which mostly targeted staff from French nuclear firm Areva (CEPFi.PA), was the biggest blow to Western interests while there have also been raids on the capitals of Niger and Mauritania, albeit with mixed results.

A January raid on a bar in Niamey netted two French hostages, who were subsequently killed in a rescue effort by French forces. In February, suspected al Qaeda militants tried to bomb the French embassy and an army base in Nouakchott.

[. . .]

Andre Le Sage, Senior Africa Research Fellow at the Washington-based National Defense University, said AQIM should be seen as a primarily local group but they may seek to “demonstrate their anger and their ability to operate.”

“They have local roots, connections and command structures. They have always been very autonomous. This doesn’t mean his death will have no impact but it is not necessarily going to impact their operational capability in the short term,” he said.

Aside from the comments from the military/intelligence side (but only partly) most of this is probably well educated guessing. Some thoughts and things to keep in mind from this blogger’s perspective and readers are welcome to dispute/clarify their own views as well: Continue reading

Experiments in Map-Making

Previously, this blogger complained about popular maps of North Africa as it related to AQIM, particularly in English-speaking media. Below are some rough, experimental maps that attempt to show some of the priorities discussed last week’s post on some of the politics between the various actors in the Maghreb-Sahel region. Nothing here is perfectly depicted or with total accuracy, but they are a start toward … something. [UPDATE: Another map, after the jump.]

1. In the first map represents the priorities discussed in the posts referenced above.  Algeria, Libya and Morocco are colored blue as key actors while other relevant local actors are colored tan. Senegal is not included, though it might be advisable to include that country (as well as Gambia). The black arrows indicate “geopolitical thrusts” and are highlighted to indicate priorities according to understandings of political, economic, social and military efforts as expressed in the posted mentioned above (under “intra-regional squabbling”). The yellow arrows indicate indirect influence or the independent influence of secondary actors.  Because this map is concerned with intra-regional priorities and interests, it does not include the behavior or priorities of western actors directly. The large number of vectors make it … potentially quite confusing.

Continue reading

Thoughts on “Open” Space and AQIM

The map at right is attached to an AFP article titled “Freeing Sahel Hostages by Force is too Risky — Experts“. It depicts the travel warnings issued to citizens by France (and other foreign powers) in the wake of recent AQIM activities, especially in Niger and Mali. It makes obvious some points that have been made here less overtly: Continue reading

Mauritania v AQIM in Mali: Summary of a report on part of the weekend raid

Taqadoumy has published an account of the events around the Mauritanian Army raid against AQIM in Mali this past weekend (though fighting continues). The account is interesting and worth Arabic-speakers reading. It is based on the testimony of an unnamed source (“from northern Mali”), possibly military (see below). For non-Arabic speakers a snap rendering of the highlights are below (hopefully they can be compared with other accounts soon; readers are encouraged to link or post similar information in the comments section): UPDATED Continue reading

Going forward

One of the themes on this blog has been that one cannot look at North Africa strictly through the lens of terrorism or counter terrorism and that a meaningful understanding of the area comes from a broad and deep comprehension of the areas political, social and economic context. The emphasis is on political and social, more than economic. Many intelligent people look at development economic and do work that is more valuable than anything written here about politics or religion or culture. But politics matters too, and not enough is written in English by not enough people about politics in Mauritania or Algeria. So this is a blog about politics, very fundamentally. Any discussion about terrorism/counterterrorism proceeds out of political discussion, as war proceeds from politics.

Amel Boubekeur possibly writes some of the most well informed and conscious analysis of politics in Algeria in the English language today. Always attune to the daily struggle and the calculus of Algerian politics, she summed up the fundamental problem of Algerian politics today for the BBC:

They [the elite] are closing all doors and spaces for peaceful contestation – that’s one of the very worrying consequences of this succession scenario … More and more, I can’t see any other forms of rupture that are not conducted through violence.

James Burnham had it that the first purpose any elite is to preserve (if not expand) its own privilege and power. Studying politics in North Africa supports that view. Looking at American policy in North Africa forces one to think: terrorism cannot come first and that there is a trend going in this direction. There is a need for low profile, low cost and high impact policies that build toward more functional political life in the region; the ultimate success of such efforts is in the hands of the local leadership class alone. But they and their people could use some help.

A Congressional Research Service report on Al-Qaeda affiliates from 5 February concludes its section on AQIM by noting that American policy in the Sahel must evolve to a point where it “strikes an appropriate balance between countering extremism and addressing basic challenges of governance, security, and human development, which some view as contributing to the rise of extremism.” This is the most important question in designing the American policy toward AQIM and other security issues in the Sahel and Maghreb, including drug and human trafficking. The terrorism issue does not stand on its and and cannot be “fixed” or combatted on its own. Perhaps the most intelligent blogger writing about the Sahel in English would seem to share this view.

People live in Mauritania and Algeria and Mali and Tunisia and Niger; and they lived there before there was any such thing as AQIM and they will live there long after AQIM is gone. And there were smugglers, traffickers, bandits and hungry children there before AQIM, too, as we all well know. American involvement there cannot be productive if it is conducted with AQIM or terrorism as its primary concern. It must: Continue reading

T. Miles puts TMND in his place

See Tommy Miles’s critique of my recent post on Newsweek’s Sahel piece, here and here (as well as my responses). Miles is known to this blog for work on the Tuaregs and Mali and Niger. His comments are especially relevant because they offer a strong account of the terrorism issue in Mali and Niger, showing that AQIM and other disruptive Islamist tendencies are significantly weaker outside the Arabophone areas of the region. He also highlights the positive elements of the Johnson piece, admittedly under-severed in my piece. He corrects my post where it is wrong and adds valuable insights, in the spirit of the pretentious bit of Latin on the sidebar.

Newsweek on the Sahel: no news and no use

In the 20 November edition of Newsweek, Scott Johnson presents an unfortunate account of terrorism in the Sahel. Johnson sees fit to present readers with an article that brings little enlightenment. The central thesis of “The Terrorist Myth in North Africa,” is to debunk the notion that al-Qaeda “affiliates are growing stronger in other parts of the world, including across the Sahel.” Johnson does not prove this, merely arguing that it is unlikely that a group like AQIM would grow to pose a threat to the international interest in the Sahel. Continue reading

Worth reading

Here are some stories on the region worth checking out:

  • As Algeria grows more Islamic, nightlife suffers,” 8 August, 2009. The premise of the article is somewhat wrongheaded, as its title suggests. Algeria has been Islamic for some time. That its nightlife is struggling is only slightly newsworthy but does show, as the author intends, that “reconciliation” has meant acquiescing to demands of popular Islamist (not “Islamic”) sentiments.
  • France’s Algerian shadow,” Aljazeera English, Veterans, August, 2009. An interesting segment on the memory of the Algerian War of Independence and its post-war maltreatment of Muslim harkis (Algerians who fought for the French; who were relentlessly driven from their homes, hacked up, or forced into dreary exile in France, or quiet shame within Algeria; the term is taken to mean “traitor,” the opposite of a patriot, the moral antithesis of the moudjahid or chahid). The program is interesting, interviewing harkis, Algerians, French vets and the like. French and Algerian viewers may take issue with its framing.
  • Qadhafi’s Time in the Limelight: Impact on U.S. Interests,” Dana Moss (WINEP), 28 August, 2009. Interesting summation of Qadhafi’s 40th anniversary, his upcoming visit to the United Nations (and his desire to pitch a tent in New Jersey), the release of Meghrahi, and so on and so forth. According to Moss, the Brother Leader heads “an opportunistic regime,” that “may no longer be an enemy, but it is a very unreliable friend.” She notes that the US has little to offer Qadhafi, though he may embarrass his hosts with typically ridiculous speech-making, or work contra US efforts in Africa should he feel that American engagement does not sufficiently match his liking.
  • Libya Marks 40-Years of Qaddafi,” Aljazeera English, 1 September, 2009. Describes the ghoulish glitz and kitch of Qadhafi’s anniversary celebrations, asking few tough questions, quoting planners who compare the endeavor in relation to an “Olympic opening ceremony” and outsiders who remark on how little Libya’s massive oil wealth has benefited its puny population of but 6 million. An homage to misrule.
  • Gaddafi coup celebrations expose Moroccan land dispute,” Jerusalem Post, 2 September, 2009. The Moroccan delegation stormed away from Qadhafi’s party because Mohamed Abdelaziz, president of the Saharawi SADR, was present. A set from Morocco’s security forces was to participate in the processions, but apparently no more. This mini-row is a wonderful illustration of the whole escapade’s stupendous stupidity. The celebration was also attended by Mauritania’s Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, his first foreign trip since the elections.
  • Moines de Tibéhirine : « une affaire franco-française », selon Ouyahia,” TSA, 2 September, 2o09. I received an email asking why I was not writing more about the controversy around the killing of the monks at Tiberhirine. The reason is that it is of great real consequence in the region. It holds significance in Franco-Algerian relations, and represents an effort from the French end to influence things on the Algerian side, but has more meaning for the French than the Algerians. Algerians very much see it as an attempt to undermine Ahmed Ouyahia, whom the French are said to dislike and who is thought to be a likely follow up to Bouteflika.
  • Larbi Belkheir hospitalisé à l’hôpital du Val-de-Grâce en France,” TSA, 2 September, 2009. Larbi Belkheir, once a major player in the generals’ regime during the 1990’s, before being shipped off to obscurity as Ambassador to Morocco, has suffered from complications from lung cancer for some time. This week he was sent of to the Val-de Grâce military hospital in Paris, after returning to Algiers earlier. Since his return to Algeria in 2008, his responsibilities were taken up by Boumediene Guenadi, the Deputy Ambassador. He has been dropped in a recent shuffle of Algerian diplomatic postings and the post in Rabat has yet to be filled.
  • La France et les USA rapatrient les familles des employés du pétrole,” Taqadoumy, 2 September, 2009. US and France bring home the families employees of oil companies in Mali and Niger. The State Department Reavel Warnings and Travel Alterts for Mali, and Mauritania have been updated with greater urgency. Numerous American aid and development projects (including the Peace Corps) are being scaled back or brought home from the Sahel, a reaction to increasing AQIM activity.
  • Going back a few months, the Algerian-American community in Washington, D.C.  has been grumpy since the new Algerian Ambassador, Abdallah Baali, failed to put on 5 July (Independence Day) celebrations for the Algerian community in the area, as per tradition. Local Algerians complain that while the embassy put on 4 July celebrations to mark American independence, it failed to mark its own national holiday, and that the two events could have been merged, if finances, time or whatever other possibilities were the concern. At the same time some feel disconnected from the new Ambassador, whose “style” they see as being rather different from the more personalized one of his predecessor. At the same time, personal feuds splintered celebrations elsewhere on the east coast, where multiple celebrations went on in the same city (in more than one city). In some places, communities economized and celebrated American and Algerian independence on one day, simultaneously. It said the embassy has taken note of the Washington Algerians’ concerns.

More meaningful blogging will soon commence.

Brainstorming the Geopolitics of AQIM’s Moorish Appeal

Some short weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal filed a report regarding the spread of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The report was timely, coming on the heels of Mauritania’s first suicide bombing and an uptick in the group’s attacks in Algeria and its activities elsewhere. The report noted that its newest recruits were coming especially from the peoples of northern Mali and Mauritania, people linked by their Arabic dialect (Hassaniya) and kinship. The report notes that AQIM is attempting to recruit both “the young Muslims of the region — white ones and black ones,” but seems to indicate that it is having greater success with the “white” Muslims from the Mauritanian Arabophone majority and the Arab minorities in Mali and Niger. See here for alle’s criticism and commentary on the WSJ piece.

While AQIM was founded on the infrastructure of the GSPC, an Algerian rebel group whose leadership hailed almost entirely from the northern, sedentary and urban metropole, its metamorphosis in the Sahara has meant that its most recent classes of foot-soldiers have been local to that region, thus complicating things not only for those interested in combating it, but also for its leadership. The situation raises important questions as to the extent and meaning of AQIM’s appeal to young Arabs in the Sahel, mostly of bidhani (lit. “white”; more eloquently called “Moorish” in English) stock. Before this can be addressed it must be said that while, like many nomadic and semi-nomadic populations (including their non-Arab Tuareg neighbors), the Arab bidhan have a traditional social division between “warrior” and “zawiyya,” or religious tribes, with the former traditionally responsible for the protection of the latter. While this means that there is a martial tradition among the tribes in the region, it does not mean that their traditional Islamic canon, based on the Maliki madhhab is at all proximate to the variety of Salafist-ideology carried by AQIM. While there is a history of the bidhan practicing martial jihad against other local Muslims and non-Muslims (mostly to the immediate south), the local mentality discourages violence against Muslim leaders and views outside ideologies and Arabs with, if not suspicion, then certainly with a grain of salt (or, perhaps more fittingly, “sand”). The tendency away from violence against Muslim rule (one might call it fitnaphobia) is stronger among Moors than Tuaregs for a whole complex of reasons that are best explored in another instance. Furthermore, the bidhan/Moorish groups outside of Mauritania must be viewed in the context of a minority population that, much like the Tuareg, views their sedentary, southern, Francophone and black central governments (e.g. Mali and Niger) with suspicion, as antagonistic elements threatening to their way of life as pastoralists. This has been a fundamental element in the tension between the Tuaregs of Mali and Niger and their central governments since independence till the present; it has also been a bone of contention with the Moorish communities, who have often held affections or sympathies with Mauritania, the Moorish dominated state presently suffering rule-by-general and a rather active AQIM infection. Analysis of AQIM’s appeal to these populations must necessarily, then, consider the place of historically pastoralist/semi-nomadic peoples in the political economy of the Sahel, an area where settled and roaming people are both by and large Muslim.

In any case, AQIM may appeal especially to the Moors of the Sahel for the following reasons, though this is surely not an exhaustive or perfect survey. The reasons are, as anywhere, complex, but are basically logistical, situational and fiscal in nature. [ This writing does not propose to assume that the Moorish communities in the Sahel are at all predisposed toward collaboration with AQIM on a communal or tribal basis any more than others. It intends to focus specifically on one element of the problem broadly, and if it seems the emphasis is too specific on the particular issue it is not to discount other important questions or challenges. ] Readers ought to keep in mind the dutiful and wonderfully useful analyses of AQIM’s appeal in the region here and here. Continue reading