New Papers on Algeria & Mali

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

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

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

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

A Way of Thinking About Algeria and Mali

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

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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

Rolled Up in Azawad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Back from a minor hiatus

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

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

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

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

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

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

AQIM Link Roundup

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

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