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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AQIM Links Dump, Very Short Thoughts

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

More to Read on Algeria, etc.

The always insightful Crossing the Green Mountain provides a fine list of works worth reading by Louis Martinez and Omar Carlier. (Also view their AQIM bibliography, full of terrific readings in English and French and the rest.)

Luis Martinez

Martinez, Luis. “L’enivrement de la violence: “djihad” dans la banlieue d’Alger.” L’Algérie dans la guerre. Sous la dir. de Rémy Leveau (1995): 39-70

Martinez, Luis. “Youth, the street and violence in Algeria.” Alienation or integration of Arab youth: between family, state and street. Ed. Roel Meijer (2000): 83-105

Martinez, Luis. “Le cheminement singulier de la violence islamiste en Algérie. (Abstract: The particular path taken by Islamist violence in Algeria.).” Critique Internationale 20 (2003): 165-177;180

Martinez, Luis. “Why the violence in Algeria?.” Journal of North African Studies 9 ii (2004): 14-27

Martinez, Luis. “Why the violence in Algeria?.” Islam, democracy and the state in Algeria: lessons for the Western Mediterranean and beyond. Ed. Michael Bonner, Megan Reif & Mark Tessler (2005): 14-27

Martinez, Luis. “Autoritarisme et usage de la violence: état d’une recherche.” L’autoritarisme dans le monde arabe. Autour de Michel Camau – Luis Martinez. Coord. A.Boutaleb, J.-N.Ferrié, B.Rey (2005): 82-90

Omar Carlier

Carlier, Omar. “La guerre d’Algérie et ses prolégomènes: notes pour une anthropologie historique de la violence politique.” Naqd 4 (1993): 32-44

Carlier, Omar. Entre nation et jihad. Histoire des radicalismes algériens, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 1995.

Carlier, Omar. “D’une guerre à l’autre, le redéploiement de la violence entre soi.” Confluences Méditerranée 25 (1998): 123-137

Carlier, Omar. “Guerre civile, violence intime, et socialisation culturelle: la violence politique en Algérie (1954-1998).” Guerres civiles: économies de la violence, dimensions de la civilité. Sous la coord. de J.Hannoyer (1999): 69-104

Carlier, Omar. “Civil war, private violence, and cultural socialization: political violence in Algeria (1954-1988).” Algeria in others’ languages. Ed. by Anne-Emmanuelle Berger (2002): 81-106

Carlier, Omar. “Violence(s).” La guerre d’Algérie: 1954-2004, la fin de l’amnésie. [Ed.] Benjamin Stora et Mohammed Harbi (2004): 347-379

Fast Thoughts

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

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

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

[. . .]

The tenth anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks is a depressing thing. Relatives and friends were lost in and as a result of the attack. These people are missed. And communally there are many lost opportunities that passed by in the time afterward. These are reminders of both how much and how little agency humans have. Ten years after we still have to ask ourselves if we found “justice” for these attacks — did the two large and costly wars bring Americans closer to that objective? Are our government structures and intelligence services more rational? Did we respond to the attacks justly and rationally (as opposed to “understandably given the circumstances”)? Has the country moved beyond “Suck. On. This.“? Certainly, some would like to pretend we have. We often say that 9/11 brought out the best in America and Americans; there is some truth to this. The articles in the middle-brow papers and periodicals commemorating the tenth anniversary are more sober than those in years past, likely a result of the misery of the financial crisis and the fanaticism running amok in the Congress. This is notable. Your blogger heard a commentator challenge the cliche that “9/11 changed everything”; indeed, it changed somethings but major national trends — hyper-partisanship, living beyond our means, widening income inequality, the erosion of quality public education, sectarianism, hostility toward science, an inflated sense of national purpose (“American exceptionalism”), etc., etc. have continued unabated by the sense of unity that came in the wake of the atrocity. (There is the addition of moral panic, though, around terrorism and Muslims.) This was interesting to hear. It is time to remove the blinders and think clearly and cooly. Perhaps that time was actually five or seven years ago; but given where things stand in America (and how people behave generally) it seems “now” is always the time to adjust course and behave more reasonably and rationally.

Jumping to Conclusions RE: Norway

There was much consternation when many international media outlets assumed the Norway terrorist attacks this weekend were perpetrated by al-Qa’eda, lone wolf “Muslim” terrorists or the like. Most considered this a reasonable possibility give the structure of the attack in the city of Oslo. Of course it was soon clear: the Norway attacks were carried out by a conservative, anti-Muslim, self-described Knight of Templar who happened to be a native Norwegian pumped up on anabolic steroids. The Islamist angle then became: a horrible idea.

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AQIM on Mauritania/Mali Fighting

AQIM released a communique (text here) claiming to have killed “more than one hundred and ten apostates” in various recent attacks in Algeria and Mauritania. It consists most of a list (bullet points) of attacks and engagements involving its fighters in recents months and weeks, the vast majority of which took place in Algeria; one bullet point is devoted to activity in Mauritania.

The bullet point dealing with Mauritania/Mali describes AQIM’s version of events in Mali (at the Wagadou Forest) and at Bassiknou. It reads as a refutation of media and official accounts of the battles which may regarded as both significant routes by the Mauritanian (and Malian) armed forces and significant improvements in Mauritanian performance against AQIM since their major defeat at the hands of AQIM in September 2010. It describes the failed Bassiknou raid, led by Mauritanian Khaled al-Chinquitti (Khalid al-Shinqiti) (more on him here and below) only briefly. It dwells more on the battle at the Wagadou Forest, focusing on weapons and other materiel the group claims to have taken from its Mauritanian Army opponents (of which there was apparently either too much to carry because the supplies were so plentiful or because they faced heavy losses/shortages in terms of trucks). As might be expected it downplays AQIM’s losses in men and materiel (it makes no mention of air strikes or bombing from the Mauritanian Air Force) and leaves out details; it also includes no body counts for the Mauritanian side. It also makes no mention of the Malian Army. Its tone is triumphant though bitter and defensive lacks detail in contrast with previous communiqués following contact with the Mauritanian Army. It reads as a refutation of media and official reports on the engagements in Mali and Mauritania. Here is a short summary: Continue reading

Thurston on AQIM Confrontations; Profile of a Mauritanian AQIM Fighter

1. Alex Thurston, friend of the blog and author of the indispensable Sahel Blog, writes of the recent battles between AQIM and the Mauritanian and Malian armed forces:

First, both incidents have given rise to massive speculation and rumor (for those who read French, see the Malian news aggregation site Maliweb for daily examples) about the nature of the battles and the precise contributions of Mauritanian and Malian forces.

Second, it is possible that there is an escalation in the intensity of the fighting – yesterday’s battle featured, on the Mauritanian side, use of aircraft, and the character of the fighting this summer feels fiercer to me than other recent incidents, such as a clash between Mauritanian forces and AQIM in January/February of this year (on the other hand, the attack on Lemgheiti, Mauritania, by AQIM’s predecessor organization in 2005 was at least as intense as yesterday’s attack).

Finally, observers, both in the region and in Western powers, are watching carefully to see whether AQIM’s capabilities have increased due to alleged influxes of Libyan weapons, and whether Sahelian militaries are getting closer to neutralizing AQIM. TheChristian Science Monitor quotes an unnamed Western official in Mali questioning whether the political will exists in Sahelian capitals to prosecute the fight against AQIM to the full extent. That may be the case. Yet it seems that Mauritania and Mali – as well as AQIM – are gearing up for sustained military conflict.

Nouakchott’s posture has historically been somewhat more aggressive than Bamako’s, which had been a source of tension between the two countries on AQIM. The Malians were originally hesitant for a number of reasons including on the one hand fear that their fight against AQIM triggering wider internal conflict, especially with the Arab (Moorish) and Tuareg communities in the north where AQIM has attempted to graft itself into (with some limited success) and a lack of desire to poke at overlapping smuggling networks (which include AQIM, local populations, members of the security forces, etc.) that are likely to include members of the armed forces and government in Bamako. Pressure toward greater cooperation and firmness from Europe, America and Algeria have likely been key drivers in recent cooperation. Recent offensives appear significantly more successful than those in 2010 and from a western perspective are probably preferable to the largely reactive posture taking through 2009.

2. A piece of interesting information: Al-Akhbar has a report on one of the leaders of the Tuesday attack, a al-Mimoun Ould Aminou [translit.?]. Ould Aminou was “left Mauritania in 2004 before finishing university to join the camps of the armed group in northern Mali. According to al-Akhbar’s source, Ould Aminou was born in the nineteen eighties in Taganit. It describes his “radicalization” and how it created friction between him and his parents and family. The report says Ould Aminou appeared in several AQIM videos after heading to the camps. He was allegedly close to the men who carried out the attack in Tavregh Zeina and AQIM’s Nema suicide attacker (from last year). He goes by “Khaled al-Chinquitti” (Khalid al-Shinqiti) and helped lead the raid on Tuesday “in order to prove the maturity of the Mauritanians in the armed group (AQIM)”. Others killed included Anas al-Jazairi (the Mauritanians claim he was a major leader) and Abdelhalim al-Azaouadi (al-Azawadi). Taqadoumy reports that the Mauritanian Army was tipped off to Tuesday’s attack by French intelligence. (More on the raid in a post later today.)

Round Up RE: AQIM/Army Skirmish at Bassiknou, Mauritania

Here is a quick round up of stories and reports from the Mauritanian media on the brief AQIM attack on a Mauritanian Army base near Bassiknou on Tuesday. The attack appears to have failed, and the Army claims to have killed ten and twenty (depending on the report) AQIM men being killed by the Mauritanian Army, nine taken prisoner by the Mauritanian Army. It is the first clash between Mauritanian forces and AQIM since the fighting at Wagadou Forest last week. As always readers are encouraged to post their information and thoughts in the comments section.

UPDATE: See Alex Thurston’s analysis of recent clashes between AQIM and the Mauritanian/Malian armed forces.
Continue reading

Update Round Up RE: Mauritania/AQIM clashes in Mali

This post is an update on the summary of news items on the fighting in northwestern Mali between the Mauritanian and Malian militaries and AQIM. It includes thoughts on the impact of Mauritanian operations in Mali on relations between the president and the military and comparisons of official, media and individual accounts of the fighting and its outcome.  Continue reading

Round Up RE: Mauritania/AQIM Clashes in Mali

What follows are summaries of Mauritanian newspaper accounts of this weekend’s clashes between Mauritanian and Malian forces and AQIM in northern Mali in the Wagadou Forest area, as of the morning of 26 June. The major take away seems to be that the Mauritanians destroyed an AQIM built (or being built) in the the area and suffered an unclear number of casualties in the process. Some accounts, quoting Mauritanian or Malian military sources, claim higher or lower casualty numbers; others describe an ambush rather than an attack (the Mauritanian Army claims it attacked the camp, while some reports say they were hit unexpectedly). The Mauritanians used air power and wet with heavy weapons (it is unclear what kind) and land mines by AQIM’s men. Some reports say AQIM suffered heavy losses but was able to flee the area with its wounded and dead, leaving some behind. A solid count (or range) on AQIM casualties is not forthcoming from Mauritanian, Malian or other reports thus far. The group is likely to release a statement soon enough. The Mauritanian president returned to the country early from a visit to Pretoria, South Africa where he was working with the AU panel on Libya.

Readers are encouraged to post similar summaries/accounts and any information they have in the comments section from their own sources as information becomes available (please also offer corrections where summaries may have been negatively affected by translation). Continue reading

RE: AQIM in Tunisia

A reader asked for comment on AQIM and Tunisia. At the moment only limited comment is possible given the lack of extensive public information, the difficulty in assessing the validity of confessions of individuals captured and claiming to be members of AQIM and the complexity of the group’s presence in Tunisia and Libya in light of the Libyan uprising and the NFZ there. Below are very brief thoughts attempting to integrate these problems taken form notes from the last two weeks on the Algerian position on Libya and the arrests of AQIM suspects in Tunisia. Readers with more information/knowledge on the issue are encouraged to comment and correct. Continue reading

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

Re: Bin Laden

This blog tends not to deal with problems like bin Laden. But his elimination cannot go without comment. A few thoughts on the death of Usama bin Laden:

  1. This will have only limited impact on al-Qaeda operations and activities, given bin Laden’s limited role beyond general strategy and propaganda. Al-Qaeda affiliates receive limited funding, training and armament from from bin Laden and his core group. Al-Qaeda is deliberately decentralized so that it can function after suffering a blow such as this one.
  2. Bin Laden had more credibility and appeal in general than his senior lieutenants (Zawahiri especially) and affiliate leaders whose pronouncements and activities alienate their target audiences in the Muslim and especially Arab worlds. Zawahiri statements are interesting only to those already drawn into jihadi ideology whereas bin Laden had the ability to speak about al-Qaeda’s cause in terms more appealing to general audiences, drawing in multiple reference points that the average person might be able to relate to. Bin Laden could take events, key words and political ideas that appealed to the broad palette of Arab grievances with the United States, the colonial background, regime oppression, and religious militancy far more effectively than Zawahiri whose attempts at this end up more narrow and off-putting to even those with an equal amount of distaste for American foreign policy. This is a major blow for the internationalist appeal of al-Qaeda if the group is unable to produce a similarly charismatic leader from its own ranks. Bin Laden’s death will continue al-Qaeda’s marginalization.
  3. Bin Laden’s death will have an important psychological affect on Americans (particularly given the popular and public response) and their overall view of the War on Terrorism, which is likely to have some impact on attitudes toward the Afghanistan conflict, change the political framing of national security problems for the opposition and those concerned with the conduct of war.
  4. This is a good reference point for President Obama to begin scaling down the American presence in Afghanistan. One wonders whether this will end up being the case given the [of course evolving] domestic political climate and other (mainly economic) factors.
  5. President Obama will likely benefit from this in opinion polling and his chances at re-election are increased. In such a case point three becomes more likely during the second term. The consequences of this are of course uncertain.
  6. Bin Laden’s popularity and influence in Arab politics should not be overstated. Current unrest in the region has little to with bin Laden, al-Qaeda or its affiliate organizations, which have struggled for relevance as the political discourse and popular priorities zoom past them. Issandr el-Amrani puts it well:

The radical-theological option that Bin Laden represented as a solution to the state of the Arab world has long been discredited. It was discredited before it even began, in that it was a result of the failure of the violent Islamist movements of the 1970s-1990s era. Also discredited, or at least on the ropes, are the pro-US “reformist” option of the “moderate” Arab regimes. Moderate, in the way Saudi Arabia or Mubarak’s Egypt was, and reformist, because they are interested in changing to survive, not making a radical break. But the people spoke and they don’t want reform, they want rupture.