Several factors are worth considering with respect to the politics around AQIM (and some other things in the region; this is a data dump and is not polished or refined):
Terrible uses of terrorism: Local governments whose positions and legitimacy are otherwise questionable or whose regional ambitions are in need of a boost are using the “terrorism card” to sure up domestic support (a common outside enemy helps create group feeling) and to gain support from key foreign backers. In Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz’s case, as Mohamed Mustafa Ould Badreddine (of the opposition UFP) mentions in the video above, there is a General whose elite unit was tasked specifically with fighting terrorism in the period leading up to 2005. His experience should be of some use in combating AQIM. But as Badreddine says, “he chose to make a coup rather than fight al-Qaeda”; by 2008 he had made essentially the same choice. The failure to take AQIM serious in the 2005-2008 period is largely to blame for its proliferation inside of Mauritania and the many embarrassments it caused the Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdellahi government — while General Ould Abdel Aziz and his cohorts were directly responsible for handling those problems. This is a point that has been made on this blog previously. It should at all times be well considered that military regimes in the region hope to use AQIM or any uprising against them as an excuse to obtain western political support and monetary and military aid. Ould Abdel Aziz own use of American money (large parts of which have disappeared; certainly that part of the money is not being used by the military at all) is a good enough example of how this posturing can feed corruption and reward poor leadership. But as the saying goes, the world is what it is.
Intra-regional squabbling: Early on after the 2008, Ould Abdel Aziz received Morocco’s endorsement and support; as early as winter 2009 Yassine Mansouri (head of the DGED) was lobbying Washington personally and urging for leniency in the face of generalized American skepticism over Ould Abdel Aziz’s intentions. The Moroccans, who have been generally insulated from AQIM (save for a few notable and tragic incidents), fear that Algeria’s positioning (see the next point below) vis-a-vis the “War on Terrorism” (“violent extremism” nowadays) might undermine their privileged status as the chief American ally in North Africa. As the Mauritanians, Nigeriens, Algerians, Yemenis and Tunisians know well the threat of terrorism can be the key to enhancing or improving a state’s relationship with the Untied States or the EU. It can lead to increased aid for a bloated or bored military; it can provide financial support that helps grease the regime’s wheels and — as the Algerians know quite well — can give a country in a slump a little bit of its mojo back on the world stage. The Algerians have taken leadership roles in regional counter-terrorism initiatives and for now are the most technically advanced of the countries in the Maghreb-Sahel militarily. The minor-power conflict in the Arab Maghreb has tended to operate on the Morocco-Algeria-Libya axis. Tunisia has been too small and too northwardly-oriented to be much of a force (though it used to love the notion of Maghreb-unity); Egypt has been close to entirely irrelevant in Maghreb-Sahel politics since at least the 1960s. The Moroccans view Mauritania as “their back yard”; because the Maghreb is practically a tri-polar system (there are are only five states in the region to boot), the Algerians and Libyans have the same opinion. The Libyans frequently join the Moroccans in moves against Algeria, forming alliances overtly or supporting like-minded proxies.
While Libyan support for Ould Abdel Aziz, for instance, has been more conspicuous, the Moroccans’ backing has been just as constant though not as extravagant (because they lack Qadhafi’s cash money) because they viewed 2008 as an opportunity to make inroads into Mauritania which both they and the Algerians see as being critical to their positions on the Sahara question. The Algerians, for their part, opposed Ould Abdel Aziz in 2008 generally because they saw him as a Moroccan client but have tried to woo or bully him into accepting their line on several issues since he came to power. Recent spats between Algiers and Nouakchott over the handling of AQIM are related to this element of the Morocco-Algeria rivalry for influence in north-west Africa. The Algerians and Moroccans have somewhat different aims in the larger picture; the Moroccans interest is more limited to the Sahara issue, generally where the Algerians share that intrest but have other aims in the Sahel related to energy and prestige.
The Libyans have more grandiose ambitions and are willing to wager more on players and outcomes farther south than the Algerians. They hope to act as a bridge between the Arabs and the Africans and to be recognized as a power broker on the continent. The recent Afro-Arab Summit at Sirte is a precise example of this, at which the Libyans hoped to deliver Arab actors to African actors to one another, cushy declarations (the Arab “apology” for slavery) and humanitarian initiatives came out to make Libya appear as the agent of good will between the two sets. The caucus between the Maghreb-Sahel states (Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Algeria and Niger) moderated by the Libyans was meant for the same end and to insert Libya more directly in the ongoings in the region. The body-language in a picture clipped from that meeting is telling as well: the Malians and Algerians are focused somewhat intently on Gen. Ould Abdel Aziz, almost looking past the Libyans. Ould Abdel Aziz, the client, is looking hard at Qadhafi who sits with the posture of a conductor. The patron-client relationship between Ould Abdel Aziz and Qadhafi remains strong, sometimes to the detriment of Ould Abdel Aziz’s relations with other Arab allies, such as the Qataris.
The recent back and forth between the Mauritanians and the Algerians is an attempt by Ould Abdel Aziz to entrench Morocco’s support, in part a response to the Algerians’ having lashed out at him for cooperating with France’s conspicuous operations in Mali (circa mid-September). Algerian officials pilloried, for example, the recent AQIM raid in Mali and picked on the Malians’ “incompetence” after one of their convoys was ambushed by AQIM. This is linked to other comments about AQIM acting as an agent of “neocolonialism” in Africa, referring to the increasingly visible involvement of the French. The end sum is the Algerians are concerned that the Mauritanians and the Malians (whom they believed to be their partial client until several months ago) are working to erode their recent semi-hegemony in Maghreb-Sahel by linking up with the Moroccans and the French. In Mali, Mauritania and Niger, especially, there is skepticism and some fear of the Algerians as power hungry and overly ambitious and so these little states hope to avoid exclusive Algerian domination of their policies toward terrorism and, in some instances newly found resources (which SONATRACH would love to take a greater stake in, and has in some places) by bringing in or strengthening ties with Morocco, Libya and France. They hope gain more humanitarian, military and economic assistance — which the Algerians can only give so much of — as well. But in Mauritania, these maneuvers are not universally accepted. There is entrenched resentment of Morocco in much of the political class and a greater appreciation of Algerian technical and humanitarian aid than for Rabat’s. Practically all politically relevant Mauritanians are wary of following Morocco, but as the two regional powers continue to spar it increases the Mauritanians’ value to both parties and there is some chance that minds could change for tactical reasons.
The recent conference at Bamako, featuring the G8 countries and practically all the regional actors except Algeria. But it revealed the exceptional distrust between Algeria and Mali and conflicts of interest within and between the region’s militaries. The main point of agreement regionally seems to be opposition to direct foreign intervention, though indirect or exceptionally subtle ones seem to be well accepted by the Algerians, Mauritanians, Malians and Nigeriens. Yet leaders in the region do not trust any one actor enough to bandwagon with any particular state, be it Algeria, Libya or Morocco. For political reasons they will bounce back and forth between the poles when they believe they have the most to gain with one over the other. Morocco’s efforts to further politicize the issue, and the reactions it is causing and are likely to cause in Algiers, will add no operational value or political legitimacy to regional or international efforts to fight AQIM where it is the most problematic (Mali, Niger, southern Algeria and Mauritania). The problem has generally been isolated from the Algeria-Morocco rivalry that has debilitated all other major collective action efforts in the region; those interested in addressing AQIM or other security problems in the Maghreb-Sahel (namely the United States) stand only to gain by keeping it that way.
Foreigners and destabilizing problems besides “violent extremism”: Though the United States is known to be involved in Mali in particular (as well as in Mauritania, Niger and Algeria too) its efforts have been less flamboyant than France’s, whose participation raids and search activities have linked anti-terrorism to the west more explicitly than local regimes would like. The Algerians see this as especially problematic for tactical reasons — they want western assistance and aid without western footprints. Because Niger and Mali are weak states with identity problems in their northern regions they hope to avoid sentiments or allusions to occupation or oppression that might send their Tuareg and Moorish populations back into rebellion. They understand very well that the situation is precarious and that they have tighter limits than their larger neighbors in terms of financial, military and social capital to expend on counter terrorism. Domestic political pressure and basic responsibilities demand that governments guard their sovereignty, realities force them to rely in part on others to achieve this. But foreign support alone cannot mend internal grievances created by colonial borders, neglect and ethnic discrimination and past repression that still colors perceptions of central government efforts in places like Niger and Mali in particular. Furthermore, climate change — a fact of life in the Sahel — is beyond anyone’s control, given states’ divided attitudes on how to deal with it generally (the poor countries have even less agency here than most despite being most affected by it). Strong coping mechanisms are largely beyond the means of states in this part of Africa. Conflicts of all kinds will persist so long as locals in the Sahara especially are displaced from their livelihoods in pastoralism, farming and tourism. The exception, in part, is where mining (often predatory and corrupt) is concerned which is contributing to rapid aquifer depletion and exacerbating desertification and draining the “swamp” — not of terrorism or terrorists but people. Some efforts are being taken locally with international support, but these require significant dedications of resources from local governments and international entities. The need for broader, more even development needs to be included more aggressively in western policy options related to “combating violent extremism” in the region.
Military options have often done damage to the fragile relationship between frontier people and the central governments in Mali and Mauritania; for instance, men picked up in northern Mauritania in the days after the September raid claim the Mauritanians beat and tortured them (twice daily). The Mauritanians have taken local men into custody following most of their operations in Mali, frequently releasing them afterwards. This tests the patience of local people and risks destabilizing the fragile relationship between northerners and southerners in Mali, while adding an additional Mauritanian variable. Former Malian Tuareg rebels, according to El Watan, are in a mood to move against AQIM and drug smugglers — even clashing with the later recently. There are serious questions about how reliable such efforts will be and how they will impact the overall situation vis-a-vis the central government in Mali in particular. In all this the relationship between various Tuareg factions and their central governments as well as Algeria and Libya (and even Burkina Faso) deserve some study. How effective foreign military aid has been in strengthening the capacity of the weakest states in the region deserves careful consideration as well.
Russians: That the Algerians somewhat detest France’s (and other “western” countries) ostentatious involvement in the region is also expressed in the manner that prominent Algerian newspapers covered Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to Algiers on 6 October. Western reports were mostly interested in what Medvedev and Bouteflika were doing in respect to hydrocarbons; Algerians were more concerned with armaments questions. Algeria is one of Russia’s largest arms markets. Though the Russians arrived with a large delegation of businesspeople interested in things other than weaponry — especially telecoms, energy and infrastructure — the fact that more than half of the $2 billion in trade between the two countries is in arms set the tone for the meetings. Newspapers were quick to note the large number of senior officers trained in Soviet and Russian academies and staff colleges, the fact that the vast majority of Algeria’s arms are of Russo-Soviet origin and that the Algerians hope to obtain advanced night time surveillance equipment from Moscow. To that end Ech-Chorouk noted that Algeria (with Nigeria and South Africa, supposedly) are looking for “African” solutions to the terrorism problem, which the Russians are enabling. (Le Soir also mentions the the Russians will be in direct competition with European suppliers for naval equipment, though.) The Algerians want to be taken seriously as a regional hegemon, as any cursory reading of the Algerian press in the last two months will show. And they are in no mood to have AQIM or anybody else making them out to western stooges for armaments or war-fighting. This is where their ancient relationship with Russia comes in. They feel they need both the appearance and fact of being able to more fully monitor and control the southern borders; the Russians can help.
It should not go unmentioned that there were many rumors of Algiers attempting to obtain American equipment for similar purposes earlier in the decade, which came to little and what did come out was some controversy over surveillance link ups that connected Algeria to American and Israeli watch satellites. In terms of “hardware,” though, the Algerians could never have expected much from the United States, which has always been hesitant to sell lethal weaponry to Morocco’s arch-rival (the Algerians do have many American transport aircraft used by for airborne and humanitarian missions, though), and it is unlikely that they ever expected anything in the way of combat equipment as so much of their infrastructure is from the old Warsaw Pact and Russia anyway. As late as 1993 Russian military advisors were attached to Algerian units. Though the Algerians shifted to European (especially Ukraine and Belarus) and Chinese supplies in the middle 1990s, they stepped up Russian purchases after 1996 (also the year Algeria formally recognized the Russian Federation). The 2006 arms deal (which also wiped out a huge amount of Algeria’s Soviet-era debt), which was meant to help modernize Algeria’s aged material supplies, illustrated the mutual importance of the Russia-Algeria relationship. Some have made much of Bouteflika’s early visit to Washington and the great deal of attention Algiers got from the US after 9/11 as a sign of a new era in Algerian-American relations. There is perhaps more cooperation and more communication on military and intelligence matters than ever, to say nothing of in the energy sector. This has still done nothing to erode the importance of Russian arms to Algeria which has Moscow overshadowing Washington quite blatantly. High-level visits between Algiers and Moscow have only grown in the last decade, partly the result of a strategic-cooperation agreement signed in April 2001 (pre-9/11). The Algerians complained about the quality of Russian fighter jets — infuriating Moscow — mainly as a means of demonstrating their independence from Moscow to Europeans (there is also a sense that the Russians sometimes need to be reminded of the real nature of the relationship) and as a way of demanding slightly more advanced systems. The Russians are also concerned that the proposed Trans-Sahara Gas Pipeline (which may be dead or at least dying by now) will create more competition for Russian gas in central Europe. The whole logic of the project is to provide Europeans with a graduated alternative to Russia for gas, particularly Germans and Italians and the little countries in between. The Russians’ interest in Libya and Nigeria comes from this fear as well. Africa is Europe’s escape route from Russia. (This has been mentioned this blog before, especially with reference to Germany.)
The Algerians hope to stand to gain from playing the Europeans (and even Americans) off of the Russians and vice versa to maximize their potential to receive assistance and investment from both sets; Russian interest in investing in Algeria points to this too. If Osrascom’s Algerian subsidiary ends up being sold to Russians, as some reports say is in the cards, some clique within Algeria’s governing caste will end up benefiting quite sumptuously — the end result of the World Cup qualifier drama.