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