From the viewpoint of Algiers, it seems that some very threatening clouds are gathering, once again, around the country’s frontiers. Algerian leaders have become increasingly concerned about the growing chaos in Libya and the spillover of violence into Tunisia over the past two years. They have also been concerned for much longer over the complex crises in Mali as well.
These crises have led Algiers to contemplate organizing a regional response to ensure the security of North Africa and the Sahel, amid mounting pressure from Europe and America for Algerian cooperation in resolving the problems of regional security.
Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra has juggled these issues with great adroitness and dexterity to ensure that the country finds sufficient common ground with these would-be partners to preserve its independence. However, the challenge is becoming ever more acute as these complex security crises deepen.
The Libyan background
The security threat from Libya originated, of course, in the war in 2011. Algeria itself was always opposed to the NATO-led intervention and even more strongly opposed to the parallel attempt to remove the Muammar Qaddafi regime from
office, since it strongly disagrees with interference in the internal affairs of other states.
The aftermath of the civil war there has amply justified those fears, for the Libyan state has disintegrated into two impotent and mutually hostile governments and a mass of militias asserting localized territorial control but failing to provide effective security.
Efforts by the United Nations to construct a third unity government for the whole country have so far been unsuccessful and, in the ungoverned space that now constitutes much of Libya outside the major urban conurbations of Benghazi and Tripoli, extremist groups have been able to rampage unrestrained.
Two are of particular concern to Algeria, not because they necessarily threaten its national territory directly, but because of the threat they pose to the country’s eastern neighbour, Tunisia.
One, Ansar Al-Shar’ia, an Al-Qaeda affiliate, has been present in Libya since the civil war. Several of its units have been deeply involved in the fighting for control of Benghazi against the Libyan Dignity forces of General Khalifa Haftar. But, more importantly, the group has also been implicated in Tunisia in the deaths of two leading politicians in February and July 2013, and in the growing unrest for the past three years along the country’s borders with Algeria in the Jabal Cha’amba and Jendouba regions.
The other major worry was the sudden appearance of Daesh (the Arabic acronym for ISIS) in Libya. It first appeared in the eastern town of Derna in 2014 but was soon expelled, only to re-emerge in Colonel Qaddafi’s old stronghold of Sirte at the end of that year. Over the past year, its numbers have expanded rapidly and it is now believed to have enlisted 7,000 men with increasing reinforcements arriving from the Middle East as the movement tries to relocate away from Syria and Iraq.
The area it controls has expanded, too, extending more than 300km along Libya’s central coast and it has now appeared at the western town of Sabratha, close to the Tunisian border with Libya, where it has been implicated in training the extremists responsible for the attacks in Tunisia at the Bardo museum in March 2015 and at a beach hotel in Sousse last June.
This has caused considerable anxiety in Algiers and to the Algerian army, which is constitutionally prohibited from fighting outside Algeria’s borders. However, the army has been collaborating closely with Tunisia’s security forces in trying to contain this border threat.
Algeria is also concerned about its common border with Libya, but this is very carefully controlled and the army regularly intercepts arms convoys trying to move westwards and southwards toward the Sahel.
Indeed, border monitoring has increased dramatically since January 2013, when Libya was the launch-point for a major attack on the Tigentourine gas-processing facility at In Amenas, just across the border, which cost 39 foreign hostages their lives when the Algerian army restored control. It was a major terrorist incident, of a kind that Algeria thought had ended with the reduction of its indigenous problems of extremist violence ten years ago, at the end of the civil war.
The crisis in Mali
The Tigentourine crisis was also linked into the security situation in Mali. It was organised by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a dissident leader of the extremist group Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM), operational in the region.
Belmokhtar had been anxious to show the main group, led by his rival, Abu Za’id, that he was far more capable of attacking Algeria than Za’id was.
The linkage here goes back to the latter days of Algeria’s own civil war. In 1997, one of the major groups challenging the Algerian state, the Armée Islamique du Salut (AIS) abandoned its struggle and agreed a truce with the Algerian army. Meanwhile, the other group, the Groupes Islamiques Armés (GIA), began to disintegrate.
Out of the remnants of the GIA emerged a third group, the Groupe Salafiste de Predication et du Combat (GSPC), dedicated to confronting the security forces. It was located in Kabylia, Algeria’s mountainous Berber heartland on the Mediterranean coast, just east of the capital.
In 2003, concerted pressure by the Algerian army forced the GSPC to relocate a significant part of its forces southwards into the Sahara, where it linked up with the long-standing Al-Qaeda militant, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who was also deeply involved in the smuggling networks of the Sahara.
In early 2003, the group was at it again. They kidnapped 33 European tourists visiting archaeological sites in the desert, ransoming them three months later for a rumored five million euros from European governments. The group then retired to the desert stronghold of Taoudenni, an old salt mine in Northern Mali, where local tribal notables protected it.
In 2006, it declared its affiliation to Al-Qaeda and renamed itself AQIM but retained its links to its parent organization, the GSPC, still located in Kabylia albeit profoundly enfeebled by military and police action.
Five years later, as Tuareg mercenaries flooded back from Libya, determined to carve out Azawad, their own autonomous region in Northern Mali, through the Mouvement National pour la Libération d’Azawad (MNLA), AQIM split into three factions.
These included the Algerian-dominated AQIM itself, the Mauritanian – and Sahelian-controlled Mujao (Mouvement d’Unicité et du Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest) and a Tuareg Islamist movement, Ansar ad-Din.
They piggybacked on the Tuareg initiative to take control of Mali’s northern towns of Timbuktoo, Kidal and Gao with an attempt to construct their own state there.
In January 2013, just as Belmokhtar broke away to attack Algeria once again, the three groups swept suddenly southwards, hoping to capture Bamako, the capital of Mali, to establish an Islamic caliphate in the country.
That, in turn, set alarm-bells ringing in the French capital, which considers the security of the Sahel a French responsibility, not least because of interests in the uranium mines of Niger, Mali’s eastern neighbour.
It was Algeria’s desire to achieve a negotiated solution between the Tuareg and the Malian government. And it was reluctant to engage with France over regional security.
The urgency of the crisis compelled Algeria to give France over-flight
rights as the latter sent in troops to protect the beleaguered Malian government. Despite hopes for a short-lived intervention, French forces are still in Mali, as they try to root out AQIM and its affiliates.
Algeria now finds itself, perforce, collaborating over regional security not only with France, but also with the United States through Africom, the American military command for Africa, based in Stuttgart.
Both countries wish to contain extremism in the Sahara and the Sahel, and see Algeria as their natural partner, even though Algiers would much prefer a more distant relationship, given its traditional preference for mediation and conciliation, together with its strong belief in state sovereignty.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has attempted to encourage Algeria’s neighbors to enter into a pact to address Sahelian security and has mediated successfully between the MNLA and the Malian government. The problem, however, is that, for effective responses to the security threats it faces, it needs to reconcile with Morocco.
However, given Moroccan intransigence over its occupation of Western Sahara and Algerian reluctance to open the border between the two countries, that reconciliation may take a very long time to achieve.