Algeria Fighting a Two-Front War with Islamist Militants

Andrew McGregor

May 15, 2014

The continuing break-up of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb into northern and southern factions under rival commanders Abd al-Malik Droukdel and Mokhtar Belmokhtar has presented Algerian authorities with the necessity of fighting a two-front war against factions interested in establishing their dominance by striking security targets within the country.

Algerian Security Forces on Patrol in Southern Algeria

Algerian security operations along the border with the Kidal region of northern Mali led to the death of a dozen Islamist militants in the southern Tamanrasset region (Algeria’s 6th military district). The May 5 military operation by the Algerian Armée nationale populaire (ANP) took place in the Taoundert Commune, some 80 kilometers west of the border town of Tin-Zouatine, a regional smuggling center. Recently re-elected Algerian president Abd al-Aziz Bouteflika later claimed that the group of 20 to 30 militants were attempting to infiltrate Algeria and included elements from Mali, Libya and Tunisia, though its exact destination and purpose remain unknown (Reuters, May 7).

The operation provided some measure of revenge for the ANP after at least 11 Algerian soldiers were killed in an ambush carried out by AQIM on a military convoy in the mountainous Tizi Ouzou region east of Algiers (Algeria’s 1st military district) on April 19 (BBC, April 20). The troops were returning to base after having secured polling stations in Tizi Ouzou for the presidential election.

According to Algerian security sources, much of the seized weaponry was traced to Libyan military stocks looted by NATO-backed Libyan rebels in 2011. Arms and other materiel recovered after the clash included Kalashnikov assault rifles, anti-tank mines, mobile phones, three all-terrain vehicles, two motorcycles, satellite phones, GPS equipment, solar plates, grenades, a grenade launcher and a shotgun (Echorouk [Algiers], May 5). [1]

At roughly the same time, security forces in the Djanet district (Algeria’s 4th military district) close to the border with southwestern Libya uncovered another cache of what appeared to be weapons looted from Libyan armories, including 87 Russian S-5KO rockets, a relatively inaccurate Russian-made rocket designed for use by aircraft and helicopters but re-adapted for use from a truck-bed or a man-pad system in Libya (Algeria Press Service, May 6). Found buried in the sand with the rockets was an improvised rocket launcher (al-Watan [Algiers], May 7). A further gun battle near Tin Zaouatine resulted in the death of two militants, bringing the death toll up to 12 (Naharnet.com, May 12).

The April 30 pledge of allegiance by Mokhtar Belmokhtar (a.k.a. Khalid Abu al-Abbas) to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri (in which he called al-Zawahiri “our Amir”) and his recognition of the legacy of Osama bin Laden and Abdullah Azzam appears to be yet another demonstration of his rejection of the leadership of AQIM leader Abd al-Malik Droukdel (AFP, May 1). At the moment, Droukdel’s AQIM and Belmokhtar’s Libyan-based al-Murabitun movement seem to be engaged in a bitter rivalry at the moment, though so far their contest is being carried out through attacks on Algerian targets rather than group-on-group clashes like those witnessed between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the al-Qaeda sponsored al-Nusra Front in Syria. With Droukdel’s faction operating in northern Algeria and Belmokhtar’s faction operating in the remote south, such inter-Islamist clashes appear unlikely in Algeria.

Though the United States has opened the possibility of supplying Algeria with surveillance drones to help monitor the vast desert wilderness of southern Algeria, it has refused to supply Algeria (or other nations, for that matter) with attack drones of the type deployed by the CIA and the U.S. Department of Defense (al-Jazeera, May 9). Meanwhile, Algeria has denied a U.S. proposal delivered by Secretary of State John Kerry to set up a base for drone operations in southern Algeria (al-Jazeera, May 11).

Notes

1. Ministère de la Defense Nationale d’Algérie: “Neutralisation de terroristes à Tamanrasset / Bilan de l’opération,” May 6, 2014, http://www.mdn.dz/site_principal/index.php?L=fr#terro06052014

This article was first published in the May 15, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Berber-Arab Clashes in Algeria’s Mzab Valley

Andrew McGregor

February 6, 2014

The ongoing Berber cultural revival in North Africa has gone hand-in-hand with a new political assertiveness. In nations such as Libya, Algeria and Mali, this has resulted at times in armed clashes and protests demanding linguistic rights and political recognition of Berber (Amazigh) communities. The latest of these confrontations is ongoing in the south Algerian oasis of Ghardaïa, where Chaamba Arabs have clashed repeatedly with the indigenous Mozabite Berbers, forcing Algiers to send security forces to restore law and order in the region.

Communal violence broke out in May, 2013 following an alleged attempt by Chaamba Arabs to use forged property records to take over a Mozabite cemetery (Algérie Presse Service, May 8, 2013). The dispute degenerated into sword-wielding youth gangs throwing petrol bombs at each other in the streets of Ghardaïa, the largest city in the M’Zab Valley. Shops were also burned in Berriane as the violence spread to the other cities of the M’Zab (El-Watan [Algiers], January 26).

For years, Berbers have accused the Algerian Gendarmerie Nationale of pro-Arab bias and of even encouraging Arab rioters, charges that seemed to have been confirmed when three officers were suspended after a video emerged showing their participation in violence that resulted in the death of a young Berber (AP, January 29). According to a local Mozabite activist, “We are Algerian citizens first. We want justice and the truth to be told about what happened in Ghardaïa and that crimes be punished. Those officers whose bias has been proven need to be punished. We say no to violence, no to impunity, yes to tolerance” (El-Watan [Algiers], January 26).

Violent clashes between the Arab and Berber communities in Berriane began in March 2008 and continued at lesser levels throughout that year until mass violence broke out again in April 2009 (El-Khabar [Algiers], May 20, 2008; Tout sur l’Algerie, April 17, 2009). Heated protests against endemic unemployment in the midst of an oil-producing region were common in the first half of 2013, reflecting growing tensions in the area. Much of the violence has been carried out by youth gangs from the Berber and Arab communities.

ghardaiaGhardaïa

The fighting pits the Chaamba Arabs, who follow the Maliki madhab (one of the four orthodox schools of Islamic jurisprudence) and the Mozabite Berbers, who follow the non-orthodox Ibadite form of Islam. Ibadite Islam is a more moderate offshoot of the early Islamic Kharijite movement, whose advocacy of jihad against rulers they deemed insufficiently Islamic led to nearly two centuries of conflict in the Islamic world. The Ibadite movement retained a socially conservative attitude with an emphasis on the Quran and a more tolerant attitude towards other forms of Islam. Most remaining Ibadites are found in Oman, but smaller communities can be found in isolated oases and islands in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Zanzibar. Mozabite conservatism is now under stress from both young Mozabites who have been educated elsewhere and from new non-Mozabite arrivals in the M’zab Valley. Despite the insularity of the Mozabite community, the Mozabites have nonetheless built a commercial network linking the M’zab with the cities of the Mediterranean coast.

The Berbers of the M’Zab can trace their lineage back to the regional Berber capital of Tiaret in northern Algeria. When Tiaret was taken by the Fatimid Shiites in 933, Ibadi Berbers began to move south, first to Ourgla Oasis, and finally on to M’Zab in the early 11th century.  They were followed by other Ibadi Berbers escaping pressure from new waves of Arab tribesmen arriving from the Arabian Peninsula (particularly the Banu Hillal). Ghardaïa, the largest city in the M’zab with over 90,000 residents, was first settled in 1097. The valley is now home to over 400,000 people. The traditionally nomadic Chaamba began settling in the M’Zab oases one hundred years ago, a process that has been accelerated in recent decades by the growth of the petroleum industry, loss of pastures and government discouragement of nomadic lifestyles. The two communities have never integrated in M’Zab. Whenever communal violence breaks out, both communities typically blame the other. However, despite the sectarian and ethnic differences between the Berbers and Arabs, many residents claim the fighting is actually being fuelled by rivalries between drug smuggling networks working in the area (AFP, January 30).

The M’zab consists of seven cities about 600 kilometers south of Algiers,, including a cluster of five in the south (the “pentapolis”); Ghardaïa, al-Atteuf, Melika, Bani Isguen and Bounoura, with two other more isolated communities, Berriane and Guerrara, lying further north. The strategic location of the M’zab Valley at the upper edge of the Sahara desert made it an important crossroads for various trans-Saharan trade routes. After the arrival of the French in Algeria in the mid-19th century the Mozabites paid a tribute in exchange for autonomy but the entire region was eventually annexed by France in 1882.

Aside from the death of three Mozabites in the latest sectarian violence, the most shocking development was the Chaamba destruction of the tomb of Amir Moussa, a UNESCO designated world heritage site (Agence Kabyle d’Information, January 14). The Amir was a Mozabite leader of the 16th century who is ironically remembered for leading efforts to integrate the Arab nomads into the M’zab community in 1586 (AFP, January 30). The ancient Mozabite cemetery in Ghardaïa was also destroyed by marauding Arab youths.

On January 27, Mozabite activist Dr. Kameleddine Fekhar issued a statement purportedly speaking on behalf of the Mozabite community that demanded the departure of the Abd al-Malik Sellal government and urged a boycott of April’s upcoming presidential election. The statement complains of the “racist aggression” of police-supported militias armed with swords and knives that pillage and burn at will. Arrests followed by torture are determined solely on a racial basis, according to the statement (Siwel – Agence Kabyle d’Information, January 29). Prime Minister Sellal visited M’Zab in January when tensions seemed to be easing, but fighting erupted with new intensity only days after his departure.

This article first appeared in the February 6, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Oil Exploration and Political Stalemate Threaten to Trigger Renewed Conflict in the Western Sahara

Andrew McGregor

November 28, 2013

The decades-long unresolved conflict over the Western Sahara threatens to heat up again as Algeria and Morocco dispute the future of the region and young members of the Sahrawi Polisario Front (Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y Río de Oro –Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia al-Hamra and Rio de Oro) urge a return to arms against Moroccan “occupiers” rather than spend further decades in refugee camps located in the remote Algerian desert. A general international indifference has preserved the political impasse, in which native Sahrawis demand a referendum on independence and the Moroccan administration offers regional autonomy within a “Greater Morocco.” Giving impetus to the return of the issue to international attention is the growing Moroccan exploitation of the Western Sahara’s resources, including phosphates, fisheries and, potentially, oil and gas.  Omar Mansour, a member of the Polisario’s National Secretariat, has warned: “If the U.N. does not take this seriously to ensure self-determination and that human rights are respected, then we are heading towards a war with regional implications” (Reuters, April 22).

Northwest Africa in the Colonial Period

Background

The Polisario Front was established in May, 1973 with the intent of expelling Spanish colonialists from the colony of Spanish Sahara (1884 – 1973). It gained strength in 1975 when locally-raised Spanish troops began to desert to the Polisario with their weapons. When Spain calculated the cost of retaining the colony in a world increasingly unsympathetic to colonial projects, it decided to defy a UN resolution and simply abandon the region, ceding the larger part of the colony, Saguia al-Hamra, to Morocco, with part of the Rio de Oro going to Mauritania in the 1975 Madrid Tripartite Accords.

The native Sahrawi resistance proclaimed the independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976 in response, which Algeria soon recognized in the hope of preventing regional expansion by Morocco. The Sahrawis then launched a costly guerrilla campaign with Libyan support against both Morocco and Mauritania. By 1979, Mauritania, with limited resources and exhausted by years of fierce desert fighting, decided to abandon its claim to the southern Rio de Oro after a military junta arranged a ceasefire, though Morocco quickly stepped in to expand its own claim to the entire Rio de Oro. The Polisario Front was recognized by the UN as the official representative of the Sahrawi people in the same year. The Sahrawis’ conflict with Morocco became increasingly bitter, with both sides committing human rights abuses in a war the international community barely noticed.

Rabat offered to hold a referendum on independence in 1981, but soon withdrew the offer, deciding instead to build a huge and heavily garrisoned sand berm to isolate the Polisario guerrillas in the economically useless and uninhabited regions of the former colony. 1250 miles long and 15 to 30 feet high, the berm is equipped with sensors, landmines and surveillance equipment; any attempt to cross the berm brings out Moroccan fighter jets ready to attack infiltrators in open country. The berm separates inhabitable, resource rich land near the coast from the largely lifeless desert to which the rebel Sahrawis fled in the 1970s and 1980s.

This tactic effectively ended Polisario strikes in the Moroccan-held Western Sahara and forced a 1989 ceasefire. A 1991 ceasefire agreement called for a UN referendum asking Sahrawis whether they wanted independence or integration into Morocco. However, preparations for the referendum broke down when UN organizers experienced difficulty in determining who was or wasn’t eligible to vote from amongst the scattered Sahrawi population.  By this time, Morocco preferred the facts on the ground and has yet to conduct the referendum. Disappointed Polisario leaders have since referred to their homeland as “the last colony in Africa” (Sahara Press Service [al-Aaiun], October 31).

Growing Anger in the Refugee Camps

Cut off from the inhabitable parts of the Western Sahara, the exiled Sahrawis now live in six refugee camps housing 150,000 people centered around the Algerian town of Tindouf, home to an Algerian military base. Twenty-six thousand additional refugees live in Mauritania. The four main camps are named for towns in the Western Sahara – al-Aaiun, Smara, Awserd and Dakhla. “February 27” is a small camp and the administration is run from the Rabouni camp. There are reports of widespread malnutrition and related illnesses in the camps, which rely largely on shipments of food and other aid from the international community (Sahara Press Service [El-Aaiun], November 13).

Political development in the refugee camps has calcified, with government remaining in the hands of an old guard led by Muhammad Abdelaziz, who was elected as Polisario Front secretary-general and president of the Sahrawi Democratic Arab Republic in August 1976 and has remained in these posts ever since, ruling with the help of a small but powerful group of loyalists.

The sole political formation is the Polisario Front, a creation intended to put aside local political rivalries in the interests of presenting a common front demanding self-determination for the Western Sahara. However, this state of affairs is increasingly unable to restrain a growing number of youths (over 50% of the population in the camps is now under 18) who have never set foot in their “homeland,” see no future in the refugee camps and are growingly inclined to resume the armed conflict with Morocco in the face of the apparent satisfaction of the international community with the status quo.  As even President Abdelaziz concedes, “Patience has its limits” (Global Post, November 13).

Abdelaziz has been clear that renewing the armed conflict remains the legitimate right of Sahrawis, but is seeking to avoid new clashes with a far stronger power that could easily devastate the Sahrawi community in open warfare. Time is not working in favor of the Sahrawis holding out for independence in the refugee camps – with the gradual return of some refugees and a growing population of Moroccan migrants, the Western Saharan administrative capital of al-Aaiun alone now holds twice as many people as the combined refugee camps in Algeria.

Security in the camps is provided by Polisario internal security forces and the 6,000 to 7,000 man Ejercito de Liberación Popular Saharaui (ELPS – Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army), the military wing of the Polisario Front. The ELPS fields a variety of vintage Soviet equipment donated by Algeria and a range of equipment captured from the Spanish, Moroccans and Mauritanians. The Polisario administers its own justice and maintains its own detention facilities. Sahrawi dissidents accuse the movement of human rights abuses, including the torture and disappearance of dissidents (Sahara News, August 7).

Morocco has the upper hand in the constant propaganda warfare with the Polisario Front, disseminating its views and castigating the Polisario for alleged human rights abuses and purported ties to Islamist terrorist groups in a number of English-language websites designed to influence Western (especially American) opinion. For its part, the Polisario accuse Rabat of paying former refugees to produce lurid accounts of torture, illegal imprisonment and repression in the Polisario camps.

The Moroccan Approach

Morocco has devised a plan for regional autonomy as an alternative to holding a referendum on independence and has tried to gain international support for its claim by announcing an $18 billion investment plan intended to double the region’s GDP and create 120,000 jobs (African Energy, November 25).

Though efforts to obtain diplomatic recognition of its claim over the Western Sahara have faltered, Morocco has proceeded with the economic development of the territory based on an ambiguous legal ruling issued by the UN in 2002. Morocco inherited a major phosphates mining operation from Spain and is in negotiations with the EU to expand its fishing zone to include the profitable waters of Western Sahara. Now Kosmos Energy and partner Cairn Energy plan to begin oil exploration in a Moroccan-licensed offshore block next year. This latest development has enraged the Polisario Front, which stated that it was against “exploiting the sovereign resources of the Saharawi people without their consent while we remain under an illegal occupation… Western Sahara remains occupied as a matter of international law and so the taking of petroleum is clearly a war crime” (African Energy, November 25).