Revolutionary Roadshow: Libyan Arms and Fighters Bring Instability to North and West Africa: Part Two: Libyan Arms Enable New Tactics and Strategies

Andrew McGregor

February 9, 2012

Some observers have noted a change in Tuareg tactics in the current rebellion in a switch from their usual adherence to guerrilla methods to attacks in strength and attempts to seize and hold settlements in northern Mali. The effort to carve out a new Azawad nation may well be fuelled by the rebels’ possession of superior weaponry obtained during the Libyan collapse (Le Republicain [Bamako], January 30). The assaults on small towns in the north may be a means of testing the strength of the Malian army before the Tuareg rebels mount attacks on larger centers like Gao and Timbuktu.

However, not all Mali’s Tuareg fighters have joined the insurrection. Malian military operations in the north are currently under the command of Colonel al-Hajj Gamou, a loyal Tuareg officer who has served in the Malian army since 1992. A loyalist unit of Tuareg in Kidal Region led by Muhammad ag Bachir has also backed government security forces by arresting a number of individuals suspected of supporting the MNLA, including Colonel Hassan ag Fagaga, a veteran Tuareg rebel leader who had threatened to restart the Tuareg insurgency if Bamako did not fulfill the conditions laid out in the 2008 Algiers Accord (Jeune Afrique, January 24; El Khabar [Algiers], July 15, 2010; see also Terrorism Monitor, September 2, 2010).  Other former Tuareg members of the Libyan military resettled at Menaka were reported to have joined in efforts to repulse the MNLA attack of January 17 (Jeune Afrique, January 24).

The rekindling of the Tuareg insurrection in Mali appears to be provoking a resurrection of the notorious Ganda Koy and Ganda Iso militias, loosely organized self-defense units formed from the black African communities (primarily Songhai and Fulani) in the largely Tuareg and Arab northern provinces of Mali, a development that threatens to turn the northern conflict into a more general civil war. The Bérabiche Arabs of northern Mali are also reforming their militias, which have cooperated with government offensives against Tuareg rebels in the past (Le Combat [Bamako], January 31).

The Response from Algiers

Algeria responded to the Tuareg attacks in Mali by raising its security alert to the highest level. Algiers has long been unhappy with Mali’s failure to secure its northern regions, which now provide bases for the Saharan offshoot of the Algerian-based al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (, January 20; al-Quds al-Arabi, January 20). Le Pouvoir, the Algerian political/military/business elite that controls most aspects of Algerian life, fears instability above all else and has tried to shut down any effort within Algeria to emulate the revolutionary unrest in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. A series of so-far uncoordinated riots in Algerian cities has no doubt alarmed Algeria’s elite. Algiers fears that this wave of unrest is intended to pave the way for foreign intervention in North Africa, but many Algerians worry that the government’s inability to extinguish AQIM’s low-level insurgency is a means of justifying Le Pouvoir’s tight grip on Algerian politics and maintaining high levels of spending in the military and security services.

Unable to rein in AQIM, Algiers has chosen to fight AQIM’s shadow, sentencing the commander of AQIM”s Sahara/Sahel branch, Abd al-Hamid Abu Zeid (a.k.a. Muhammad Ghidr) to life in prison, a sentence applied in absentia. Abu Zeid is the leader of the Tariq Ibn Ziyad unit of AQIM, which uses kidnappings and murder as their main tactics. Another Algerian court is still hearing the in absentia case against AQIM commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar for the deaths of two Algerian soldiers (NOW Lebanon, January 22).

Algeria, which played an important part in resolving previous Tuareg insurrections in Mali, has indicated that it views AQIM and the MNLA rebellion as “two different issues” and has undertaken mediation efforts between the rebels and Bamako. Prior to the outbreak of the latest Tuareg rebellion, Algeria attempted to aid Malian counterterrorism efforts by sending a small group of military trainers to provide instruction in anti-terrorist techniques (L’Aube [Bamako], December 22). However, the recent withdrawal of Algerian military trainers from Mali and a freeze on further shipments of military equipment was intended by Algiers to force a political settlement to the current conflict (El Khabar [Algiers], January 28). An MNLA spokesman said that the Tuareg attack on Tessalit came only after Algerian military personnel were withdrawn as the attackers did not wish to involve Algeria in the fighting (Reuters, January 27). Algeria is also aware of other less obvious threats to Mali’s security and recently shipped 3,100 metric tonnes of food to address Mali’s increasing difficulty in feeding its population (L’Independant [Bamako], January 31). 

Algeria is facing parliamentary elections in May in which Algerian Islamists are expected to do well as an alternative to the existing power structure under which unemployment and housing shortages have flourished (Reuters, January 31).

The Response from Bamako

With presidential elections on their way in April, President Amadou Toumani Touré appears to be ready to apply the military option to the Tuareg problem, particularly since he must now deal with the Tuareg insurgents without recourse to the mediation of the late Colonel Qaddafi. Bamako also appears prepared to take extraordinary measures to save the situation in the north. Mohamed Ould Awainatt, a member of northern Mali’s Arab community and one of the main suspects on trial in the notorious 2009 Boeing 727 shipment of cocaine to northern Mali that ended with the traffickers torching the aircraft, was suddenly and quietly released from detention on January 19. His release in a case that severely embarrassed Mali was reportedly obtained as the result of a demand from a group of young Arabs the government of Mali was trying to enlist in the fight against their Tuareg neighbors (22 Septembre [Bamako], January 23; AFP, January 23).

Timbuktu MapIn Timbuktu there are constant rumors of an imminent attack on the city and widespread fear of a Tuareg attack on the city’s Arab community (L’Independent [Bamako], January 24; Le Pretoire [Bamako], January 30). In the capital of Bamako there is talk of Western conspiracies, French “hatred” of independent Mali, malicious plots devised by Mauritanian generals and the alleged operations of foreign spies working hand-in-hand with al-Qaeda to divide Mali. Some Malian media sources have suggested that France and possibly other Western nations had persuaded many Tuareg fighters to abandon Qaddafi’s forces during the Libyan uprising with promises of support for an independent Azawad (Nouvelle Liberation [Bamako], January 24; L’Aube [Bamako], December 22, 2011). Local media is almost unanimous in its calls for a hardline approach to the latest Tuareg rebellion, with one columnist even advocating the use of nuclear weapons in Mali’s barren north (Le Pretoire [Bamako], January 30; L’Aube [Bamako], January 30; Le Potentiel [Bamako], January 31).

Libyan Arms Flow in All Directions

The availability of looted Libyan arms may allow new armed groups to form in West Africa with greater ease than usual. One such group may be the Jamaat Tawhid wa’l-Jihad fi Garbi Afriqqiya (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa – MUJWA), led by Hamada Ould Mohamed Kheirou (a.k.a. Abu Qumqum) and dedicated to the spread of Shari’a throughout West Africa. According to a video released by the movement, MUJWA broke away from AQIM due to the domination of the movement’s leadership by Arab militants from Mauritania and Mali. MUJWA appears to be a black African Muslim reaction to the traditional domination of all al-Qaeda branches by Arab Muslims, and their video has a specifically African character by using Hausa and English as well as Arabic to praise a number of important West African Muslim empire builders of the 19th century (AFP, December 22). In a video released in early January, Kheirou said his movement had declared “war on France, which is hostile to the interests of Islam” (AFP/NOW Lebanon, January 3). Though the group has only carried out one kidnapping operation so far, the spread of Salafi-Jihadist militancy into relatively unaffected West African Muslim communities would be an alarming development. Just by kidnapping European aid workers from a Polisario camp of West Saharan refugees in Algeria, MOJWA has helped inflame the difficult security situation in the region. Polisario operatives are now searching for Kheirou and his three European hostages.

In light of the tense political situation in Egypt, news that Egyptian border guards had prevented smugglers from bringing a shipment of machine guns, sniper rifles and ammunition into Egypt through the Libyan Desert was an disturbing development in Egypt’s unfinished revolution (MENA [Cairo], January 24; January 18).


The West’s poorly considered support of a spontaneous Libyan rebellion lacking common aims, ideology or even basic organization has secured the present reality. Clearly, the restoration of security in Libya is an essential first step in stabilizing the region. Unfortunately, the ability of Libya’s Transitional National Council to either project force or promote conciliation seems to be diminishing rather than increasing. If Libya is unable to make progress on disarmament and unification issues, the stage may be set for the emergence of a strongman ready to enforce his will on Libya, perhaps in the form of an ambitious young colonel with fresh ideas about remaking the Libyan state….  but then we’ve already been down that road. Nonetheless, both the West and Africa must now confront the security fallout from the rash decisions made a year ago.

This article first appeared as a Jamestown Foundation “Hot Topic” Special Commentary, February 9, 2012.

Algeria Seeks New Russian Attack Helicopters for its Campaign against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

Andrew McGregor

June 17, 2011

To deal with a number of new and longstanding security threats, Algeria is seeking the purchase of an unspecified number of new Russian-made Mi-28NE “Night Hunter” attack helicopters. [1] The Mi-28NE is the export version of the Mi-28N, an all-weather, day and night operable two-seat attack helicopter roughly comparable to the American-made AH-64 “Apache” attack helicopter. Besides  a continuing insurgency led by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Algeria’s northeastern Kabylia mountain range, Algeria is making major efforts to secure its vast desert interior, where trans-national smugglers and AQIM gangs have made huge profits by taking advantage of the relative lack of security in the region. As well as continuing tensions with its western neighbor Morocco over the status of the Western Sahara and the presence of anti-Moroccan Polisario guerrillas in camps in southern Algeria, Algiers must now also contend with a possible spillover of the Libyan conflict into the Sahara/Sahel region.

The Mi-28NE

According to a director of Russia’s Rostvertol, a state-owned manufacturer of attack helicopters, a commercial proposal has been delivered to Algeria and the company hopes a contract will soon be signed to allow delivery of the new helicopters in the period 2012-2017 (Interfax/AVN, June 6; RIA Novosti, June 6). Algeria currently operates 36 export versions of the Mi-24 attack helicopter, an older and now largely outdated variant. The helicopters are routinely used for fire support in combined ground-air operations by Algeria’s Armée Nationale Populaire (ANP) and the Gendarmerie Nationale against AQIM guerrillas (see Terrorism Monitor, April 23, 2010).

The Mi-28N is primarily designed to hunt and destroy armored vehicles, but is suitable for a range of other activities, ranging from reconnaissance to engaging ground troops or even low-speed air targets.

The helicopter purchase is part of a trend in Algerian arms purchases that began in May 2010, when Algiers announced it would make drastic cuts in its arms purchases from the United States in favor of buying similar equipment from Russia. Algiers cited long delays in delivery times, pressure on U.S. arms sales to Arab nations from Israel and dramatic differences in the cost of similar arms systems between the two suppliers (El Khabar [Algiers], May 24, 2010; RIA Novosti, May 24, 2010).

So far, Venezuela, which is still awaiting delivery, is the only other foreign buyer of the Mi28-NE, though India has indicated interest in a possible purchase. Turkey had intended to buy 32 used Mi-28 helicopters from Russia in 2008-2009 as a stop-gap measure until deliveries of 52 Agusta Westland A-129 Mangusta (“Mongoose”) attack helicopters could begin (Vatan, December 22, 2008; RIA Novosti, December 22, 2008).  The proposed purchase of Russian helicopters came after Washington refused to permit the sale of used American attack helicopters from U.S. Marine inventories after disputes over technology transfers prevented U.S. companies from bidding on the main Turkish order that was eventually filled by Italy’s Agusta-Westland. In time, Washington reversed itself, allowing the sale of AH-1W Super Cobra helicopters from the U.S. Marines to Turkey in late 2009, leading Ankara to cancel further talks with Russia regarding the Mi-28 purchase (Sunday Zaman, October 25, 2009).

Work on the Mi-28 began in the 1980s, but was reduced to a low priority after the Soviet Air Force chose to go with the Kamov Ka-50 “Black Shark” as its new attack helicopter. Work resumed in earnest in the mid-1990s with the debut of the Mi-28N night-capable helicopter, though development was again delayed until 2003-2004, when the Russian Air Force announced the Mi-28N would be Russia’s standard attack helicopter of the future.

Though it is a dedicated attack helicopter without a secondary transport role, the Mi-28N has a small cabin capable of carrying three additional individuals. In Russia this is used mainly for rescuing downed helicopter crews, but it is possible Algeria could use this capability to deploy small numbers of Special Forces operatives.

The Mi-28N has considerable firepower, including:

  • 16 Ataka-V anti-tank guided missiles in combination with either ten unguided S-13 rockets or 40 S-8 rockets (shorter range but greater numbers). The Ataka is available in high-explosive or thermobaric variants for different missions.
  • Eight Igla-V or Vympel R-73 air-to-air missiles with infrared homing warheads.
  • Two KMGU-2 mine dispensers.
  • A 30mm Shipunov turret-mounted cannon equipped with 250 rounds.

The aircraft’s normal range is 270 miles with a cruising speed of 168 m.p.h. and a maximum speed of 199 m.p.h. Optional fuel tanks can be mounted under the stub wings, allowing for extra range in the open spaces of the Algerian interior. The helicopter is also equipped with passive protection systems to aid the survival of downed helicopter crews.


1. The NATO reporting name is “Havoc.”

This article first appeared in the June 17, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb Strikes Algerian Military in Kabylia

Andrew McGregor

April 28, 2011

While the Saharan wing of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has dominated regional headlines in the last year, the larger core wing of AQIM operating in the northern forests and mountains of the Kabylia region has recently stepped up its activities, killing dozens of soldiers, gendarmes and civilians in a series of attacks this month.

Tizi OuzouAlgerian Soldier in Tizi Ouzou

A major AQIM raid targeted a guard post of the Armée Nationale Populaire (ANP) near the town of Azazga in Tizi Ouzou province on the evening of April 14/15. Local residents say the attack began at 8PM with a series of mortar explosions, followed by bursts of automatic rifle fire. Soon after the assault began, government helicopters arrived and delivered heavy fire against a nearby forest to which the assailants had fled. Other helicopters evacuated the dead and wounded to a military hospital in Algiers (Le Temps d’Algérie, April 17).

An AQIM communiqué released on April 20 claimed responsibility for the attack, saying that one mujahid was killed during the raid: “We will never forget the blood of our martyrs and we will reply to all those among us who have been killed by the evil apostates [i.e. the Algerian military]” (Ennahar [Algiers], April 20). Official sources said the militants had suffered heavy losses in the attack (Le Temps d’Algérie, April 27).

Militants have begun using roadside bombs along the RN 24 highway in Kabylia, recently re-opened after being closed for security reasons for 20 years (al-Watan [Algiers], April 13; La Tribune [Algiers], April 7). Two gendarmes were killed in Kabylia by a roadside bomb on April 27 (Reuters, April 27).

In the town of Lakhdaria, surrounded by the mountains of Kabylia, a remote-controlled bomb planted in a restaurant killed one gendarme and injured another. It was believed the bomb was meant to target Chinese nationals who frequented the restaurant, but the arrival of the gendarmes led the terrorists to detonate the device early (L’Expression [Algiers], April 18).

Algerian security forces are engaged in constant operations to eliminate the elusive cells of AQIM. Four AQIM fighters were killed on April 24 in a large military operation carried out in the Khenafou mountains of Tizi Ouzu province. Authorities said intensive intelligence work had led to the arrest of the guide of a column of roughly 20 AQIM militants. The guide was about a day and a half ahead of the rest of the group and his information allowed security forces to prepare and ambush for his comrades (Tour sur l’Algérie, April 26). Algerian authorities had earlier reported the death of eight AQIM militants in Tizi Ouzu and neighboring Boumerdès province on April 15 (L’Expression, April 18).

Algerian troops and fighter jets are also monitoring the southern Saharan region for AQIM militants crossing to and from Libya. Seven militants were reported to have been killed by border guards with shoot-to-kill orders on April 20, three of them while trying to enter Libya (al-Khabar [Algiers], April 20).

This article first appeared in the April 28, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb Says Mujahideen Will Defend the Tunisian Revolution

Andrew McGregor

February 3, 2011

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has responded to the overthrow of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali with a statement calling on Tunisians to complete their revolution and beware of the machinations of the “Jews and Crusaders” (al-Andalus Media/al-Fajr Media Center, January 26).

Tunisian RevolutionThe statement describes the deposed Ben Ali as a taghut, an unjust ruler who rules by laws other than those revealed by Allah. While praising the Muslims of Tunisia for removing Ben Ali (“You have revived hope in a people in despair!”), AQIM warns that the “taghuti system remains” and the beneficial results of the revolution remain prone to “theft and circumvention.” While Ben Ali has fled to Saudi Arabia (a favorite target of al-Qaeda), his “apostate regime of tyranny and corruption” remains in Tunisia’s “constitution, laws and institutions.” According to AQIM, the battle against kufr [disbelief] and transgression will be a long one, and this is only the first round.

AQIM describes the Tunisian revolution as “a devastating earthquake which reached the throne of the taghut Ibn Ali,” who fled in humiliation and disgrace. The revolution was a warning to other Arab rulers, an earthquake that “was felt in each and every capital city in the Arab world, frightening its rulers out of their wits and preoccupying their minds and speech.”

AQIM sees a role for armed Islamists in consolidating the revolution and defending it from America, France (“the Mother of all Evils”) and the infidel West. France in particular is singled out by AQIM, which has had a number of confrontations with French troops in the Sahel/Sahara region in the last year:

France is the one who supported Ben Ali till his last breath, helping him to such an extent that they even offered him their expertise in quelling the revolution. The French Crusaders are the ones who supported the Taghut regime of the criminal generals in Algeria, and they are the ones who help them to kill and suppress the Muslims there to this day. Based on these facts, we have not the slightest doubt that America and France will play the same filthy role in the future of Tunisia, unless they are repelled by the strikes of the mujahideen, the progeny of Yusuf bin Tashfin [a reference to the 11th century Berber king of the Almoravid dynasty who ruled North Africa and Spain].

More generally, the statement also warns that all intelligence agencies in the Arab World are “apparatuses of repression” whose role is to defend Arab rulers from their subjects: “For this reason, they will never think twice about committing the most atrocious crimes or massacres to repress a revolution or mass uprising.”

The statement also denounces the important role tourism plays in the Tunisian economy, suggesting that local Muslims were “almost like Ahl al-Dhimmah [literally ‘the people of the contract,’ i.e. non-Muslim subjects] to the Christians who invaded it under the pretext of ‘tourism’.” Ben Ali is condemned for his efforts to impose secularism in Tunisia and his repression of Islamists. In a warning that might also be intended for Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, AQIM notes that when Ben Ali’s “oppression and crimes were exposed to the world, the infidels washed their hands of him, deserted him and handed him over. The loyalty he paid to them and his many years of service to them did him no good.”

This article first appeared in the February 3, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Algerian Counter-Terrorism Offensive Hunts AQIM Leadership in the Kabylia Mountains

Andrew McGregor

December 16, 2010

While the Sahel/Sahara Command of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has dominated reports of the movement’s activities over the last year, Algeria’s military continues to combat AQIM’s northern command, based in the largely Berber Kabylia Mountains.

Kabylia 1
A major Algerian military offensive involving some 4,000 to 5,000 troops was launched on December 9 with the participation of Special Forces units and aerial support from helicopter gunships. Operations have focused on the North-Central wilaya-s (provinces) of Tizi Ouzou, Boumerdès and Bouira, mountainous strongholds of the Islamist insurgency since the 1990s. Operations in the latter regions were designed to prevent reinforcements from coming to the relief of the militants in Tizi Ouzou.  The offensive was launched on the basis of information obtained through the interrogation of captured AQIM militants regarding a major meeting of AQIM amirs at Sidi Ali Bounab (70 miles east of Algiers), to be presided over by AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel (a.k.a. Abu Mus’ab Abd al-Wadoud) (El-Khabar [Algiers], December 12; Tout sur l’Algérie [Algiers], December 13).

According to sources in the Algerian security establishment, the meeting was intended to organize a group to be sent south to fend off a planned coup by the Sahel/Sahara command of AQIM designed to depose Droukdel as overall commander and establish an independent emirate in the Sahel/Sahara (El-Khabar, December 12).

Kabylia 2Kabylia

The army jammed mobile telephone networks in the operational region to prevent AQIM cells from communicating or detonating prepared explosives with cell phones. Only days before the offensive, Algerian defense official Abdelmalik Guenaizia asked visiting AFRICOM commander General David Hogg for the latest jamming equipment to prevent remote cell phone detonation of improvised explosive devices (CNN, December 7; Ennahar [Algiers], December 6).

By December 12, as many as 20 AQIM terrorists were reported to have been killed. Algerian authorities have obtained DNA samples from relatives of AQIM commander Abdelmalek Droudkel and Amir Abou Derar in an effort to confirm their deaths in the operation (Tout sur l’Algérie, December 13). The offensive was also reported to have disrupted a major plot to use cell phone-detonated explosives in a bombing campaign in Tizi Ouzou, Boumerdès and Bouira (El-Khabar, December 12). The deaths of Droukdel and Derar remain unconfirmed at the time of publication while a reported 2,000 additional troops were reported to be joining the offensive as some militants remain under siege by Algerian forces (al-Fadjr [Algiers], December 12).

This article first appeared in the December 16, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Defiant AQIM Challenges New Regional Counter-terrorist Command with Deadly Cross-Border Raid

Andrew McGregor

July 8, 2010

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) answered the formation of a multinational counterterrorism center in the southern Algerian town of Tamanrasset by ambushing a patrol of Algerian border gendarmes close to Tin Zaouatine, roughly 40 km from the border with Mali and 2000 km south of Algiers (El Watan [Algiers], July 1). At least 13 gendarmes were killed in the June 30 ambush, the worst Islamist violence in Algeria since the July 29, 2009 attack by militants belonging to the Protectors of the Islamist Call that killed up to 14 soldiers in the Mediterranean town of Tipaza (El Khabar [Algiers], July 30; El Watan, July 30).

South Algeria 1Tin Zaouatine

Security officials in the Malian capital of Bamako said two gendarmes were taken prisoner, one of whom was released to describe the fate of his comrades (al-Jazeera, July 1). AQIM followed up by releasing leaflets in the border region claiming responsibility for the ambush (Ennahar [Algiers], July 3). The leaflets said the attack was designed to mark AQIM’s “determination to fight against the regime of Algiers” and promised the movement would continue attacks “until final victory.” Only a day before the attack, Major-General Ahmad Gaid Salah, chief-of-staff of Algeria’s Armée Nationale Populaire (ANP), announced that the militants could surrender under the terms of the 2005 reconciliation accord or await their “certain death” (AFP, June 30).

South Algeria 2Groupement des Gardes Frontières Patrol in Southern Algeria

The ill-fated patrol was composed of members of the Groupement des Gardes Frontières (GGF). The GGF fall under the command of the ANP and have been recently outfitted with new all-terrain vehicles and sophisticated monitoring and surveillance equipment. Though quantities of arms and ammunition were removed by the attackers, the two armored 4×4 GGF vehicles were surprisingly burned rather than taken away. The attackers are believed to have slipped back across the border into northern Mali.

In a first sign of the regional cooperation promised by Algeria, Mali, Niger and Mauritania through the April formation of a Tamanrasset-based Joint Operational Military Committee, designed to provide a joint response to border security and terrorism issues, there are reports Mali has invited Algerian forces to pursue the militants on Malian territory (Reuters, July 1; see Terrorism Monitor, April 23). The cross-border AQIM attack seems intended, at least in part, to test the political resolve of the new joint operations mechanism. Algeria’s President Abd al-Aziz Bouteflika recently took Mali to task at the G-8 summit in Huntsville, Canada for breaching an agreement not to exchange imprisoned terrorists for hostages, as Bamako did last February to free a French hostage. Bouteflika described the exchange as “direct support of terrorism” (Echorouk, June 26; al-Jazeera, March 2).

The dawn ambush is believed to have been the work of Abu Zaïd, a militant AQIM commander sent south by AQIM Amir Abd al-Musab Abd al-Wadoud to reinvigorate the Southern Command, which appeared for a while to be devoting more effort to cigarette smuggling than jihad.

This article first appeared in the July 8, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Algeria Introduces New Counter-Terrorism Measures in Operation Ennasr

Andrew McGregor

July 1, 2010

At a meeting in Oran attended by the Algerian military’s top commanders and leaders of Algeria’s National Gendarmerie, Armed Forces chief-of-staff Major-General Ahmad Gaid Salah explained the next phase of Operation Ennasr (“Victory”), a nation-wide counterterrorist offensive.

Gaid SalahMajor-General Ahmad Gaid Salah

Commanders of various military sectors were ordered to pursue terrorists belonging to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) directly into their well-concealed camps. Saying, “We are determined to put an end to the terrorist groups via the mobilization of all legal means,” the General demanded greater cooperation between the various geographically-based military commands of Algeria’s Armée Nationale Populaire (ANP) and improved coordination with national intelligence services (La Liberté [Algiers], June 24). Since Operation Ennasr began, a large number of AQIM commanders have been captured or surrendered, with Algerian intelligence already benefitting from information gleaned from interrogations.

Though AQIM has experienced difficulty recruiting suicide bombers, Algeria’s security forces are determined to prevent a repeat of the devastating suicide bombings that struck Algiers in 2007. One of the AQIM commanders seized in Boumerdès revealed the existence of a plot to carry out a suicide bombing in Algiers on June 17 or 18, but was unable to name the would-be bomber or the exact site of the bombing – under AQIM protocol, these details would be known only to the bomber and his handler. Drivers entering Algiers were subjected to extensive searches and examinations of papers at two separate roadblocks on roads entering the city – the first run by the Gendarmerie and the second run by the local police. Surveillance cameras, sniffer dogs and explosives detectors were all deployed at the checkpoints, which subjected commuters to hours-long traffic jams (El Watan [Algiers], June 21).

The Ministry of Defense has also announced a significant expansion of the National Gendarmerie (al-Dark al-Watani), which plays an important role in finding and eliminating terrorist cells in rural areas. Before the end of the year, 9,000 new gendarmes of various ranks and academic backgrounds will be added to the present 60,000 man paramilitary. A new security communications network called Ronital is being introduced to Algiers, Blida Province and the Tizi Ouzou region of the Kabyle Mountains, areas where counterterrorism efforts are most active. The unified network will ensure effective transfers of sound, images and electronic messages with the central command even in difficult conditions and terrain (El-Khabar [Algiers], June 24).

This article first appeared in the July 1, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Algeria Launches Nation-Wide Counter-Terrorism Offensive

Andrew McGregor

April 22, 2010

With al-Qaeda activities in the Sahel/Sahara region of Africa creating havoc with commerce, trade, resource extraction, tourism and general security, the nations of the region appear ready to mount a coordinated military approach to the elimination of Salafist militants. Algeria, with the largest and best-armed of the militaries in the region, launched a sweeping counter-terrorism offensive last week, entitled Operation Ennasr (“Victory”).

Algeria 1Major General Ahmad Gaid Salah

Algeria’s Armée Nationale Populaire (ANP) is under orders from the army’s chief-of-staff, Major-General Ahmad Gaid Salah, to “clean out the terrorist maquis” (Liberté [Algiers], April 13). The operation is targeting bases of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the western, central and eastern parts of Algeria. Unlike operations in the desert regions of south Algeria, Operation Ennasr is focusing on the mountainous and heavily wooded regions where AQIM has its hideouts. Ground and helicopter-borne elements of the ANP are being supported by local police and units of the Gendarmerie Nationale (al-Dark al-Watani), Algeria’s rural police force. The elimination of AQIM elements in Algeria is complicated by the movement’s policy of operating in cells of 4-5 fighters, thus reducing the risk posed to the organization’s survival by any one encounter with security forces (El Watan [Algiers], April 14).

It was reported that a ground operation supported by helicopters in the forests of Bordj Bou Arreridj province had eliminated 12 terrorists and captured a number of others. Algerian authorities are using DNA evidence to identify the dead militants (El-Khabar [Algiers], April 14; L’Expression [Algiers], April 15).

Lack of surveillance aircraft, heavy transport, jet-fighters and even helicopters in many of the Sahel/Sahara nations inhibits counterterrorist efforts conducted over a vast and often inhospitable region. In this regard, Algeria, one of the few area nations with a large and capable air force, has been urging Nigeria to add its air force to the campaign against AQIM. Algiers has informed Abuja that AQIM Amirs have begun recruiting in north Nigeria (Jeune Afrique, April 17).  Both Nigeria and Senegal, another proposed member of the alliance, are expected to attend the next meeting of regional security officials (El-Khabar [Algiers], April 7).

After irritating Algerian leaders by including that nation on the American terrorist blacklist following the failed Christmas Day attack aboard an American airliner by a Nigerian would-be bomber, Washington has been making major efforts of late to reassure Algeria it is a vital and trusted part of America’s counterterrorism strategy. A recent visit by FBI officials was followed on April 7 by a visit from U.S. Attorney-General Eric Holder to sign a security agreement covering counterterrorism, organized crime, drug enforcement and judicial cooperation (Algerian Radio, April 7).

Developing Regional Counterterrorist Strategies

It was announced on April 20 that a military summit in the southern Algerian oasis town of Tamanrasset had agreed to form a “Joint Operational Military Committee” with headquarters in that town to deal with the problem of AQIM and gangs of drug traffickers who make use of poorly defined or guarded borders. While it was known that Algeria, Mali, Niger and Mauritania were considering such a move, the announcement contained the surprising news that Libya, Chad and Burkina Faso had also joined the initiative.  The new joint command, to begin work by the end of April, will include officers from each of the participating Sahara/Sahel nations. Morocco, a rival to Algeria for influence in the region, appears to have been deliberately left out of the new formation. Many details of the initiative have yet to be revealed, including the command’s financing, the composition of joint military forces (if any) and whether joint forces would be permitted to cross borders in pursuit of terrorists (Afrol News, April 20).

The summit of military commanders followed hard on earlier meetings between the foreign ministers and the intelligence chiefs of the seven Sahara/Sahel nations that began on March 16. A summit of regional heads-of-state is expected to follow. Algeria has played the leading role in developing military cooperation in the region; the Algerian Ministry of Defense described the meetings as a means of defining “the ways and means capable of putting in place a collective and co-responsible strategy for fighting against terrorism and transnational crime.”

One motivation behind the rather rapid development of diplomatic and military cooperation in the region appears to be the desire of participating nations to avoid foreign [i.e. American] intervention in the region to deal with AQIM. One of those present at the military summit told a Malian daily that “There was a call on Algiers to act quickly to counteract the interference of foreign forces to act on our behalf. We are strongly against any foreign interference” (Le Républicain [Bamako], April 15). The United States will begin military maneuvers in Burkina Faso in early May, with the participation of roughly 400 troops from Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Chad, Niger, Mali and Senegal. Algeria declined an invitation to participate after expressing concerns about the U.S.-led military exercises (El Khabar, April 15). Though many of the participating nations are eager to receive U.S. arms, funds and training, none have volunteered to host AFRICOM, the new U.S. military command for Africa, which remains based in Germany.

Tackling the Ideological Basis of Extremism

Algeria has also taken steps to confront the religious and ideological foundations of AQIM and other extremist movements. The Algerian Ministry of Religious Affairs and Endowments is hosting a meeting this month of regional religious leaders and scholars to focus on grounding regional religious practice on the Maliki madhab, one of the four schools of orthodox Sunni jurisprudence. The Maliki school is widely followed in north and west Africa, and a renewed emphasis on its merits will be offered as a means of deterring the infiltration of “foreign” (i.e. Salafist) forms of Islam that espouse takfiri practices (the declaration of other Muslims as apostates deserving of death) that form the ideological foundation of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. The conference is intended to examine “the dimensions of intellectual security, its consequences and the reasons that led to the appearance of negative ideas that had fatal consequences for many countries, including Algeria,” according to Minister of Religious Affairs Bouabdellah Ghlamallah (Magharabia, April 6).

Algeria is also seeking technological solutions to the terrorist threat. The recent introduction of sophisticated explosives detectors in the ports of Algiers, Annaba and Oran have resulted in the seizure of 50 tons of TNT as well as 300 tons of chemical fertilizer intended for use in bomb-making. Combined with new restrictions on the sale and distribution of certain chemicals and fertilizers, the inspection of cargos with the new detectors has made it difficult for terrorist groups in Algeria to obtain the necessary raw materials needed to manufacture bombs (El Khabar, April 7).

Algeria 2Assassinated DGSN Chief Ali Tounsi

A Surprising Setback for Algeria’s Security Efforts

Algeria’s counterterrorist efforts suffered an unforeseen blow in late February when Ali Tounsi, the head of Algeria’s Direction Générale de la Sureté Nationale (DGSN – Directorate General for National Security) was murdered in his office by a close friend and partner in the counterterrorism effort, Colonel Chouieb Oultache (a.k.a. “The Mustache”). Described by one source as “the architect of the modernization of the national police, the dreaded adversary of radical Islamists [and] the pet peeve of organized crime,” Ali Tounsi was a career security agent who left school in 1957 to join the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) in the independence struggle against France (Jeune Afrique, March 14). He was particularly adept at undercover work, but was retired in 1988 before the government asked him to return to active service in the early 1990s to combat the growing Islamist insurgency. His assassin, Chouieb Oultache, was chief of the police air unit, a formation he was largely responsible for creating. It was reported that Oultache learned he was about to be investigated on charges of embezzlement on his way to a meeting at Tounsi’s office. No one else was present at the meeting, where the two men apparently argued before Oultache pulled his service weapon and fired three bullets into Tounsi’s head. Shaykh Ali bin Hajj, the deputy leader of the banned Front Islamique du Salut (FIS – Islamic Salvation Front), issued a statement after al-Tounsi’s murder calling for reform in the Algerian security services. The Islamist leader claims the security services of the Arab world are consistently engaged in activities forbidden by Islam and international law:

In most dictatorial regimes, only those who are involved in corruption, violations, torture, allegation of false charges against their colleagues, and those who flatter their masters are promoted to higher ranks in the security apparatus. In short, those who are good for carrying out dirty missions (Media Commission of Shaykh Ali bin-Hajj, March 10).

Ali bin-Hajj especially called for the regime to avoid appointing military men to head the nation’s security services. The two individuals considered most likely to succeed Ali Tounsi are General Sadek Ait Mesabh and Colonel Muhammad Boutouili, both of the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS – Directorate of Research and Security) (Tout sur l’Algérie, April 12).


This article first appeared in the April 22, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Al-Qaeda and Algeria Develop New Strategies in Battle for the Sahel

Andrew McGregor

March 26, 2010

During a March 16 meeting in Algiers consisting of Foreign Ministers from Saharan and Sahel nations (including Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Libya, Mali, Mauritania and Niger), Algeria presented a new strategy for dealing with the threat posed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The strategy is designed to interfere with the operations of smugglers and terrorists alike by restricting their access to vital supplies of fuel and water (El-Khabar [Algiers], March 17). The plan calls for abandoned wells to be blocked up while access to other wells will be closely restricted by security forces.

AlmoravidTomb of Almoravid Ruler Yusuf bin Tachfin, Marrakesh

Sources involved with the conference told the Algerian press that several Western nations were considering direct air strikes against AQIM targets in the desert. To facilitate these operations, the French Army’s engineering corps is looking at building four runways in north and central Mali (El-Khabar [Algiers], March 17). There appears to have been some consensus at the meeting that earlier plans for the Sahara/Sahel nations to gradually build military capacity had been superseded by AQIM’s growing activity on the ground. Lack of surveillance and attack aircraft as well as an absence of long-range artillery has impaired the ability of these nations to respond to the AQIM threat.

Algeria’s plans to restrict access to water and fuel in the region are actually a regional expansion of a local program that began in 2006 and is credited with reducing militant activity in southern Algeria. Fuel smuggling is rampant in the region and provides the means for criminal and terrorist groups to operate across vast unoccupied tracts of desert. Algeria is also considering restricting the circulation of 4X4 vehicles in the area, particularly Toyota FJ55 Land Cruisers, which are often converted to hold up to 1,000 liters of gasoline or diesel fuel. There are fears, however, that an effective campaign against smuggling will only exacerbate the region’s serious unemployment problem and aid the militants’ recruitment efforts.

An AQIM attack on a military outpost in western Niger on March 12 killed five soldiers, reinforcing the perception that local militaries are incapable of tackling AQIM (AFP, March 12; Ennahar [Algiers], March 13). According to an AQIM statement, the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber who drove a truck filled with 600 kilograms of explosives into the barracks at Tilwa. The bombing was followed by a general attack by militants that succeeded in seizing large quantities of vehicles, weapons and ammunition (al-Andalus Establishment for Media Production, March 14). Though al-Qaeda is normally dominated by Arabs, the statement said the attack was carried out by “the descendants of Yusuf bin Tachfin,” a reference to the famed Berber king of the Almoravid Empire (1061-1106). Berbers are the indigenous people of North Africa, though many have adopted the Arab language, religion and culture after the Arab invasions.

A video message from AQIM spokesman Abu Ubaydah Yusuf entitled “A Message Addressed to the Peoples and Rulers of the States of the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa” suggested that AQIM has no desire to fight with the militaries of the Sahel-Saharan nations, but has been compelled to do so in “self-defense” (al-Andalus Establishment for Media Production, March 9). Abu Ubaydah warns the rulers of these states that ongoing French “military interference” and the American “colonial project” AFRICOM are part of an effort to convince Sahara-Sahel militaries to act as “Crusader proxies” and will lead to new strikes by AQIM as well as other consequences, such as tribal conflict and the revival of dormant animosities:

If these criminals [i.e. Western nations] were honest about what they are saying, they would have ceased to plunder your goods, steal your wealth, control the decisions of your governments and direct their policies to what serves their interests and goals. They would have aided you to lift your economies. However, as you see, they only seek to build military bases on your lands and then lure your governments into side wars that will increase your suffering and misery.

Though AQIM appears to be taking a simultaneous aggressive and conciliatory approach to most of the Sahara-Sahel nations, it still did not hesitate to label the Algerian regime “apostate.”  Over the period 2005-2009, Algeria was the world’s ninth largest purchaser of weapons, though many of these, such as submarines and anti-aircraft guns, have no practical anti-terrorist applications (Tout sur l’Algerie, March 22, based on figures from SIPRI).

This article first appeared in the March 26, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Algeria Introduces New Military Strategy to Combat Terrorism in the Sahara

Andrew McGregor

January 7, 2010

As al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) terrorists grow more active in the Saharan region, Algeria has introduced a new military strategy designed to restrict movement through the volatile border regions that Algeria shares with Niger, Mali and Mauritania. Algeria has deployed an additional 3,000 troops to the force of 15,000 men along the southern borders. Algerian military forces in this region fall under the command of the 6th military region, headquartered at Tamanrasset.

Algeria MapTogether with border guards and the gendarmerie, the army will restrict movement in a number of regions of southern Algeria to those with a security permit. Eight border gates have been created along Algeria’s southern borders, intended to reduce the free movement of smugglers in the region. Individuals making unauthorized crossings through the border region will be given a single warning before being shot at by Algerian security forces. Vehicles moving at night through restricted zones will also be fired on by patrols equipped with night vision equipment. Wells and other water sources in the region will continue to be tightly controlled (El-Khabar [Algiers], December 22, 2009).

Algeria and Mali have also formed a joint military technical committee to address common security concerns. The committee held a three day meeting last month to discuss military coordination and cooperation with Western security services in dealing with the growing number of kidnappings of Westerners in Saharan Africa (El-Khabar, December 21).

Three Malians alleged to be associates of al-Qaeda were recently arrested in Ghana in a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) sting operation. The suspects told undercover DEA agents that they were working with Colombia’s Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – FARC) to ship cocaine through Algeria, Libya and Morocco to Spain under the protection of al-Qaeda operatives (Bikya Masr [Cairo], December 20, 2009; Los Angeles Times, December 19, 2009; AFP, December 18, 2009).

The discovery of a burnt out Boeing 727 airliner in the Malian desert in the region of Sinkrebaka, 125 miles north of the town of Gao, has reinforced the belief that South American drug smugglers are now actively involved in shipping drugs through West Africa into Europe (Air Cargo News, November 17, 2009; AFP, December 11, 2009).

This article first appeared in the January 7, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor