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.

Tripoli Battles Shadowy Qaddafists while Tribal Rivals Fight over Southern Libya

Andrew McGregor

January 25, 2014

Despite living in the midst of some of the world’s most open and sparsely populated spaces, Libya’s southern tribes are engaged in a new round of bitter urban warfare, as snipers, gun-battles and mortar fire take a heavy toll on the civilian population. At stake are control over the abundant resources of the Libyan south, the heavy traffic of its trade routes (both licit and illicit) and the future of tribal and ethnic relations in a post-Qaddafist south. Simultaneous with these disputes, however, is the mysterious and oddly-timed emergence of “Qaddafist supporters” waving green flags (the symbol of the Qaddafist revolution) in several different Libyan centers, most notably in the southern oasis settlement of Sabha, where they were alleged to have seized an airbase.

Sabha CenterCentral Sabha

Sabha, the Strategic Hub of South-West Libya

Since late December, the strategic oasis city of Sabha has been the scene of deadly clashes between the Tubu, a tribe of indigenous Black African nomads ranging through the eastern Sahara, and the Awlad Sulayman, a traditionally nomadic Arab tribe of the Fezzan (southwestern Libya). Sabha, a city of 210,000 people about 400 miles south of Tripoli, is the site of an important military base and airfield. It also serves as a commercial and transportation hub for the Fezzan. Many of the residents are economic migrants from Niger, Chad and the Sudan, while the Qaddadfa (the tribe of Mu’ammar Qaddafi) and the Awlad Sulayman are among the more prominent Arab tribes found in Sabha. One of the last strongholds of the Qaddafi loyalists, Sabha was taken by revolutionary militias in September 2011. [1]

In March 2012, three days of vicious fighting in Sabha that began as a dispute between the Tubu and the Arab Abu Seif and morphed into a battle between the Tubu and the Awlad Sulayman left 40 Tubu and 30 Arabs dead. After a ceasefire ended the fighting by the end of the month, serious clashes erupted in Sabha once more on January 11. Tubu militants directed mortar fire into Sabha from the edge of town, targeting Awlad Sulayman neighborhoods. The street violence reached such a peak that the Sabha National Security Directorate admitted it no longer had the resources to even attempt to maintain law and order. The Sabha Local Council was forced to suspend operations in late December. On January 17, mortars struck the residence of Sabha’s military governor. The region is desperately short of medical supplies, a situation worsened by gunmen who stole part of an emergency shipment of medical supplies from the UAE and an attack on the Sabha hospital (Libya Herald, January 17; January 20).

It appears to have been fallout from this earlier struggle that sparked the latest clashes, as Tubu gunmen from Murzuk stormed a Traghen police station (140 kilometers south of Sabha) on January 9. The gunmen ignored a number of high value targets as they searched specifically for al-Haq Brigade leader Mansur al-Aswad, the deputy commander of the Sabha military zone. The brigade leader was eventually found and murdered, allegedly in retaliation for crimes committed by his Abu Seif militia during the 2012 clashes in Sabha (Libya Herald, January 10).

Both the Tubu and Zuwaya, rivals in Kufra, have communities in the coastal city of Ajdabiya, that city being the northern terminus of the trade routes that run through Kufra to the north. The conflict has traveled north through this route to Ajdabiya, where a Zuwaya unit under the command of the general staff has had deadly clashes with a Tubu unit under the command of the Defense Ministry (AFP, December 23, 2013).

Misrata’s 154 Battalion joined Libyan Army regulars heading to Sabha to restore order (Libya Herald, January 20). The Tubu arrived at reconciliation talks attended by several leading government ministers and a Zintani reconciliation committee with three demands they insisted be met before negotiations could continue:

  • Establishing exactly who the Tubu were fighting (an issue complicated by the tendency of imported Arab militias to ally themselves with local Arab groups);
  • The expulsion of Awlad Sulayman gunmen from local military compounds and the historic Elena castle (formerly known as Fortezza Margherita), an Italian colonial relic that still dominates Sabha;
  • The transfer of the castle, still used for military purposes and detentions, to the Ministry of Tourism (Libya Herald, January 22).

The Sabha “Castle” – an Italian-era fortress

According to Isa Abd al-Majid Mansour, leader of the Tubu Front for the Salvation of Libya, the violence in the south is designed to eliminate the Tubu presence in Libya: “This is not a tribal war… The Islamist militias aided by the Libyan government want to get rid of us. International bodies that come to investigate will see who are the victims, with what arms and in which conditions they were shot. They will know that innocent people are taken from their homes and shot by 14.5mm caliber [weapons]” (Paris Match, January 20). Isa Abd al-Majid insists that Sabha has become a headquarters for al-Qaeda forces drawn from Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and Mauritania. (Paris Match, January 20).

The Mysterious Qaddafists

A group of “Qaddafists” were reported to have seized Tamenhint Air-base (30 kilometers east of Sabha) on January 18, relinquishing it after sorties by Libyan jet-fighters on January 19 to redeploy “with a large convoy” on the road between Sabha and Barak Shati, according to a Zintani mediator (Libya Herald, January 19). According to the spokesman for the Libyan defense ministry, the occupiers were Qaddafi supporters (al-Arabiya, January 18).

After the Qaddafists left, the base was occupied by Tubu troops of the Murzuk Military Council, though these withdrew on January 20 before the arrival of the Misrata militia, allowing the Qaddafists to reoccupy the facility. Defence Ministry spokesman Abdul-Raziq al-Shabahi said: “The situation in the south … opened a chance for some criminals … loyal to the Gaddafi regime to exploit this and to attack the Tamahind air force base” (Reuters, January 20). Libyan government sources claim the violence in the south is being orchestrated by Saadi Qaddafi, a son of the late dictator who has taken refuge in neighboring Niger.

Other pro-Qaddafi elements were said to have taken to the streets in Ajilat, waving green flags and carrying portraits of the late dictator. The Zintan militia was called in when local authorities were unable to contain the demonstrations and five alleged Qaddafi supporters supposedly on their way to Ajilat were killed in nearby Sabratha. Though authorities claimed to have arrested seven Qaddafists, they refused to release any information about the suspects (Libya Herald, January 22).

Oddly, there was also a manifestation of green-flag waving “Qaddafists” who tried to attack the Italian section of a non-Muslim cemetery in Tripoli. The group was driven off by locals, but have apparently returned at night twice to damage graves, even killing the night-watchman in their second visit. West of Zahra, other alleged Qaddafists were reported to have raised the green flag (Libya Herald, January 20).

The identity of the alleged Qaddafists remains in question. In Sabha, citizens became alarmed when reports began to circulate that the Qaddafists were actually “foreign troops from Chad,” prompting a formal Libyan government denial (Libya Herald, January 21).

Tubu Militia MurzukTubu Militiamen, Murzuk (Karlos Zurutuza/IPS)

Tubu militias have occupied two other important military bases in Libya’s largely ungoverned southwest, a refuge for smugglers and terrorists. Al-Wigh airbase was occupied by Colonel Barka Warduko’s Murzuk Desert Shield militia and the military post at al-Tum was occupied by the Oum al-Aranib militia commanded by Sharfadeen Barka.

Qaddafists have also been blamed for the violence in the Ajilat region (on Libya’s northwest coast), where a militia from Zawiya has been fighting with the Warshefana tribe, which has regularly been accused of pro-Qaddafist tendencies.

The neighboring groups have been fighting sporadically since the overthrow of Qaddafi, deploying weapons as large as Grad rockets.  Misrati forces armed with Katyusha rockets and Zintani militia fighters were deployed to intervene in the fighting alongside armor belonging to the National Army (Libya Herald, January 21). The Misrata militia and and Tripoli militias were withdrawn on January 21 after 18 people died in clashes, with local authorities comparing the actions of the militias to those of the Italian colonial army (Libya Herald, January 22). The Warshefana are regularly accused of being pro-Qaddafi and held responsible for a wave of kidnappings and car-jackings around Tripoli.

The Killings in Kufra

A seemingly intractable conflict in Kufra Oasis between the Tubu and the Zuwaya Arabs (who seized the region from the Tubu in 1840) flared up again on January 20, as Arabs and Tubu shelled each other with mortars over the next few days. The struggle between the two tribes, both of whom would like to have full control of the smuggling/trade routes that run from the African interior through Kufra, has also been carried on by continuing tit-for-tat kidnappings of random members of rival communities.

However, Isa Abd al-Majid, leader of the Tubu fighters around Kufra, does not identify the Zuwaya as the real problem in the region: “We are fighting al-Qaeda. They want to eradicate us to occupy our land and control the frontiers with Chad and Niger, which will permit them to attack the French military base in Niger and kidnap Westerners” (Paris Match, January 20).

Government Response – Revival of the Militias

Libya’s ruling General National Council (GNC) declared a State of Emergency on January 18, citing the clashes in Sabha. Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan called on the revolutionary militias to rally to the south to expel the Qaddafists and restore order in the south and other security “hotspots” (Libya Herald, January 18). The government’s decision to recall the militias in the midst of efforts to demobilize them and integrate their members into the Libyan National Army has dismayed many Libyans who have become exasperated with the militias’ roadblocks and almost daily violence.  Prime Minister Zeidan said the Misrata militia had been “commissioned by the government to conduct a national task… to spread security stability in the region” (al-Arabiya, January 18). Tubu Colonel Barka Warduko, the head of the Murzuk Military Council, claimed that Ali Zeidan was provoking and exploiting tribal clashes in the south to create a security crisis that would prevent the replacement of his government (Libya Herald, January 21).

The GNC released a statement insisting it had not abandoned laws 27 and 53 (ordering the demobilization of the militias), but their recall was an effective admission that the government security forces are unable to restore security on their own, providing the militias with a reason for their continued existence. Many Libyans felt the militias had lost the justification for their existence after the Misrata Brigade opened fire on anti-militia demonstrators in Tripoli on November 15, 2013, killing 47 people. Though the GNC claims it has not reversed its policy on militia demobilization, it is now clearly saying one thing and doing another.

Tubu demonstrators blockaded the Sarir power station (near Jalu Oasis in eastern Libya) for several weeks in December and January to demand greater representation in Kufra’s municipal government and an extension of the power supply to the Tubu community at Rebyana.

Other Tubu have been integrated into the National Army, most notably the mostly Tubu 25th Brigade, charged with guarding the Sarir, Messla and al-Shula oil facilities in eastern Libya. Three soldiers of the 25th Brigade on a supply run from Sarir to the nearby Jalu Oasis were ambushed and killed in mid-January. The unit’s commander, Saleh Muhammad, speculated that the gunmen might have been the same as those responsible for a late December attack on a Sarir farm project, in which five attackers were killed but the project manager kidnapped (Libya Herald, January 18). Workers at the Sarir power station stopped work the next day due to security concerns, causing power shortages in Tripoli and Benghazi (Libya Herald, January 20).

Conclusion

By January 22, reconciliation talks had helped ease the intensity of the fighting in Sabha, though Sabha military commander Muhammad al-Ayat al-Busaif suggested there was still a problem with “Qaddafi loyalists, some of whom remain in the surrounding area, including the Tamenhint airbase” (Libya Herald, January 22). The Qaddafists remain shadowy, unidentified characters that provide the Tripoli government with a reason to reactivate its reliance on a more tangible threat, Libya’s unruly and independent militias.

The emergence of the elusive Qaddafists could, as suggested by some, to be part of an effort to create an external security crisis (as opposed to Libya’s internal security crisis) to preserve the Zeidan administration at a time when it is under strong criticism. While there is serious opposition to Zeidan’s government, there is no consensus on a replacement – considering Libya’s current state and the inability of the government to enforce its writ almost anywhere, it is questionable whether anyone would really want the job. Faced with the possibility of a non-confidence vote, Zeidan remarked: “I would be happy if the vote went through” (Middle East Online, January 20).

The Tubu are in the midst of a cultural revival (similar to that of the North African Berbers) as the tribe asserts its non-Arab status and demands recognition in the forthcoming Libyan constitution. They are unlikely to return quietly to the days when Qaddafi called them foreigners and withdrew their Libyan identity cards.

Regardless of who is responsible for starting or perpetuating each round of Tubu-Arab violence, there is no doubt that such violence encourages the incipient Tubu separatist movement, closely tied to the Tubu cultural revival. Though there is no proof of such intentions, it remains possible that some acts of Tubu violence may be committed by independence-minded militants with the intent of provoking further clashes to politicize the rest of the community. However, the growth of a Tubu separatist/independence movement in Libya would create immediate concerns in Chad and Niger, which also host Tubu populations with considerable military experience and expertise in modern desert fighting.

Note

  1. For previous clashes in Sabha, see “Arab-Tubu Clashes in Southern Libya’s Sabha Oasis,” Terrorism Monitor, April 5, 2012 and “Libya’s Sabha Oasis: Former Qaddafist Stronghold Becoming Regional Center of Insecurity,” Terrorism Monitor, April 19, 2013.

This article first appeared in the January 25, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

 

The Mobile Threat: Multiple Battlefields Ensure Instability in the Sahel/Sahara Region

Andrew McGregor 

June 14, 2013

There are signs that the scattered remnants of the Islamist coalition that occupied northern Mali for nine months are beginning to use their financial resources and pre-planned alternative bases to regroup in the Sahel/Sahara region in order to carry out new operations against their targets – the “apostate” governments of the region, local security infrastructure and the considerable French economic interests and personnel found in the region. Though the Islamist took heavy losses in the French-led intervention that drove them from northern Mali, the extremist groups were not trapped and destroyed in the hastily conceived operation. Rather, they have been relieved of a strategic disadvantage, the fixed occupation of certain territories, and regained their number one tactical asset – mobility.

Sahel MapThe Sahel

An examination of the regional and international aspects of the ongoing struggle in the Sahel/Sahara helps shed some light on the direction the battle between the Islamists and African states is taking at the half-way point of 2013.

Southern Libya: A Hub for Terrorism?

Southern Libya remains in turmoil, with frequent clashes between African Tubu nomads and Arab tribes preventing effective security measures from being implemented. According to Jouma Koussiya, a Tubu activist, one of the main problems is the government’s reliance on northern militias and northern commanders to provide security in the region, a policy that is actually weakening government control in southern Libya: “They know nothing about the region and they ultimately fail. Now tribes are working together to form a unified military council in order to secure the region, instead of the government” (AP, June 3).

There are also unforeseen dangers to be encountered; on Libya’s southern border with Chad, five members of the Martyr Sulayman Bu-Matara Battalion doing border patrols were recently abducted during a prolonged firefight by gunmen believed to be from Chad (al-Hurra [Benghazi], June 2; al-Tadamus [Benghazi], June 1; May 30). One of the main problems in securing the south remains the unwillingness of northern troops and militia members to serve in the harsh and unfamiliar conditions prevailing in the Libyan Desert. To remedy this, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has announced that bonuses of $1200 will be paid out to soldiers and militia members willing to work in the region. The announcement is part of a new government strategy to secure the towns and cities of the region first before beginning a second phase of operations to secure and monitor the vast border regions of the south (AFP, June 2).

Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan insists claims that the attackers who struck a military barracks in the Nigérien city of Agadez and a French uranium facility near the Nigérien town of Arlit on May 23 came from southern Libya are “without basis,” saying that the export of terrorism was a practice of the Qaddafi regime but would not be tolerated in “the new Libya” (AFP, May 28). Defense Minister Muhammad al-Barghathi also denies that there is any security crisis in Libya, suggesting the situation is “stable,” asserting that the militias are doing important work under the control of the Defense Ministry and refuting reports that French security services are tracking al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) elements in southern Libya by claiming that “the al-Qaeda organization does not exist in Libya” (al-Jadidah [Tripoli], May 28; June 2).

Prime Minister Zeidan’s “no problems here” approach to the security crisis in southern Libya has been strongly criticized by some observers within Libya who maintain terrorists have created bases in southern Libya (al-Watan [Tripoli], May 28). Usama al-Juili, the defense minister in the Libyan Transitional National Council that preceded the current General National Congress (GNC) government, has expressed a different view of the security situation in the Libyan south:

The terrorists who had been moving from Libya toward Mali are currently reversing course. Which is to say that they are now heading from Mali toward Libya. So I am not astonished that southern Libya has been turned into a new sanctuary for the terrorists fleeing north Mali. Algeria was right when the country spoke out against the war in Mali. It knew the consequences of it. Algeria, though, has the resources to cope with a new geographic reconfiguration of terrorism after the military offensive in north Mali. As for Libya, it does not have these resources… Closing borders is something useless (Le Temps d’Algerie, June 13).

The disarray in the Libyan security structure prevents effective measures from being taken to secure the south, with the anomalous inclusion of largely independent militias within the security structure creating confusion and insecurity throughout Libya.

Libyan army chief-of-staff General Yusuf al-Mangush, generally viewed as a supporter of the militias, resigned under popular, military and governmental pressure following the June 8 massacre of protesters calling for the disarmament of the Libyan Shield militia that left 31 killed (including four members of the army’s Thunderbolt Special Forces unit who arrived to quell the violence) and 60 wounded. The new acting chief-of-staff, General Salim al-Qnaidy, has warned that “patience is running out with the militias” as he attempts to implement a GNC decision to “end the presence of all brigades and illegal armed formations in Libya even if the use of military force is required” (Quryna al-Jadidah [Benghazi], June 12; Libya News Network, June 9). The Libyan Shield-1 headquarters in Benghazi has since been occupied by government troops belonging to the al-Sa’iqah Special Forces and their heavy weapons seized (al-Watan [Tripoli], June 9). The Libyan Shield-1 commander, Wissam bin Hamid, has taken to the airwaves to denounce the protesters as Qaddafi loyalists and traitors to Libya even as other Libyan Shield bases are scheduled to be occupied by units of the national army (al-Tadamun [Benghazi], June 9; al-Watan [Tripoli], June 9).

The approach of the Libyan political leadership reflects the difficulty of the new Libyan government in asserting its writ in that nation – acknowledging that the government is incapable of controlling its own security situation is to admit the government does not have sovereignty over Libya and is in need of foreign intervention.

A French Role in Libya?

 French foreign minister Laurent Fabius indicated two weeks ago that France must “make a special effort on southern Libya,” presumably in excess of the modest Libyan requests for advice and training and equipment for border guards (Libya Herald, June 2). Despite Libyan signals that it intends to grapple with its deteriorating security situation by itself, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian appeared to hold out the possibility that French forces could be available for a mission in southern Libya if Tripoli desired it: “Libya is a sovereign country that is responsible for its own borders. It has to decide whether it wants extended support from the French or any other European country to secure its borders” (AFP, June 2). Rumors in Libya of an imminent French military intervention in the south prompted a denial from French President FrançoisHollande, who cited the absence of a UN mandate or a request from Libyan authorities for military assistance (AFP, May 31).

President Hollande, who is struggling to gain control of a French African foreign policy that has traditionally been in the hands of a select group of military and business interests, has described a new three-track policy in Africa that will include military training and support, environmental preservation and an emphasis on development that could involve opening European markets to African exporters (Fraternite Matin [Abidjan], June 6). Hollande has also signaled French willingness to provide military assistance at the request of regional governments.

However, a growing military commitment in Africa does not necessarily fit with new cuts to the French military budget that will see a reduction in the number of troops, reduced helicopter capability and a cut in the number of armored vehicles amongst other measures. General Jean-Philippe Margueron, the army second-in-command, has warned that a planned reduction in training raises the possibility of mission failure and the production of “cannon fodder” rather than combat-capable troops (Le Monde [Paris], June 11).

France is now looking to purchase 12 MQ-9 Reaper drones from the United States, with two of these to be permanently deployed in Africa to replace the aging Harfang drone systems currently based alongside U.S. drones in Niamey (AFP, June 11). While the Reapers are the choice of the French Air Force, the defense ministry has said Israel will be looked at as an alternative provider if a deal cannot be made with the United States. France is certain to seek weaponized versions of the Reapers, though Washington has so far been reluctant to provide armed drones to any purchasers, including its NATO allies (Defense Industry Daily, May 31).

Niger – The Latest Target

According to Nigérien President Mahamadou Issoufou, there is little doubt that the suicide bombers that struck a military base in Agadez and a French uranium plant in Arlit on May 23came from southern Libya: “For Niger in particular, the main threat has moved from the Malian border to the Libyan border. I confirm in effect that the enemy who attacked us… comes from the (Libyan) south, where another attack is being prepared against Chad” (AFP, May 28; RFI, May 27). [1] The Libyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to Issoufou’s statement by saying it “did not serve the interests of the two countries” and there was “no evidence of the participation of Libyan elements” (al-Manara, May 27).

Malian security officers say the attacks may actually have been planned by radical Islamists in Tarkint, a town in the remote Tilemsi Valley, which has served as a stronghold for the extremists (RFI, May 31). However, there are also reports from sources in Niger that the May 23 attacks were planned in Derna, a Cyrenaïcan Islamist stronghold on the Mediterranean coast (Jeune Afrique, June 9). The Nigérien intelligence service claims that the jihadists who escaped from Mali are now concentrated in the Ubari and Sabha Oases region of southwest Libya (Jeune Afrique, June 9).

Rhissa ag Boula, formerly a leading Tuareg rebel in northern Niger and now a special adviser to the Nigerien president, says that: “The south of Libya, where anarchy reigns, has become a safe haven for the terrorists hunted in Mali” (AFP, June 1). Another veteran Tuareg rebel leader and current MNLA spokesman Hama ag Sid’Ahmad confirmed the Malian and Libyan origin of the attackers, who belonged to the AQIM-related Movement for Unity and Justice in West Africa (MUJWA) and operated under the coordination of Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al-Mua’qi’un Biddam Brigade (“Those Who Sign in Blood”):

The terrorist groups got to that region through the Malian and Libyan borders. It’s not complicated; the borders are real sieves. Since [Mokhtar] Belmokhtar is the main organizer, without his presence and that of certain drug barons, MUJWA would not exist…  Even if the terrorist leaders no longer have major military resources and they are having mobility difficulties, they have money. They are quietly trying to reorganize, forget the leaders’ quarrels, and unite in order to fight together. It’s the presence of the French Special Forces that is preventing them from reorganizing quickly… (Le Temps.d’Algerie, May 27).

So long as Niger refuses to meet Libyan demands for the extradition of Mu’ammar Qaddafi’s son Sa’adi (who lives under house arrest in Niamey) and several other ex-members of the Qaddafi regime, little can be expected in the way of security cooperation between the two nations. Tripoli has indicated its unhappiness with the Nigerien approach by repatriating thousands of Nigeriens working in Libya whose remittances helped support many citizens of this deeply impoverished nation. With nothing in the way of employment waiting for them in Niger, these returnees may eventually pose a new security threat in Niger.

Niger is also having trouble hanging on to terrorists it has under detention; on June 1, 22 prisoners, including several convicted terrorists, were freed from a high-security prison in Niamey by three gunmen. One of those who escaped was Alassane Ould Muhammad “Cheibani,” a Gao region Arab with a history of prison escapes. Cheibani was serving a 20-year sentence for the December, 2000 assassination of William Bultemeier, a U.S. Embassy defense official in Niamey and the 2009 murder of four Saudi Arabians in northern Niger. Cheibani is also a prime suspect in the 2008 kidnappings of Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay (RFI Online, June 4). [2]

Mali – Between Stabilization or a New War

In northern Mali’s Kidal region there is still no resolution to the differences between the Tuareg rebels of the Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA – a secular separatist movement) and the central government in Bamako. The situation is growing critical as Malian troops continue their slow progress towards Kidal, which they have announced they are determined to enter despite the MNLA’s promise to oppose their entry. Mahamadou Djeri Maiga, the vice-president of the MNLA’s political wing, has promised that: “If we are attacked, it will be the end of negotiations and we will fight to the end” (AFP, June 4).

With the Malian army looking for revenge against the MNLA and their supporters for the January 2012 massacre of Malian troops taken prisoner in Aguel Hoc, there are signs that renewed clashes are inevitable. Most notable of these indications was the heavy fighting between MNLA rebels and Malian government troops that took place near the village of Anefis on June 5. This time, the MNLA withdrew, but once they are pinned up against the Algerian border in Kidal they will have to choose between further resistance or the abandonment of their cause (and the consequences that will follow).  The Malian troops, under the command of two of Mai’s most capable officers, Colonel Didier Dacko and Colonel Hajj ag Gamou, were accompanied by roughly 100 French troops, though it was uncertain whether they were there to aid the Malian army or to impede the outright defeat of the MNLA, which worked closely with French forces in finding and destroying Islamist elements hiding in the Idar des Ifoghas mountains.

A Malian government spokesman denounced what he described as “ethnic cleansing” in Kidal on June 4, promising that Malian troops would enter Kidal soon (L’Essor [Bamako], June 4). The charge of “ethnic cleansing” was in response to the MNLA’s arrest of dozens of Black Malians (mostly Peul/Fulani and Songhai) in Kidal during a hunt for “infiltrators” sent to the city by Malian military intelligence (RFI , June 3; AFP, June 3). Tensions in the city were reflected in a suicide bomber’s attempted assassination on June 4 of an MNLA colonel believed to have close ties to the French military (AFP, June 4).

The MNLA and the Malian government are once more at the negotiating table in Ougadougou, with Bamako working from the position presented in a UN Security Council resolution that the MNLA must lay down its arms and allow the Malian military to enter Kidal in return for negotiations by the next president regarding the status of Azawad. The MNLA believes it has already made sufficient concessions by abandoning its demand for independence and accepting the July elections (RFI, June 8). There is internal pressure in Bamako to press the administration to carry on the return of the Malian army to Kidal. Malian members of parliament declared in early June that they would not participate in the July elections if the Malian army was not present in Kidal (Info Matin [Bamako], June 4). The High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA), founded in Kidal on May 19, largely from former members of rebel groups, has joined the MNLA in presenting a single position in the Ouagadougou negotiations.

Tuareg negotiators have indicated they are ready to sign a document advanced by the Burkina Faso mediators that would allow Malian troops to enter Kidal in advance of the planned July elections, but Bamako’s representatives have indicated they have reservations about the agreement, which would see rebels be confined to cantonments with their weapons in return for a “special status” for Azawad (northern Mali – a term Bamako does not wish to see in the document). Bamako is seeking complete disarmament and the pursuit of the arrest warrants issued for many Tuareg rebel leaders accused of various crimes before and during the Islamist occupation of northern Mali (AFP, June 13).

KazuraGeneral Jean-Bosco Kazura

The African troops currently deployed in Mali are expected to be absorbed in several months by the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), a 2,600 man force under the command of General Jean-Bosco Kazura of Rwanda, with a second-in-command from Niger and a French chief-of-staff. Though Chad was looking to take command of the mission, a poor interview by the Chadian candidate for command appears to have precluded this possibility and with it, the possible participation of Chadian forces (RFI, June 11). Additional troops may come from China, Bangladesh, Burundi, Honduras, Norway and Sweden, with a 1,000 man French rapid reaction force (Jeune Afrique, June 13).

Conclusion

Chadian president Idriss Déby has warned of the threat posed by terrorist groups now based in southern Libya, not only to his own country, but also to Europe, and has called for an international intervention to enable Libya to form a secure and functioning state that is not a threat to its neighbors.  There is a danger of seeing this struggle as consisting of several different theaters defined by national boundaries, when this is contrary to the jihadist conception of this conflict, which is essentially borderless. AQIM, which was once largely restricted to activities within northern Algeria, has expanded into a number of related movements with operatives in Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Libya and the potential to ally with other groups such as Boko Haram and Ansar al-Shari’a. With their mobility restored, the Islamist Jihadists of the Sahel/Sahara will continue to take advantage of regional political rivalries, under-equipped militaries and fears of neo-colonialism to rebuild their movement. Libya’s inability to secure its restless south and its readiness at the highest levels of government to ignore terrorist infiltration present the most immediate and most important challenges in restricting jihadist operations. Unless real international security cooperation can be established, the Islamist extremist groups may soon emerge with the upper hand in the struggle for the vast territories of northern Africa.

Notes

  1. For the attacks in Arlit and Agadez, see Andrew McGregor, “Niger: New Battleground for North Africa’s Islamist Militants?, Jamestown Foundation Hot Issue, May 29, 2013, http://www.jamestown.org/programs/hotissues/single-hot-issues/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=40932&tx_ttnews[backPid]=61&cHash=7c12e2e7bda14085101f67dc09adf5fa

2. U.S. Embassy Bamako Cable 09BAMAKO106, February 23, 2009.

 

This article was first published in the June 14, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor