Identifying the enemy in the Sahel
November 6, 2010 8 Comments
For fear of too-closely echoing Aaron and quickly making this blog a forum only for angry ranting and ad hominem attacks against noted and widely-published, respected figures, I want to make clear that what follows is not so much an attack as a plea for better citation of evidence as well as a fairer discussion of context when dealing with Sahelian politics. Caveat Lector.
When I saw SOAS researcher and Tuareg expert Jeremy Keenan‘s new Al-Jazeera piece on the most recent bin Laden audiotape and the Sahel, I already had a rough idea where it would go, or at least where it would begin. And indeed, Keenan didn’t disappoint. After a brief discussion of the tape (which I covered separately here), my thoughts tracked roughly with Keenan’s that bin Laden’s “blessing” of the September 16 kidnapping of seven employees of the nuclear giant Areva and a subsidiary in Niger would be “transformative.”
And then, with, “This is because al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the Sahara-Sahel was a creation of the Algerian DRS (Direction du Renseignement et la Sécurité) with its three main emirs in the Sahara-Sahel – Abdelhamid abou Zaïd, Yahia Djouadi and Mokhtar ben Mokhtar (all with many aliases) – being strongly suspected of being DRS agents,” Keenan promptly lost me.
I’ve never been a particularly big fan of this theory. On the one hand, there has been consistent suspicion for years that the DRS, the main Algerian intelligence service, was working with Islamist terrorist groups in some fashion. Notably former Algerian and French officers as well as some writers and even other jihadist groups have accused the DRS and various army units of at least some coordination with, if not infiltration of, units of the hyper-violent Groupe Islamique Armée (GIA) during Algeria’s civil war, and the treatment of certain key militants in more recent years has continued to fuel speculation about dirty tricks and terrorism in Algeria. For instance, the former commander of the GIA splinter group (and AQIM forerunner) the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC), Abdelrazek el-Para, has still not seen a court room despite having been arrested in Chad in 2004 and ruled by a court to still be at large when he had been, for several months, in the custody of Algerian authorities. He has since renounced terrorism, and not been punished. And the first GSPC leader, Hassan Hattab, currently lives freely in Algiers after having broken with the group in 2003 and renounced terrorism several times in the past years, despite at one point being subject to a death sentence for his role in the anti-government insurgency, and threatened with death by his former compatriots.
For some, this anecdotal evidence (evidence of what, I’m not quite sure) is enough to suggest that the Algerian security services are in league with AQIM. While this isn’t impossible, and the DRS and Algerian military were certainly responsible for horrible things and nasty coverups during the civil war and after, there’s simply no real evidence that these ties exist. Now, absence of evidence is not by any means the evidence of absence, but the available information does not allow one to make claims such as, “The DRS created AQIM” especially when AQIM sprang from the GSPC, which was in turn a reaction to the insane violence of the GIA, which itself was founded by a group of “Afghan Arabs” who eventually took over from a host of other armed militant groups waging war against Algeria’s government in 1992. You get the picture.
This is something Keenan does fairly regularly, asserting as fact the idea that the DRS created and to a certain extent ran or still runs AQIM, but without any sort of specific or even general sourcing for his claims or reference to specific other people who agree with him.
Keenan also contradicts his own argument about the level of DRS “control” of AQIM. He writes:
Between the end of 2008 and this year, as the group’s estimated strength increased from around 200 to some 300 to 400, its composition changed. As young Mauritanian Islamists have become increasingly attracted to the Sahara Emirate, as they call it, so they have come to outnumber Algerians, possibly diminishing DRS influence and control over the group.
Indications are that AQIM recruitment from young and more ‘Islamist’ and ‘jihadist’ elements in the region leapt in the wake of the disastrous Franco-Mauritanian raids into Mali on July 22, ostensibly to liberate the French hostage Michel Germaneau, and again after September 16 when France’s ally (‘proxy’) Mauritania, which had joined France in ‘declaring war’ on AQIM, was given a very bloody nose by AQIM fighters at Ras el Ma (west of Timbuktu).
Keenan’s assessment of AQIM’s changing composition fits with reports from the region, the increased pace of attacks against Mauritanian civil and military targets stretching back several years, and AQIM propaganda, which has tried not only to showcase the group’s increasingly diverse (and increasingly Moorish) composition but to attract more Moors, as well as Haussa speakers and Tuareg.
That said, Keenan’s point about changing AQIM recruitment targets and composition undermine his image of a DRS-controlled or -infiltrated AQIM; if Belmokhtar, Abu Zeid and Djouadi are all DRS agents, why would they recruit in a way that would, as Keenan put it, diminish DRS influence? And would the all-powerful DRS continue to tolerate an increasingly dangerous, large, and wealthy organization slide out of its control? And even assuming that the origins of AQIM are as Keenan suggests, his own point about the organization’s changing structure would suggest that the group is becoming more localized and more organic to the Sahel. This in turn means that AQIM could pose a genuine regional threat, a fact and flaw in his argument that Keenan refuses to address.
The second major issue with this article is that it takes at face value the negative statements other Sahelian countries make with regards to Algeria, terrorism, and AQIM without mentioning the context behind those statements. Case in point:
Most of Algeria’s neighbours have recently begun to accuse it of being in some way responsible for the development of the AQIM ‘terrorist’ threat in the Sahel.
Cheikh El Moctar Ould Horma, Mauritania’s minister of health, recently ‘suggested’ that Algeria was the ‘porte-parole’ (spokesperson) for AQIM; elements in the Moroccan media have accused Washington of appeasing Algeria in its relationship with and use of AQIM as a ‘terrorist’ organisation; a senior member of Mali’s security forces accused the DRS of being ‘at the heart of AQIM’; Niger is angry with the role played by Algeria’s DRS in the political destabilisation of its northern regions; while Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s leader, has suggested euphemistically that the problem in the region is Algeria’s DRS.
Again, we have the problem of broad statements made without any hint at the evidence (or, in the case of Niger, a statement made about an entire government in one line). But more importantly, Keenan makes this statement and then fails to acknowledge the general reasons why various countries in the region are upset with Algeria that don’t have to do with Keenan’s claims about Algeria creating AQIM, or the specific motivations behind the statements.
Let’s start with the regional context; Algeria has by far the largest and most combat-tested military in the region, and specifically in the Sahel likes to throw its weight around. While there has been cooperation between the major Sahelian countries (Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Niger) and others on counterterrorism issues, including various intelligence and military discussions as well as the creation of a joint military headquarters at Tamanrasset, in southern Algeria, Algeria often does not see eye-to-eye with its neighbors on AQIM, ransom payments for hostages, and more.
More locally, Algeria has been critical of Mauritanian anti-AQIM operations in Mali, lashed out in July against Franco-Mauritanian operations against AQIM as well as cooperation between Mauritania and Mali on ransom payments that led to the liberation of two Spanish hostages in exchange for AQIM-linked kidnapper Omar al-Sahrawi (and several million euros). More recently, Algeria rather petulantly ridiculed the “incompetence” of the Malian army in fighting AQIM on their own territory.
But more important to understanding the context behind anti-Algeria statements is one of the seminal issues in the Sahel, the presence of the various Tuareg populations that reside in it. Relations between Algeria and Mali have been tense for several years in part due to Algerian intervention over Mali’s trouble with its Tuareg; Algeria helped negotiate an end to Mali’s most recent Tuareg rebellion in 2006, and has since been pushing (directly and in the Algerian press) for more Tuareg autonomy as well as the arming of Tuareg in order to help keep security in northern Mali, something that is part of the Algiers Accords that ended the conflict, but understandably worries Mali. In Niger the same is true, where in the wake of a more recent Tuareg rebellion both Algeria and Libya have tried to take leadership roles in “settling” the conflict, raising the prospect of more money and support going to Nigerien Tuareg, to the detriment of the Nigerien government (especially in the wake of September’s kidnapping, which led some to ask if Niger’s Tuareg, in the absence of government support and money, are being radicalized by AQIM).
And then, of course, there’s Morocco. While the now decades-long animosity between the two is due to the conflict in Western Sahara, and Algerian support for the pro-independence Polisario front, Morocco has for the past several months attempted to use terrorism and AQIM to propel themselves into a position of influence in the Sahel. Moroccan media sources and friendly writers and “experts” have been talking increasingly of late about links between the Polisario and AQIM, even though there is little or no evidence of any linkage beyond a few scattered Sahrawis joining or partnering with the group.
By establishing a link between an Algerian-supported group and terrorism, Morocco stands to gain several very real benefits; among other things, this link could get Morocco access to counterterrorism money that the EU and U.S. are pouring into the region, threatening the credibility of Morocco’s negotiating adversary in talks about the future of Western Sahara (in addition to strengthening Morocco’s case for their “autonomy” proposal which guarantees Morocco’s right to guard Western Sahara’s borders) and undermines confidence in Algeria’s anti-terrorism leadership. Gaining inclusion into the terrorism debate in the Sahel also gains Morocco access to regional counterterrorism forums, such as the recent G8-sponsored summit in Bamako, which Algeria predictably boycotted because of Morocco’s presence.
None of this is to say that other countries do not have reason to be pushing back against Algeria for their own efforts to assert their place in the Sahel and against AQIM; rather, it is to demonstrate just a fraction of the incredible complexity of the power dynamics in the region, which covers the fighting between regional powers (Algeria, Libya, Morocco) for influence and power, amongst both Western and Sahelian countries, long-running power struggles between Morocco and Algeria, internal and inter-Sahelian conflicts that touch Mauritania, Mali and Niger, and the ongoing efforts of these countries to defend their own sovereignty against outside intervention. With all of the countries (and the West) concerned about terrorism in the region, it makes sense that the threat of terrorism could be wielded in public as a response to a whole host of conflicts. Instead, Keenan simply takes these claims at face value in order to criticize Algeria, without looking at any of the underlying motivations each state might have to play the terrorism card.
This is at heart my greatest issue with Keenan’s writing, his unquestioning acceptance of accusations that benefit his argument without any exploration either of the truth of his evidence or the varied and shifting motivations of outside actors for talking about terrorism the way they do. Sourcing, context, and questioning are an analysts’ friend, and in the absence of those three Keenan becomes an advocate at best, a polemicist at worst. And until that changes, his work should be read with an eye not to what Keenan argues, but rather to what he leaves out.