The hostage crisis at Ain Amenas gas complex in January placed a spotlight on Algerian foreign policy and security measures. Although unilateral Algerian security tactics frustrated international governments, authorities in many nations still believe Algerian support is necessary for security in North Africa. Yet President Bouteflika and the Algerian government are unlikely to provide extensive cooperation beyond their borders; Algerian policy is isolationist at the core.
The Algerian government has long held a “non-interference” foreign policy strategy. Historically, President Bouteflika has been a vocal opponent of foreign intervention, believing in particular that Western foreign military spending in North Africa allows too much leverage and insight into domestic militaries. The January attacks highlighted the extent to which Algeria is ready to act unilaterally. When Islamic militants took several hostages, including 48 foreign nationals, the Algerian military acted quickly to end the siege. This decision, made without the advice or support of other nations, aggravated world leaders who commonly cooperate in such situations. However, to the Algerians, these dialogs appear time-consuming and intrusive.
Algerian reluctance to invite coalition cooperation within its borders is equally matched by an unwillingness to interfere beyond its borders, as evidenced during the2011 Libyan Revolution. Though the Algerian government did not support the Gaddafi regime, they were reluctant to become involved in NATO-supported operations to remove the dictator. Rather, the Algerian government focused on the potential volatility in Libya, fearing that instability would create pockets of opportunity for increased weapons trafficking and radicalised groups to take hold. The Algerian government fortified its borders, shutting down crossings between the two nations. Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci stated, “We can only say that the relationship between us will improve with the return of stability to Libya.” Further, the Algerian government believes that those who aided in the overthrow of Gaddafi, particularly NATO, are responsible not only for the resulting instability, but are beholden to guide Libya’s new government through course-correction as it makes its way into democratic polity.
The nature of this “fortress-like” philosophy dates back to Algerian independence from France in 1962, when the Algerian government became determined to become a pillar of sovereignty. Decades later, in 1992, Algeria suffered a coup d’etat which led to a decade long civil war between the Algerian military and two Islamic parties; the Islamic Salvation Front, and the considerably more radical Armed Islamic Group (GIA). The GIA carried out a series of massacres, and Algeria found itself alone in struggling with militant Islamic insurgencies, relatively unaided by Western forces. By the end of the war, insurgencies cost the lives of almost 200,000 people, yet the terrorist threat in the Middle East was not fully acknowledged by Western forces until the attacks in the US on September 11, 2001. As a result, Algeria’s experiences have reinforced the government’s conviction to remain solidly independent in dealing with domestic security issues, and non-intrusive in events beyond its borders.
Complicating matters for Algeria, however, are contentious neighbours along those borders. Algeria is the largest country in Africa (five times the size of France) and has a 2,500 mile land border. Six hundred of those miles are shared with a still-unstable Libya, and a further nine hundred of those miles are shared with Mali, where Islamist militants have taken over the northern region of the country, threatening to impact security along Algerian borders. Still more troublesome, a large section of the nation borders fall deep within the Sahara. In that vast, secluded space, many militant groups have taken residence in the areas bordering Algeria, particularly in northern Mali.
In April 2012, an offshoot group of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) kidnapped seven people from an Algerian consulate in northern Mali. The militants executed one hostage and released three in the summer. The three remaining are reportedly still in captivity. Despite these affronts, the Algerian government has been loath to cooperate in actions against militants in Mali, acutely aware of their direct impact on security within Algerian borders. Algerian officials fear that military involvement might push the radicals further north into domestic territory. Further still, Algerian actions may cause radicalisation of the nomadic Taureg Bedouins, whose territory resides on the borders of Algeria, Mali, and Niger.
While the Algerian government is adamant that they will not send troops to Mali, it has granted permission for French fighters to use Algerian airspace, and has reinforced military presence along the Malian border. The attackers at Ain Amenas gas complex claimed that the siege was a direct result of Algerian cooperation. Attacking Algeria’s gas complex is a significant step for militant Islamists; the assault was more sophisticated than bombings in public places, and sources confirm that the attack has been planned for some time, with the help of individuals working inside the complex. AQIM and other radicalised groups have historically profited from ransoming hostages, and a complex with foreign nationals would possibly provide income to spend on achieving goals in northern Mali. In addition, the attack sends a message. Sonatrach, Algeria’s nationalized oil and gas company, is the tenth largest in the world. The hydrocarbon industry provides the bulk of the nation’s wealth. An attack within such an infrastructure signals an attempt to cripple the Algerian economy.
However, a large percentage of Algerian revenue supports its defence spending. Algeria has the 16th largest defence budget in the world (primarily purchasing weaponry from Russia), and a highly proficient military, adept after years of experience, at securing its borders and ensuring safety to its hydrocarbon profit sectors. Algeria will continue to secure and reinforce its borders from within, but are unlikely to provide more than airspace permissions in affairs beyond its borders.
Over the past forty-eight hours, Chadian soldiers have continued to secure the town of Kidal in Mali while France has urged the United Nations to send peacekeepers into Mali as French troops prepare to withdrawal from the mission by March 2013. The security situation throughout the country remains to be volatile as counter attacks by Islamist rebels have indicated that while all of the cities in the northern region have been retaken, the rebels continue to have the capabilities of regrouping and staging hit and run attacks. It is highly likely that such attacks and clashes will continue to occur during the transitional period as the rebels will attempt to use this moment to regain their access.
On Tuesday, an estimated 1,800 Chadian troops entered the northern town of Kidal in order to continue securing the last major Islamist rebel stronghold. Meanwhile reports have indicated that there are rising tensions in Mali as the French-led forces have been attacked by Islamist rebels in retaken territories, raising fears that a prolonged insurgency may occur. French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian confirmed on Tuesday that rebels had hit back at troops with rocket fire in Gao, which is the largest northern city.
Meanwhile after announcing plans to start withdrawing its 4,000 troops from Mali in March, France has called on the United Nations to begin deploying its peacekeeping force in order to take over the mission. Speaking to the media in Paris, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius indicated that a peacekeeping force could be in place by April and that it would incorporate troops being deployed under the banner of the West African intervention force. France wants the UN force to help stabilize Mali and to seek an end to the long-standing conflict between the ethnic Tuaregs and Arabs and the rest of the population.
So far, France has sustained one fatality, a helicopter pilot who was killed at the beginning of the mission. The Malian army has indicated that eleven of its troops have been killed while another sixty have been wounded. France’s Defence Minister has indicated that the monthlong French offensive has killed hundreds of Islamist fighters in Mali.
Over the past 24 hours, French fighter jets have continued to bombard supply bases located in northern Mali in order to flush out any Islamist rebels who are hiding out in the region. The additional bombings also comes at a time when Paris is placing added pressure on African troops to deploy as quickly as possible in order to take over the offensive. While all of the previously militant-controlled towns have been recaptured by French and Malian troops, MS Risk continues to advise vigilance throughout the country. Food and supplies in some parts of the north are beginning dwindle as many of the Arab and Tuareg traders have fled the region as a result of rising fears of reprisal attacks.
Amidst increasing fears that the rebels could re-group in the mountainous region, dozens of French fighter jets carried out massive air strikes on rebel logistics and training centers around Kidal over the weekend. The fighter jets focused on Tessalit, which is located about 200km (125 miles) north of Kidal, and which is the gateway to the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains. The bombings also focused on the mountainous region, which is located in the north-eastern area of the country, as it is believed that the terrain could provide the perfect hiding place for the militants. Speaking to the media in Paris, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius indicated that the militants “have taken refuge in the north and the northeast but they can only stay there long-term if they have ways to replenish their supplies. So the army, in a very efficient manner, is stopping them from doing so.” Since the French military intervention began in Mali several weeks ago, extremist fighters have been fleeing to the Adrar des Ifoghas massif in the Kidal region, near the Algerian border. Although they have been driven out from their strongholds by French and Malian soldiers, the operation has been complicated as it is currently believed that the militants may be holding seven French hostages in the mountainous region.
While Chadian and French forces continue to secure Kidal, the last militant stronghold in the north, France’s Foreign Minister has indicated that his country is keen to wrap up its leading role in the offensive, noting that French troops could rapidly withdraw from Timbuktu within weeks. France is now eager to pass the role over to some 8,000 African troops pledged for the UN-backed AFISMA force. However French President Francois Hollande stipulated during his visit to Mali over the weekend, that his country would not abandon Mali.
Meanwhile Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou has confirmed that French special forces are protecting one of the country’s largest uranium mines. Officials in France have also confirmed that a dozen special forces reservists are currently strengthening security at the site. The special forces will be protecting Areva, a French company, which plays a major role within Niger’s mining industry. Areva is also the world’s fifth-largest producer of uranium. The added protection to the site comes as a result of increasing threats to Western, and French interests throughout Africa, coupled with the recent hostage situation in Algeria. The added security is also in light of the fact that three years ago, Islamist militants kidnapped five French workers at the mine in Arlit, Niger. Four of them are still being held, along with three other hostages. They are believed to be somewhere in the northern region of Mali, not far from where French troops are battling al-Qaeda-linked rebels.
On Friday evening, clashes between Central Security Forces (CSF) and protesters escalated as fireworks and Molotov cocktails were hurled at the Ettehadiya Presidential Palace in Cairo.
Thousands of protesters, carrying flags of up to 18 opposition parties, gathered on Friday to demand the removal of Morsi and his predominantly Islamist government. Demonstrators blockaded part of Merghany Street, not far from the palace. Another group of protesters held a sit-in at the palace.
The conflict began when a group of protesters moved the crowd control barriers near the palace. As security guards attempted to quell the protesters, dozens of Black Bloc protesters arrived, shouting anti-Morsi chants. Protesters threw about two dozen petrol bombs and launched fireworks outside of the palace, chanting, “Leave, Leave.”
Sources say that one Molotov cocktail made it onto presidential grounds, setting Gate 4 of the palace alight. The Interior Ministry sent five CSF armoured vehicles to the scene, and forced protesters away from the presidential palace using water hoses and tear gas. The CSF then torched the protesters’ makeshift tents.
National Salvation Front leader and Constitution Party head Mohamed ElBaradei said that the goals of the revolution should be achieved using the same peaceful methods that brought down former President Hosni Mubarak. Opposition groups which hold these protests are calling for a new Constitution based on national consensus, and an end to Brotherhood domination in the Egyptian government.
Who is the Black Bloc?
The Black Bloc, so named because of their black outfits and black balaclavas, have emerged on the streets and in the social networks sites of Egypt in the past week. The group introduced themselves on Facebook on 21 January and already has over 43,000 followers. They also released a YouTube video on 24 January, which states that their mission is to fight “against the fascist regime and their armed wing.
The group is vehemently against President Morsi, and are willing to use force to defend demonstrators against Islamists and state security forces. On Monday, Black Bloc protesters in Port Said demanded that Morsi lift the state of emergency and release all protesters arrested during demonstrations. They blocked surrounding streets and lit tires on fire, and threatened to burn the security directorate if their demands weren’t met. Black Blocs have also been seen in Cairo and Alexandria, blockading bridges, guarding the entrances to Tahrir Square, and joining in demonstrations.
On Tuesday, Egypt’s public prosecutor, Talaat Abdallah, ordered police and army officers to arrest Black Bloc members, and called on the public to hand over anyone suspected belonging to the group, accusing them of being an “organised group that participates in terrorist acts …. and (commits) crimes that affect national security.”
French and military sources have confirmed that the troops have entered the northern town of Kidal, which is the last major town that is yet to be secured from the Islamist militants. French troops arrived at the airport in Kidal early on Wednesday, just days after capturing two other strategic towns: Gao and Timbuktu. Kidal, which lies 1,500km (930 miles northeast of the capital city of Bamako, was until recently, controlled by Ansar Dine. Although the a heavy sandstorm had halted the operations on Wednesday, conditions are now clearing and the troops may soon be able to continue with their deployment into Kidal. MS Risk advises those who are still in the country, that the current security and political situation remains to be fluid and therefore can change at any given moment. There remains a high level of threat from terrorism and attacks can occur at any time. The death of two Malian soldiers, who were killed when their vehicle hit a landmine south-west of Gao, is a reminder that vigilance is necessary. French troops have warned that landmines or homemade bombs may be lying around the regions of the recently liberated towns and that they were likely placed their by the fleeing insurgents.
While France is currently entering into the final phase of its military intervention, a great deal of work still remains to be done in order to reconnect the two regions of the country and to stabilize both the political and security conditions throughout it. While it seems that the quick advance by the French and Malian troops exposed a weakness of the Islamist rebels that were holding the northern region of the country, these rebels still pose a threat, not only to the country, but to the region itself. The next phase will focus on flushing these rebels out of the vast cross-border desert region, in what French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has indicated will signify a “turning-point” in France’s intervention.
Currently, French troops are continuing to secure Kidal while France is preparing to hand over the towns that it has captured to an African force that has already begun to deploy to Mali. So far, there are an estimated 2,000 African soldiers, mainly from Chad and Niger, on the ground in Mali. It will now by the job of the African Union-backed force, the International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA), to root out the al-Qaeda-linked insurgents who have fled into the desert and the mountainous regions in the northern part of the country. This mountainous region, located east of Kidal, covers some 250,000 sq km (96,525 sq miles).
While successful at a tactical and operational level, the French intervention has in some respects demonstrated to the insurgents that they will never be successful in open combat. This increases the risks of scattering the insurgents into a sustained guerrilla threat where the previous warnings of kidnapping, nuisance attacks and terrorist incidents will become amplified. This threat may emanate from Mali but will pose a risk to regional countries.