(By Scott Krane)
The recent situation of Islamic terror in Algeria and Mali present matters both connected and independent of one another: on the one hand, the cost of oil production will go up, yet not cease; foreign workers will work in the region for companies such as BP, Statoil from Norway and Algeria’s own state energy firm, Sonatrach, at their own peril. However, the situation also shows the drifting geopolitical current of the Islamic world, and this does not relate to the energy industry, but all the same, rings security sirens.
The conclusion to be drawn from the ‘Arab Spring’ in the Maghreb and beyond is that while Algeria is a hardline Islamist government, it must withstand the tide of al Qaeda insurgencies – deadly subgroups made of disillusioned nomadic tribes. This is, and must remain, a common goal shared by Algeria, Europe and the United States. While the Algerian government promotes Islamic fundamentalism bred from extremist Sunni ideology, we prefer the devil we know to the threat of a regional caliphate modeled on the fascist theology of the Taliban.
In the 19th century, the French took over Algeria, and for more than a century the vast African country remained a colony. In 1962, Algeria won its independence during the Algerian War for self-determination. The new government was increasingly authoritarian and socialist, and then in the early 1990s the government came under the increasing influence of Islam, when populist Islamist groups fought the government in a grisly civil war. The Islamist confederacy surrendered in 2000, however, there has been a tension between secularism and Islamism ever since. However, even the current fundamentalist government that reflects the ideological tension is an essential shield for fending off anti-regime terrorism.
These days, Western interests would be wisest to do what they can to prevent a collapse of this Algerian government, in contrast to the collapsed government in Mali and even Libya. The upshot of these recently toppled regimes has been the breeding of vast terror cells – al Qaeda subgroups. The NATO no-fly zone in the latter country, in March of 2011, has drawn a new security precedent for countries in the region: many of the fighters that originally appeared to be the protagonists of the situation, the Libyan “rag-tag” rebels are now a threat to the government in Algeria, (after having destroyed the presidential palace and overtaking Bamako, the capital of Mali). Recent violence throughout Saharan Africa has proven that the region has become a breeding ground for al Qaeda insurgencies; especially affiliates made up of local ethnic fighters.
Mali suffered a string of coups beginning in Feb. 2012. For this, the West African country presents a geopolitical situation that is relatively contradictory to other ‘Arab Spring’ era governments that were toppled in the name of a lame version of democracy and have created pockets of Jihadists who threaten Western businesses and diplomatic infrastructure.
The Malian government, prior to its annexation, was a functioning constitutional democracy. It was then captured by the Azawad National Liberation Movement, who are known to be affiliates of AQIM (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.) In turn, an offshoot of this organization known as the Those Who Sign With Blood Brigade claimed responsibility for the hostage crisis on Jan. 16 at the In Amenas gas facility in southern Algeria, an attack that resulted in the deaths of 37 foreign workers, three of whom were Americans. The coup in Mali, however, was not only by AQIM but also by specifically homegrown al Qaeda offshoots such as the group known as Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith). These al Qaeda affiliates are largely made-up of ethnic Tuaregs. The Tuaregs are Berbers who are an ancient nomadic people, indigenous to Saharan Africa. The word “Tuareg” is derived from the name “Targa” which is the Berber word for the Fezzan province in Libya; while in Arabic, the term “Tuareg” means “abandoned by God”.
On Jan.11, 2013, France unveiled operation Afisma to halt the advance of Tuareg Islamists on Kidal, Timbuktu and Bamako in Mali. The French fighters captured several towns that had been seized by al Qaeda forces. According to one source, international donors – the United States included – pledged an impressive $455.5 million to defeat the Islamists who had toppled the Malian government. Meanwhile, the United States signed an agreement with Niger President Mahamadou Issoufo to build a base in the neighboring country for surveillance drones to monitor al Qaeda intelligence in the Sahara. The United States also began offering refueling and transport planes to assist the French effort.
AQIM or al Qaeda Islamic Maghbreb has its roots among Tuaregs in Algeria. The members flock there from Niger and across the desert in Mali. For six months prior to the attack at the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria on the Libyan border, (and a week after trouble resurged in Mali), local Tuaregs, employed at the In Amenas plant as drivers, had been on strike at the location. Apropos to their demands, the formation of al Qaeda affiliates in the region are as much a product of economic despair throughout Africa as they are an extension of the Osama bin Laden ideology.
Western-based businesses and security think tanks had warned the oil industry that there was danger in the southern Algerian desert, namely at In Amenas. Incidents in Mali in June of 2012 executed by yet another al Qaeda sub-group, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), had also been telltale alerts for oil experts and security analysts.
The hostage siege on Jan.16 of workers at the In Amenas gas plant lasted for four days. As a result the government in Algeria will be changing their tune somewhat, however, their own ideology does not find foreign policy analysts nonplussed by the incident. For instance, the Lebanese newspaper columnist, Eyad Abu Shakra, wrote in the UK publication, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat on Jan. 28, 2013:
“The Algerian political philosophy was born and raised around ‘the million martyrs revolution,’ or ‘the revolutionary legitimacy’ [of the 1980s and ‘90s] that isn’t accountable to anyone about any of the choices it makes.”
He concludes that an oppressive regime in Algeria is always in threat of an ‘Arab Spring’ fate, which in term will only create an environment that encourages the formation of terror groups that claim to be affiliates of al Qaeda. But how will politics in Algiers morph? Will they become less Islamist, less fundamentalist? Shakra writes:
"In spite of the efforts led by some groups within the regime to create a violent ‘Radical Islam’ to justify the oppression of the Islamic Hardliners, this oppressive power [Algeria] led many groups down the road of extremism. They found a favorable environment in many marginalized regions in the Islamic world, transforming many parts of Afghanistan, Yemen, and other North African countries into a safe haven and operational field at the same time, for [al Qaeda] and other similar organizations."
The editorial continues:
"The pursuit of these groups – after the September 11th attacks in the U.S and the war against terror – coupled with the tyranny of some governments, the rise of tribal disputes and the economic deterioration of many countries who almost became ‘failed nations’, led to the concentration of this type of extremism in specific areas such as [….] Mali."
However, be this assessment true, the Algerian government, Islamist or not, (led by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika), will not allow Tuareg al Qaeda insurgencies to topple its military (the second largest in Africa after Egypt). Not only will Algeria partner with Europe and the United States to protect its own sovereignty, it also must protect its energy assets in order to maintain business relations with Europe and Britain. Notwithstanding, Algiers must now see the dangers implicit in an Islamist government.
Scott Krane is a journalist who needs a home. He has written on geopolitics for the Jerusalem Post, covered the Bob Dylan concert in Ramat Gan for Ha''aretz; he blogs about the intersection of film, drama, history and philosophy for The Times of Israel. His work also appears in The Atlantic, Full of Crow; he is blogger/music critic for JazzTimes magazine, his column is called ''flat five''...and has work forthcoming from Tablet magazine.
His book about aesthetics and literary criticism is searching for a publisher and has been made possible by George Borschardt Inc (Eli Wiesel''s legendary publisher) and The Paris Review of Books. He studied music and writing at University of Oregon and literature and administrative bureaucracy at BIU with a focus on diplomacy.