N. African chaos continues – from Libya to Mali to Algeria

Analysis: West created vacuum in Libya where weapons, tribes, militias, radicals mix together in disarray.

French soldiers heading to Mali, January 2013. (photo credit: Reuters)
French soldiers heading to Mali, January 2013.
(photo credit: Reuters)
The focus of the tensions, fighting and killing that resulted from the Arab uprisings, including the ongoing civil war in Syria, has moved west to north Africa.
On Saturday, the Algerian army finished its attack on the terrorists who had led a four-day siege of a gas plant, killing the majority for a provisional count of 32. The number of hostages killed as of Sunday was put at a preliminary 23, according to Algerian officials.
The targeted workers came from many countries, as the plant came under a coordinated attack by terrorists who had also tried to blow up a pipeline.
Algerian Communication Minister Muhammad Said stated that the attackers came from various countries and included only three Algerians.
They entered from neighboring countries, according to DPA.
“We have indications that they originated from northern Mali,” a senior official was quoted as saying by The New York Times.
An Algerian al-Qaida-linked jihadist, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who is based in Mali, has claimed responsibility through spokesmen and is blamed by Algerians for planning the attack, according to the report in the Times.
His spokesmen claim the Algerian assault was in response to France’s attack against Islamists in Mali.
Harold Rhode, a distinguished senior fellow at the Gatestone Institute and a former official at the US Department of Defense, interprets the events in that “the French are putting up a valiant fight, but in the Middle East you fight to win.”
“The bottom line is... that Middle Eastern culture sees inaction or verbal excuses as weakness, and when they see that they pounce – they hit big time.”
Rhode goes on to say that in order to understand the Muslim mentality, it helps to go back and look at the writings of Muslim theologian Ibn Hazm, who explained the Muslim concept of war in his work The Book of Morals and Conduct: “The measure of prudence and resolution is to know a friend from an enemy; the height of stupidity and weakness is not to know an enemy from a friend.”
Rhode implies that this is what is going on in the region.
“If you negotiate before victory they see this as weakness, and this is how the US is seen concerning Syria, Iran, and in North Africa. And America is what matters. And by not doing anything and saying, ‘let us reason together’ before victory – is basically saying I don’t have the will or ability to do what is necessary to win.”
Algeria has historically been tough on terrorists, and their failure to coordinate their response to the attack has irked allies. Algerian officers have trained with the US military and the governments share intelligence to fight against al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), according to a report by Eli Lake in the Daily Beast.
But the countries do not have nearly as strong a relationship as those of other countries in the region. Lake reported that Algeria has not accepted large defense aid packages like those of Morocco or Egypt, and instead gets most of its arms from Moscow.
Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a research fellow at the Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, says that “Algerians have been dealing with Islamic groups for more than 20 years.” The 1990s civil war left behind a “residual group of Islamic radicals,” which “at some point re-branded itself into the AQIM.”
If the attack on Algeria can be traced back to an international array of Islamist radicals based in Mali, then it is necessary to understand how northern Mali recently became taken over by Islamists, with roots going back to the war in Libya.
The conflict in Mali began in January 2012 with various groups fighting for autonomy in the north of the country.
Later in the spring of 2012, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad declared an independent state named Azawad, which remains unrecognized by the international community.
It comprises more than half the territory of the Mali state.
The Mali government eventually called for help as the Islamists began taking over more of the country, and France decided to intervene to stop their advance. Reuters reports that Paris currently has 2,000 troops in the country, with its war planes pounding rebel positions for the past 10 days.
Belmokhtar has said that he would be ready “to negotiate with the West and the Algerian government, provided they stop their bombing of Mali’s Muslims.”
Maddy-Weitzman explains that the “Libya events brought a number of well-armed Tuareg back to Mali, and some of them were Islamists, while others were Tuareg nationalists.” It was the “Libyan events that triggered a swing in the balance of power” and allowed for these Islamic radicals to slip into Mali.
We are now seeing the “blow back into Algeria.” Tunis Afrique Presse reported at the end of last week that the attackers had demanded safe passage to Libya, but Algeria refused to negotiate. It is likely they wanted to go to Libya because the country remains unstable, divided into zones of influence by various tribes and other groups.
Maddy-Weitzman indicates Libya would be a good place to go “for terrorists looking to disappear, where the central authority is weak. And in addition, it is next door.”
In regard to whether the issue of ethnic and cultural divisions could be part of the picture, Maddy-Weitzman agrees that it could, saying the divisions are part of the internal power struggles, but the overall motivation is that of the Islamic radicals.
What seems to be evident is that the West created a vacuum in Libya where weapons, tribes, militias and radicals were mixed together in disarray, without a well-thought out plan on how to deal with the aftermath of the conflict.
This seems to be the broken record playing throughout the region from the Iraq invasion, to Afghanistan, and perhaps next in Syria – that the desire to “rebuild” is not stronger than the local currents, which are ultimately more important in determining events on the ground.