A new crisis in the Sahel

Algerian forces cross into Mali as the possibility of another Tuareg rebellion looms over the region.

Algerian Military
Tuareg frustration with Algeria’s government has created palpable tension in the country [EPA]

London, UK – There is a new crisis in the Sahel: On December 20, Algerian army forces crossed into Mali. The sequence of events leading up to this extraordinary development began with a new spate of hostage-taking in the Sahel. On November 23, two Frenchmen were kidnapped from their hotel in Hombori, a small town in eastern Mali on the road from Mopti to Gao. The next day, four European tourists were seized from a restaurant in Timbuktu. One of them, a German who resisted, was shot dead.

Most western intelligence agencies and the media immediately attributed the attacks to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Indeed, on December 8, the Nouakchott News Agency (ANI) in Mauritania and the AFP office in Rabat received communiqués in which AQIM claimed responsibility for the kidnappings.

But these communiqués were probably false: The evidence pointed in other directions. Tamashek, the Tuareg language, had been heard spoken by the Hombori abductors, and the initial local rumours suggested that the abductors were Tuareg back from Libya, motivated by their desire for revenge against France and NATO for toppling Gaddafi.

Even before the AQIM claim, Malian security sources had been quoted (on December 7) as saying that “the men of Abdelkrim”, a cousin of Iyad Ag Ghali, the former Tuareg rebel leader and a prominent dignitary in Mali’s northeastern Kidal region, had conducted the abduction. French intelligence services clearly thought on the same lines. As early as November 27, the French newspaper, Le Journal du Dimanche, citing unnamed security experts in Niamey, pointed the finger very firmly at “the terrorist group being led by former diplomat and President[ial] negotiator Iyad Ag Ghali”.

On December 8, the Mali authorities arrested four suspects accused of kidnapping the two Frenchmen. Their arrest was not announced until December 12; their identities were not revealed until December 13. Three of them were local Tuareg, well-known in Kidal, while the fourth was a Mauritanian from Timbuktu. They were known to be close to Iyad Ag Ghali.

Two days later, on December 15, the news website Tawassoul.net, citing “knowledgeable sources”, reported that Iyad had announced the establishment of a new popular jihadist group called Ansar Al-Din, (“The Supporters of the Faith”). Five days later, Algerian forces entered Mali.

Algerian forces enter Mali

Algeria has been doing everything it can to downplay its army crossing into Mali. Algeria’s media has given it minimal coverage, while Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci and Interior Minister Dahou Ould Kablia both refused to comment. A government official was quoted by AFP, on condition of anonymity, as saying that “he would contact them if there is something to say”.

According to AFP, “Algerian troops … crossed into Mali to help government forces combat groups affiliated to al-Qaeda”. Precisely what forces is not clear.

AFP quoted a high-ranking Algerian military official saying: “Algerian troops are currently stationed in northern Mali to assist the Malian army in the fight against terrorism.” He would not divulge the number of Algerian troops now based in Mali or the expected length of their stay. A diplomatic source told AFP on the condition of anonymity: “We know there is a team of instructors [in Mali] of at least 15, including officers.”

In the last year alone, Algeria’s own media have reported its forces crossing into Niger on at least three occasions.

Something more resonant of the truth and in line with information from local sources was revealed by customs officials who told AFP that they saw a convoy carrying Algerian military between the northern Malian towns of Kidal and Tessalit.

If Algeria does not intervene militarily on foreign soil, why have its forces entered Mali?

Falsely invoking the constitution

Although Algeria’s constitution forbids its forces from taking part in military action outside its own territory, the constitution, in practice, is used more as a pretext to justify not sending its military outside its borders. For instance, it is this aspect of the constitution that Algeria has been continually invoking over the last couple of years to explain why its forces have not crossed into Mali to obliterate AQIM, even when invited to do so by its Sahelian neighbours (Niger, Mali and Mauritania), with whom it set up a joint military command in April 2010 for precisely this purpose.

Yet, on occasion, Algeria does deploy its forces outside its borders. It did so in 1973 when it sent three aircraft squadrons of fighters and bombers, an armoured brigade and 150 tanks to Egypt to help fight Israel in the Yom Kippur War, as well as in 1976 when its army engaged Moroccan forces around Amgala in the Western Sahara.

In the last year alone, Algeria’s own media have reported its forces crossing into Niger on at least three occasions.

The reason why Algerian forces have hitherto desisted from going into Mali to root out AQIM cannot therefore be because of the constitution. The real reason is that the AQIM in the Sahara-Sahel is a predominantly Algerian construct.

AQIM’s leaders in the region, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, Yahia Djouadi and Mokhtar ben Mokhtar all have links with Algeria’s secret intelligence service, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS). To make matters even trickier, Algeria’s DRS is hand in glove with the US in their joint geo-political strategy of destabilising the western Sahel.

The DRS embarrassed

The cause of Algeria’s immediate quandary is that Iyad Ag Ghali has, at least until now, been an integral part of the DRS-US schema. If he has set up his own “terrorist” organisation, as these signs indicate, it is extremely embarrassing for the DRS and more than a little disturbing for those western countries, notably the US and the UK who have put blind faith in Algeria’s DRS.

Iyad has been an accomplice of the DRS in the fabrication of terrorism and a “facilitator” of US policy in the region over many years. He came to prominence 24 years ago when he founded in 1988 a Tuareg secessionist movement in NE Mail, the Mouvement Populaire pour la Libération de l’ Azawad (MPLA) and subsequently, the Mouvement Populaire de l’Azawad (MPA).

He was the main leader of the Tuareg rebellion that began in 1990 and ended with the peace ceremony at Timbuktu in 1996. During that period, Iyad came under the eye of the DRS who were concerned that the rebellion might spread into Algeria.

Around 1999, Iyad became a convert of the pacifist Tablighi Jama’at movement, with his newfound religiosity becoming the subject of both jokes and academic interest.

His first involvement with the GSPC/AQIM was in 2003 when he facilitated the movement and ultimate liberation of the 14 out of 32 hostages abducted in the Algerian Sahara by DRS agent Abderezak Lamari (El Para), which was undertaken with the complicity of the US and used by them to justify the launch of the Saharan-Sahelian front in their global war on terror (GWOT).

In Mali, Iyad worked closely with the DRS and El Para’s second-in-command, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, currently AQIM’s main leader in the Sahel. Iyad, by this time, was also acquiring a “love for money”, which the DRS indulged.

Iyad’s main assistance to the DRS and the Americans came in 2006 when he agreed to a deal whereby, the Algerians, backed by US Special Forces flown in to Tamanrasset, would support his rebellion against the Mali government. The rebellion, on May 23, lasted, as agreed, less than 24 hours. Algeria managed and oversaw the rebels’ cantonment and negotiated a peace agreement on their behalf.

Algeria, as planned, blamed the uprising on Gaddafi’s meddling and effectively succeeded in removing Libyan influence from the region. The Algerians and Americans called in their side of the deal in September. The “payback” required Iyad to arrange for a select group of his fighters to attack alleged “terrorist” traffickers in northern Mali.

The first attack was only partially successful and a second attack was arranged in October. This time, the Tuareg suffered a number of casualties. But Iyad and his fighters were paid handsomely, and the Americans, as planned, were able to use the incidents to ramp up their propaganda and justification for the GWOT in the Sahel. The incidents were also used to underpin the name change of the Groupe Salafiste pour le Prédication et le Combat (GSPC) to AQIM. By now, Iyad was fully in hock to the DRS.

Playing both sides

With a new Tuareg rebellion in 2007, Mali’s President appointed Iyad as Consul General to Saudi Arabia. Although this removed him from the domestic turmoil, Iyad used his time in Jeddah to further his religious interests, reputedly gravitating from Tablighi pacifism to more radical jihadism.

“The DRS and its western intelligence allies had not factored in at least two things: the consequences of the Libya rebellion for the Sahel and simple mistakes.”

On his return to Mali, Iyad gravitated closer to AQIM and the DRS, working closely through his cousin Taleb Abdelkrim with AQIM leader and DRS agent Abdelhamid Abou Zeid. At the same time, as a local “dignitary”, he busied himself in the hostage liberation business, taking large percentages of the ransoms.

Iyad was playing all sides of the table. He was a prominent and pious local dignitary with the ear of the President. He was also the prospective leader of a secessionist movement, close to AQIM and an accomplice of Algeria’s DRS. He was also a recognised intermediary in hostage negotiations. All this was known to western intelligence agencies, and almost everyone else for that matter.

The return of Tuareg fighters

But Iyad’s position was ultimately unsustainable. The DRS and its western intelligence allies had not factored in at least two things: the consequences of the Libya rebellion for the Sahel and simple mistakes.

One outcome of the Libyan rebellion is that a large number of Tuareg members of Gaddafi’s army, along with a few mercenaries, have been forced to return to Mali. A substantial force of heavily armed Tuareg fighters is now amassed in the Abeibara district ENE of Kidal. Estimates put the number between 2,000 and 4,000.

They have been joined by fighters belonging to former rebel leader Ibrahim ag Bahanga. Unverified reports indicate that some former Songhai militiamen, previously enemies of the Tuareg, may also have joined up with them

Since the fall of Gaddafi, Algerian and US counter-terrorism agencies have widely broadcast how the trafficking of Libyan arms into the Sahel is increasing the threat of AQIM in the region.

While there is a grain of truth in that, it is predominantly propaganda: The main flow of arms accompanies the pro-Gaddafi Tuareg soldiers returning to Mali.

For example, on November 6, the Niger army intercepted a heavily armed convoy of Tuareg returning to Mali. In the clash, 13 of them were killed and another 13 imprisoned. A substantial quantity of arms, including an assortment of machine guns, RPGs and ammunition were seized.

The threat of Tuareg rebellion?

The danger of this arms flow is not that it will strengthen AQIM, but rather that it will fuel a possible Tuareg rebellion. These returning Tuareg have already given the impetus to a new Tuareg secessionist movement, the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (NMLA), which was established in October. Ag Sid’Ahmed, its spokesman at that time, told the international media that they were organising a possible rebellion against Mali’s government.

Their complaint was the usual one that the central government, located some 1,500 km away in Bamako, has ignored the Tuareg in the country’s impoverished north.

Whether the Tuareg will launch another rebellion in Mali is still an open question. Iyad Ag Ghali was seen to leave Kidal and join the massing militia, possibly as its leader, on November 23, the day before the Hombori kidnapping. Talk in Bamako diplomatic circles suggests that at least some skirmishing can be expected.

As for the mistakes, who could have anticipated that the kidnappers would have left such easy clues to their capture as a discarded phone card? I do not know if this pre-empted Iyad’s announcement of Ansar Al-Din. But, whatever triggered his announcement, it has caused a crisis for Algeria, both domestically and internationally.

A bumpy road ahead

On the domestic front, Algeria is now faced with a number of challenges. Apart from having to justify sending its forces into another country, which it will do by saying they were helping to combat al-Qaeda, there is the far more sensitive issue of what happens if Algerian forces become engaged in fighting Tuareg rebels.

If that happens, there is a risk that it will act as a catalyst to Tuareg rebelliousness in Algeria. Algeria’s Tuareg are angry at their government’s ineptness in its handling of both tourist visa applications and the entire tourism industry in the south of country: the sole source of cash income for many Tuareg. Tuareg unrest in Algeria is simmering just beneath the surface.

 “Algeria now has little choice, but to try and negotiate a deal with both Iyad and the Tuareg rebels in order to calm a potentially explosive situation.

Any engagement between Algerian troops and Mali’s Tuareg could also draw in the Niger Tuareg. Unrest could even spread to southern Libya, where the local Tuareg are under considerable pressure in the post-Gaddafi situation.

On the international front, the situation is immensely embarrassing for Algeria. Iyad Ag Ghali has been a loose cannon in the region for almost 25 years. But he was one that Algeria’s DRS had nurtured, financed, pandered to and, as Algeria’s western allies might have reasonably presumed, brought under control in the course of its orchestration of terrorism in the region.

The US, which has information gathering facilities in the Kidal region and has been complicit in turning the Sahel into the “Terror Zone” that the Pentagon first daubed on its maps of Africa in 2003, has been aware of Iyad’s role in the complex Mali-AQIM-DRS tangle.

The fact that he now appears to be “doing his own thing” and may even have out-manoeuvred the DRS in the cause of his own wider political ambitions is likely to raise concerns amongst Algeria’s western backers that it is not as in control of the Sahel situation and AQIM as they had been led to believe.

Algeria now has little choice but to try and negotiate a deal with both Iyad and the Tuareg rebels in order to calm a potentially explosive situation.

This would almost certainly involve diverting further funds to Iyad Ag Ghali, guaranteeing (if possible) the substantial money being promised by the EU, as well as negotiating with Bamako a substantial degree of autonomy for the Tuareg.

Such a deal could conceivably work out in Algeria’s long-term interest, although reaching that point will be difficult. Adding to that difficulty is the fact that Algeria is now being perceived by its western backers to have got itself into a “mess”.

While the West will participate in the face-saving exercise of blaming everything on al-Qaeda (a notion that now subsumes so much that it is almost meaningless), Western countries will almost certainly undertake a reassessment of their positions and strategies in the region, especially their relationship with and faith in Algeria.

It is hardly surprising that Algeria’s ministers are, for once, at a loss for words.

Jeremy Keenan is a professor of social anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and is the author of The Dark Sahara: America’s War on Terror in Africa (Pluto Press, 2009).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.