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West Africa At War

In Amenas gas field, Algeria, photo by Kjetil Alsvik for Statoil through Scanpix, April 19, 2005.

In Amenas gas field, Algeria, photo by Kjetil Alsvik for Statoil through Scanpix, April 19, 2005.

“If there’s a bright center to the universe…..” it’s probably Israel. At least, that’s the way the media seems to think. The Arab Spring began two years ago with the death of Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, and for the past two years, the Western media has been focused on events in North Africa and the Middle East. Our attention was concentrated on a band of countries from Tunisia to Pakistan that all, in some way, touch on Israel, because Israel is the bright center of the universe, at least in their own minds and the minds of many Americans.

But way over there, on the western side of Africa, on the southern edge of the Sahara, there was another rebellion, one that we didn’t really pay much attention to. A group calling itself the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad staged a rebellion, and a palace coup, and declared that the northern triangle of Mali was independent of the southern triangle of Mali. The northern triangle is in the Sahara and the southern triangle is in the vegetation band which stretches southward 1,300 miles culminating in the jungles of Equatorial Africa. But the MLNA made a critical mistake. They accepted help from a few groups who claimed affiliation with al Qaida. The words “al qaida (or al qaeda or al qai’da) mean “the base” – a nice generic term that anyone anywhere can adopt to use as their organization’s name. Al Qaida in the Mahgreb, the western end of the Sahara, is not controlled or run by the old al Qaida organization founded by Osama bin Laden and operating in Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan. AQM is rogue al Qaida.

MLNA drove the Mali military out of northern Mali and declared themselves a new state and government. The prominent AQM group in Mali is Ansar Dine. And it didn’t take long for MLNA to discover they had made a deal with the Devil. Ansar Dine started imposing strict Sharia law on the region, and loosed their people to destroy Sufi mausoleums in Timbuktu, tombs they said were violations of Islamic law. MLNA found itself out of control of the situation and Ansar Dine rescinded the declaration of independence and announced its intentions to rule all of Mali.

From 1992 to January, 2012, Mali was considered one of the most democratic and stable countries in Africa. They had two freely elected presidents, Alpha Oumar Konaré for two terms until 2002, and Amadou Toumani Touré, who was finishing his second term and preparing for presidential elections when the coup took place on March 22, 2012. Mali is currently being led by Acting President Dioncounda Traoré and Acting Prime Minister Django Sissoko.

Dividing the country is one thing, and it might have gone much better than the division of the Sudan if the MLNA had retained control of the north. But the people of southern Mali had no interest in being taken over by a bunch of fundamentalist extremists, so the government asked France, whose colony Mali used to be, to help them drive out Ansar Dine.

Ansar Dine’s response to French intervention was, naturally, to threaten to bring death and destruction to France. The French weren’t exactly scared over that. They had a forty-year head start on dealing with Islamist terrorism, having been the site of the first such attacks on European soil during the Algerian revolution in the 1960s. Last March, a lone Algerian-born French citizen killed three Jewish children and an adult, but French security policies for the type of large-scale terrorism that Ansar Dine was threatening is daunting.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, from video produced by the Belmokhat Brigade aka Battalion of Blood

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, from video produced by the Belmokhat Brigade aka Battalion of Blood

It was not Ansar Dine that attacked the Algerian gas facility. It was a group that calls itself the Battalion of Blood. Though their public statements have made it seem that they were affiliated with Ansar Dine and acting in response to the French involvement in Mali, the leader of the group, Mokhtar Belmokhtar aka “The Uncatchable,” is a notorious smuggler and kidnapper who has spent the past few years kidnapping foreign nationals and ransoming them for large sums of money. He doesn’t play well with others and either walked out on or was driven out of the Islamist coalition in northern Mali. At the gas facility of In Amenas, he hit the jackpot, over three dozen foreign personnel plus over a hundred Algerians. In Amenas is deep in the Sahara, near the Libyan border, about as isolated from civilization as a place can get and still be on this planet, over a thousand miles from the population centers of northern Mali which Ansar Dine controls.

Reports have been vague and contradictory since the Algerian Army stormed the gas facility early Thursday morning. Estimates of the dead have run as high as thirty, with varying identities of the dead foreigners. It could be days before there is a full accounting of what happened.

Whereas Mali was not prepared to deal with a rebellion, Algeria is. Algeria has a constitution, and an elected legislature and president, but they are all for show. The country is really run by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and a handful of loyalists. Bouteflika was elected in 1999, and had the constitution amended so he could have a third term, and presumably a fourth. Widespread protests have been going on in Algeria since December 28, 2010, eleven days after Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia. Though Bouteflika has been working to come to terms with the various protest groups, establishing an Islamic regime is not on his agenda. The constitution guarantees multiple political parties, but none can be “based on differences in religion, language, race, gender, profession or region.” And no political campaign can use any of those social dividers in their campaigns. The Algerian civil war of the 1990s was conducted to prevent an Islamic takeover of the government, and the Islamist lost.

Algeria has, up to now, pretty much ignored the presence of al Qaida in the Mahgreb out in the desert, far from the population centers of Algeria. Bouteflika Moammar al Qaddafi’s wife, sons Hannibal and Muhammed and daughter Ayesha to claim sanctuary in Algeria, but did not open the country to the fleeing senior military members and Saadi al Qaddafi, who has vowed to avenge his father.

Bouteflika agreed to allow French planes to cross Algerian airspace to attack Ansar Dine in Mali. Belmokhtar claimed that the attack on In Amenas was in retaliation for that clearance. Algeria may have been content to worry about it’s internal situations and let the conflict between the people whose protests and battles freed Libya and Egypt and the Islamists trying to usurp the revolution rage around it, but the Islamists have brought their war to Algeria.

No matter what the final outcome is at In Amenas, the taking of the facility may have completely changed the dynamics of the situation with Islamists in the West African Sahara. A half-dozen West African nations have pledged troops to Mali to fight Ansar Dine, but they are countries with limited resources. Algeria has the troops and equipment to become a major force in this conflict. Ansar Dine may find itself being squeezed between the French and African Union forces coming from the south and Algerian forces coming from the north, after Algeria sweeps Islamist encampments from its own desert.

Whatever Belmokhtar thought he was going to accomplish or gain by taking the In Amenas facility, he may have provided the best assistance Mali’s besieged government could hope for.




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