Countdown to the crackdown
After the recent hostage release by the southern/Saharan wing of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), there has been much political and military movement in Algeria, Mali and the surrounding countries. According to numerous press rumors, a major joint operation in the border areas is about to go into action any day now.
The political arguments have centered around vague but barely concealed insinuations of state support for AQIM’s southern wing, although there’s precious little proof offered by anyone involved. Libya is the state most in the crosshairs, for allegedly funding or/and facilitating the payment of fat ransoms to AQIM, in a deal also involving the Malian state releasing AQIM members in return for someone’s thick wad of cash. Algeria is livid over this, and parts of the éradicateur press is so upset as to appear slightly deranged in its accusations against all and sundry for conspiring to undermine state security.
However, in fact Algeria has good reason to be upset, if one disregards the hyperbole. The government quite rightly believes that ransom payments encourages new kidnappings, and that this — not to mention the prisoners releases — is what keeps the southern AQIM networks running. Algeria also worries, again rightly, that such money will filter up to AQIM’s northern strongholds in the Kabylie, from where the group continues to inflict damage on the Algerian state and military. However, European governments do not seem to give a damn about this, as long as they can bring back their citizens safe and sound; while the poorer local governments are fine with whatever they’re paid most to be fine with, since they don’t stand a chance of securing these areas alone anyway. So the kidnapping circus continues.
Bouteflika has for some time, after offering amnesty upon amnesty, shown signs of exasperation with this whole AQIM business, and the Algerian army appears to be slowly reverting into extermination mode in its treatment of insurgent holdouts. Presently, then, the country is spearheding efforts to pull together a major pan-Saharan/Sahelian coalition to hit AQIM hard, either to cripple it militarily or to at least establish a steep deterrent cost for fucking with Algeria’s south. Among the other nations coming along for the ride, convinced by a mixture of stick and carrot from Algiers, are of course Mali, but also Niger and Mauritania, the two remaining neighbors to the area of concern. You can count on the US to cheer them on and supply whatever is available of satellite imagery and other expertise. However, it seems that Algeria is steering the bandwagon, quite in line with how it has been asserting itself as the maker-or-breaker of regional security in the last few years, and perhaps also for honestly feeling there’s nothing left to do but shoot its way out of this painful deadlock.
Militarily, things have been progressing quickly. A bunch of army units were just pulled down from the Algerian north towards the border, and high-level military coordination between the countries concerned is proceeding apace. For example, Niger’s chief-of-staff flew up to meet with the Algerian top brass (Gaid Saleh and Guenaizia), and Mali’s defense minister did the same some days ago. At the same time, Algiers has started airlifting military supplies to the Malian army in preparation for the expected assault, and minor manhunts are already running, with claims of an important kill just the other day.
How big this will be is impossible to tell: perhaps just a quick crackdown on the areas under suspicion, and brush-up of border security through reinforcements and coordination? But it seems like bigger things are in the making. In so far as the press can be trusted (a big if, admittedly), a large-scale sweep is more likely, although I guess the key to it all is not scale per se, but rather how long it will go on and what it will leave behind. In any case, one should remember that while the Touareg rebellion in Mali’s north just quieted down, the situation remains unstable and is liable to be affected in some way by any major military offensive. On the other hand, there’s no better time to go at it than now, when there’s no hot war complicating matters; and in fact, decisively settling the Touareg conflict may well be one of the unspoken motives for the push.
Also worth bearing in mind is that two European hostages remain in the hands of AQIM. It has demanded that Britain release Abu Qatada, a Jordanian-Palestinian preacher with longstanding ties to al-Qaida’s core leadership as well as to the Algerian Jihadi movements (he used to be sort of a chief Mufti for the GIA back in the day, and later encouraged the GSPC split which evolved into AQIM). That could turn into some nasty headlines.