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Countdown to the crackdown

May 7, 2009

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.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. May 7, 2009 21:16

    This Abu Qatada business confused me. Normally that crew just wants cash money and doesn’t give a rats ass about hard core terrorists locked up in Europe or the US. So either they are just demanding his release as a stalling tactic to get more money, or they’re changing from a kidnapping ring of pretend terrorists into something worse. I hope its the former.

    Have you heard anything more about whether Belmokhtar has retired? If so and Yahia Djouadi took over as I heard, perhaps that explains why they’re asking for prisoner releases rather than cash.

  2. May 7, 2009 22:16

    Yes, unusual, even if it makes sense that it’s Abu Q if it had to be anyone. It is apparently a different group, but that gives no immediate clue (to me) about motives. I’m sure it could be for political consumption, a stalling tactic or as insurance/deterrent against attack, or any combination thereof. Or it could be seriously intended, as in, yes, they will kill hostages to make a point (since there’s no way Abu Q will be released). But the possibilities really are endless: maybe the man in charge is a personal acquaintance of Abu Q, or maybe they’ve been told by Droukdel to start acting like bona fide Jihadists instead of highway robbers, or maybe they are just hedging their bets… or maybe no one is really in control of what’s going on.

    Anyway, here’s AFP, linked in last para above:

    Sources close to the negotiations said Friday that the remaining hostages were being held by a group under Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, one of the leaders of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

    The Canadians were held by another faction led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar. Their freedom was secured when at the last minute mediators pushed for the release of the women tourists, a European diplomat said.

    Abou Zeid, also known as Abib Hammadou, 43, is listed on United Nations documents as a known Al-Qaeda member. Belmokhtar, 36, is wanted in Algeria on terrorism charges.

    Compare w/ US Dept of Treasury.

    If the above is true, Belmokhtar seems very un-retired. OTOH, given the sheer number of rumors saying that he’s negotiating a way out, I guess he could also be the next Hassan Hattab. Then again, I really don’t know.

  3. May 7, 2009 23:35

    Maybe MBM is the new Dread Pirate Roberts

  4. May 7, 2009 23:40

    Hah! Yeah, maybe.

  5. Tidinit permalink
    May 8, 2009 13:18

    Belaouar cannot be killed several times, retiring, coming back, highjacking, ordering the killing of 4 french tourists by a mauritanian franchise and coming back again the manage or co-manage the hostage taking of UN diplomats and other european tourists. It is too much in such a small territory, even for Mao Tse-Toung. If those fighting againt terrorism were serious, they would have gotten him long time ago. But they are not serious about it and I can’t understand how djihadists continue for several years to hit in Algeria when they want.

    The dude (Belaouar) has a state or states behind him. Perhaps to confuse matters there are 2 or 3 AQMI groups, each belonging somewhere. The fact that Libya, Morocco and Tunisia are not part of this manhunt of less than 200-300 “bandits” create a doubt about the whole adventure. I suggest all of you read again very carefully the interview of ATT the other day. Algeria will not achieve much as the US could not do much with their Flintock technology and money. Why wait until now to act? Because a mistake was made in taking hostage 2 UN representatives? Killing innocent people do not bother people in high places?

  6. May 8, 2009 15:53

    Well, speak of the Devil: Jamestown just released a profile of Belmokhtar. Seems to be based mostly on Algerian press sources, but nice still.

    TidinitBelaouar cannot be killed several times, retiring, coming back, highjacking, ordering the killing of 4 french tourists by a mauritanian franchise and coming back again the manage or co-manage the hostage taking of UN diplomats and other european tourists.

    I don’t think he has been killed several times, or even once, and I wish you would stop claiming that the self-contradictory conspiracy-mongering of the Algerian press can prove some nefarious plot. Algerian papers — or most of them, at any rate — tend to report any odd rumor they pick up on the street as sensational fact. (I once remember reading in, I think, El Khabar that Ahmed Chalabi has a palace in Baghdad complete with tortured Iraqis impaled on the exterior walls…) And they certainly print and reprint, consciously or unconsciously, various factoids of psychological warfare created by their government — I assume that is the origin of at least some of the rumors of Belmokhtar negotiating for surrender, being dead or splitting from the mainstream AQIM. I mean, Bin Ladin is also reported dead just about every month, and it’s the same dynamic going on here.

    As for his role in hostage takings, his men are known to have taken or received two European hostages before (from Tunisia) and presumably purchased the four European & Canadian hostages now released from criminal gangs and/or Touareg rebels. In the other hostage takings (El Para’s, and the two kept still), he’s said to have been involved from afar at most, and I don’t think anyone has claimed direct involvement by him in the killing of the four French tourists in Mauritania. To sum up: I don’t see how that is an unreasonable burden of work, and I’m quite sure Mao Tse-tung could have done it as well.

  7. May 8, 2009 18:42

    Le ministre nigérien de la défense à Alger
    Azzedine Bensouiah
    Liberte Algérie-07-05-09

    Les choses semblent s’accélérer en matière de coopération dans la lutte antiterroriste au Sahel…

    “I hear you’re giving out sleeping bags and ammunition.”

  8. Tidinit permalink
    May 9, 2009 03:35


    Send me your email at and I will send you copies of the procés-verbeaux des interrogatoires of the 2 cars stealers/drug dealers turned djihadists (if you are subscribed to Sud-Ouest, search for Ould Sidna and Ould Chabarnou). These were leaked to the journal Sud-Ouest (France) in an attempt to blame President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi and topple him “legally” later. You will read about Belaouar, communication via Thurayas that our governments were reluctant to pick-up and to localize Belaouar. You may wish to read Kal’s posts on that specific issue.The performance of Belaouar can only be understood if we agree that he is protected by a state or states. You read the PVs and then you do us a post to give us your views. We have to be careful about what “they” say: they say only lies, particularly through security sources that do not want to be identified or quoted. I don’t think Mao could have done what Belaouar has done over these years. More later on that.

    alle said:

    In the other hostage takings (El Para’s, and the two kept still), he’s said to have been involved from afar at most, and I don’t think anyone has claimed direct involvement by him in the killing of the four French tourists in Mauritania. To sum up: I don’t see how that is an unreasonable burden of work, and I’m quite sure Mao Tse-tung could have done it as well.

    • alle permalink*
      May 9, 2009 14:23

      yes please, do send them. you can reach me at the old address, westernsaharainfo at

  9. Tidinit permalink
    May 9, 2009 17:56

    Thanks alle. Sending them now to you.


  1. Global Voices Online » Algeria: Countdown to the crackdown

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