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WSJ on AQIM in the Sahara

August 17, 2009

well, they're out there somewherePossibly my worst headline ever. Anyway, it means that Wall Street Journal has a piece on the Saharan wing of AQIM by Yaroslav Trofimov, author of a book on the Meccan mosque assault of 1979 — it’s supposed to be good though I haven’t read it.

The article is fine, nothing much new, but I have a few quick quibbles and comments:

Mauritania, where most people speak Arabic and watch satellite TV chains like Al-Jazeera, is a particularly fertile ground for AQIM’s growth, and accounts for a growing share of the movement’s cadres, Western diplomats say. In Mali, Niger and Chad, the bulk of AQIM recruits also come from Arab-speaking communities, which in these countries are outnumbered by black African majorities.

Oh, drop it, Yaroslav: blaming al-Jazira for bin Laden is so 2001. But, that AQ is an Arab phenomenon first and foremost is an important point, because it has implications for how/if the movement may spread through the Sahara. More on this in Mali, below.

Security officials in Nigeria recently claimed that AQIM trained in Algeria some members of Boko Haram, the Islamist sect whose armed uprising cost several hundred lives in northern Nigeria last month. (…) Government officials here say that, without outside help, Saharan countries have little chance of defeating AQIM. “This is a zone that can’t be controlled. We don’t know who’s out there in the vast desert and what are they doing,” says Mohamed Ould Rzeizim, who served until this week as Mauritania’s minister of interior.

So let me get that straight: Nigerian officials say their enemies are trained by al-Qaida? No way! And Mauritanian officials demand US recognition of their junta and more money? No way!

…suspected militants also gunned down in Timbuktu the regional chief of Malian intelligence, Lt. Col. Lamina Ould Bou. The colonel, an ethnic Arab and former Islamist rebel, had played a crucial role in Mali’s efforts against AQIM.

There, this again highlights the Arab dimension of it all. Ould Bouh was from the Berabiche community, which links into the larger Hassaniya-speaking Moorish tribal community dominating Mauritania, Western Sahara (as Sahrawis), and adjoining areas of Morocco and Algeria. He was a former fighter in the FIAA, a Moorish outfit that fought in the Touareg wars against the central government, until joining the army after the peace accords. The FIAA was backed by Libya, but also had links to POLISARIO in its heyday (when arming angry Sahrawis was a dual Algerian-Libyan project), and members came both from Libyan-trained “Legion” units and from Mauritania and the Western Sahara diaspora. That this guy played a key role in the AQIM battles — key enough to get killed — is a reminder of how extraordinarily tangled the tribal politics of this region are, how much historical ballast everyone is hauling around, and how borders are often just lines on a map. (And of course of how our beloved Colonel has been pouring oil on the flames for forty years.) — See also this post and comments.

The Saharan rebels have so far targeted only foreigners and security forces, sparing civilian targets like restaurants and hotels. In Algeria, Pakistan and Iraq, by contrast, al Qaeda-affiliated militants showed no concern about killing large numbers of Muslim civilians.

Silly. The Algerian AQIM, i.e. the former GSPC, was specifically created out of protests against the takfiri bent of the GIA. They certainly killed their fair share of civilians, but either as collateral damage or because they were deemed to be in cahoots with the government — there was no random slaughter, and they repeatedly made a point of distancing themselves from such practices. In Pakistan, I am also not aware of such unfocused brutality; while Zarqawi and his ilk in Iraq, certainly the most extreme AQ wing so far, also aimed their otherwise indiscriminate attacks only against Shia, in the context of an open sectarian civil war. I see very little reason to suspect that AQIM is anywhere near the sort of strategic and psychological meltdown it takes to start butchering Muslim civilians indiscriminately. That said, there’s every reason to fear that they will continue to attack Western interests (including civilians) and government targets with increasing frequency.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 18, 2009 14:36

    Very helpful article. I would note in passing that a Malian Arabic speaking Colonel was the first to track down Ibrahim Ag Bahanga after his return from Libya in December 2008/January 2009.

    See :
    http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=34555

    “At the risk of pitting Tuaregs against Arabs, Bamako has allowed Colonel Meïdou [a Malian Hassaniya-speaker] to assemble a force of several hundred Bérabich Arabs for the work of eliminating Ag Bahanga’s rebels ” Note that the bit about Ag Bahanga’s use of Lebanese mercenaries – even if untrue – says about Bamako’s perception of where these problems originate. Libya obviously, but more broadly that this is a problem of every bogey of the Arab world bedeviling the northern border of “black” Africa.

    The Malian Arab unit’s almost instant success where others failed suggests either Ould Meïdou had some special knowledge, special outside help, or that the Tuareg and regular army units weren’t trying so hard. A combination seems likely. Ould Meïdou was feted in the Malian press in a way which reminded me of 19th century U.S. folklore around “Indian Trackers”: Native Americans employed by the Army as advisers/interpreters during the “Indian Wars.”

    The strategy of ethnic militias in lieu of U.S. trained “special forces” (and the intense discussion of the strategy in Bamako papers) suggests to me that your focus on the AQIM as an “Arab world problem” has much merit.

    More germane to Malians, it reinforces that Kidal is a world apart from them. This is not a good sign for the future of a Malian national culture, or the willingness of the south to in the future channel appropriate development projects to the north.

Trackbacks

  1. The Geopolitics of AQIM’s Moorish Appeal « The Moor Next Door
  2. More Fragments RE: Mauritanian raid in Mali « The Moor Next Door

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