Chaos in the Sahel

The wider regional Islamist threat from the GSPC/AQIM appeared to be minimal in the past (except to Mali, Niger and Mauritania). This is no longer the case. Such movements are proliferating and reforming in ways that could seriously threaten security inside Algeria itself. 

George Joffé
25 September 2012

Just a few days ago, Bamako celebrated Mali’s day of independence, but it cannot have been a very happy occasion for the landlocked Sahelian state.  The country is in chaos, with an interim government in power in the capital and the northern half of the country effectively annexed by four different movements; three of them already notorious for their religious extremism and links with al-Qaida.  Yet, up to the beginning of this year, Mali was seen as a shining example of African democracy.  How, then, can the current state-of-affairs have come about?

The answer lies in two, interlinked domestic factors, the complacency of the Malian political elite and its neglect, for decades, of the demands of Mali’s Touareg population.   There are external factors, too - the political violence in the Maghreb which has migrated southwards, in part as an outcome of the Arab spring and the civil war in Libya.  It also reflects a much older tradition of violent extremism in Algeria that infested the Sahel at the start of the last decade.  And, beyond that, major European states, particularly the old colonial power, France, and the United States have done little to address what they have long seen as the birth of a new al-Qa’ida redoubt in the Sahara and the Sahel, apart from their alarmist warnings about new terrorist threats emerging from the region. 

The domestic dimension 

Mali’s democratic reputation had long been a sham for, although things had begun well after a coup removed Moussa Traoré’s single party state in 1991, in recent years the presidency had hindered democratic choice and suppressed political debate as the state had become increasingly corrupt.  Despite massive American aid to eliminate terrorist extremism in the north of the country, President Touré had done little to re-equip and retrain the Malian army for such a task.  Popular sentiment had become estranged, too, from the capital’s self-interested, extortionate and corrupt political elite.[1]

The Malian government had also neglected its substantial and impoverished Touareg minority in the arid north of the country, despite the fact that the original democratic transition twenty years ago had been ushered in by a long-standing Touareg rebellion.  It had ignored the danger signs of Touareg neglect in 2006, when a new rebellion led to an Algerian-mediated truce and Libyan attempts to interfere.  Libya subsequently recruited up to 5,000 Touareg from Mali into its own armed forces and when the Gaddafi regime collapsed in October 2011, resentful and well-armed Touareg flooded back, prepared now to ensure their own future, by violence if need be.

It was the subsequent Touareg rebellion that sealed the fate of the Touré presidency in late March and completed the picture of chaos engulfing the Malian state.  Junior officers in Mali’s army, infuriated by their lack of equipment, training and government support, mutinied, the president fled and an army junta filled the power vacuum.  Even though it was eventually forced to relinquish power to an interim presidency, by threats of sanctions from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union, the interim president, in his turn was effectively forced from office and, since neither African organization wants, in effect, to intervene directly, the political chaos continues. 

The regional setting

The chaos, however, is not only a consequence of events in Bamako.  There is a much wider regional dimension which helps to explain the Touareg success in catalyzing Mali’s democratic collapse.  This is the fact that the Malian government had really lost control of its northern territories a decade ago, when an al-Qa’ida affiliate movement had created its own redoubt in Taouedenni, the site of the traditional salt mines of the Sahara, in late 2003.  In fact, the al-Qa’ida link only became official when the al-Qa’ida leadership, then in hiding in Pakistan and Afghanistan, acknowledged it in September 2006, whereupon the group restyled itself al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM).

The movement, originally known as the Groupe Salafiste de Predication et du Combat (GSPC – Jama’at as-Salafiyya li’d-Daw’a wa’l-Jihad), was a replicate of a similar group of the same name located since 1997 in the mountainous Kabylia region of coastal Algeria, just to the east of the capital, Algiers.  And it, in turn, was an offshoot from the infamous Groupes Islamiques Armés (GIA – Jama’at al-Islamiyya al-Musalha) which had been a major player in the Algerian civil war in the 1990s, after that country’s experiment in democratic governance was cut short in January 1992 by the army-backed coup which ushered in seven years of horrific violence, causing between 150,000 and 200,000 deaths.

The GSPC in the Sahel, under its leader, Mokhtar Bel-Mokhtar, soon integrated itself into the massive smuggling networks that run throughout and across the Sahara. It used these links to both provide funding and to organize arms-smuggling to its North Algerian parent, which was soon to be headed by an extremist, pro-al-Qa’ida jihadi, Abdelmalek Droukdal, after he had pushed out its previous leadership under Hassan Hattab and Nabil Sahraoui in 2004.  The GSPC is now believed to be also involved in the massively lucrative drugs trade from Latin America to Europe, much of which passes through the Sahara.

The original GSPC, however, had a more complex origin and purpose than it seemed on the surface.  Its parent organization, the GIA, had been infiltrated very early on in the Algerian civil war by Algeria’s infamous military intelligence service, the Direction de Securité et des Reseignements (DRS), run by one of Algeria’s most powerful eminences grises, General Mohamed ‘Tawfik’ Mediène.[2]  The all-pervading influence of the DRS goes back to Algeria’s war for independence and the way in which the newly-independent state was subsequently constructed as a single party state, essentially controlled by an unaccountable army leadership.  However, for our purposes, what is important here is how the GIA leadership, once infiltrated, was exploited by the DRS as a counter-insurgency tactic to discredit it in the Algerian civil war. 

The end of the civil war in Algeria in 1999, however, did not mean the end of violence there; that took a further decade to die away.  Although the GIA, with its reputation for indiscriminate and horrifyingly extreme violence, collapsed early on, its successor movement, the GSPC, had a much longer life and lingers on, even today.  The DRS seems to have continued to try to destroy these groups from within, through its successful infiltration of them, and may even have considered their utility as an active component of its own security objectives. 

It is in this context that the issue of Mali becomes so significant.  The Algerian authorities seem to have decided that, if the extremist groups that ostensibly opposed them could be diverted into the Sahel region, they could serve as a means of indirect control there.  In early 2003, a group under Abderrazak Lamari, better known as ‘Abderrazak le Para’ because of his former career as a parachute regimental officer, was surrounded in the Tebessa region of Eastern Algeria by the army.  It was confidently expected to be eliminated and quickly disappeared from press reports, apparently defeated.  

Some weeks later, however, in March 2003, ‘Abderrazak le Para’ turned up in the Sahara, in the company of Mokhtar Bel-Mokhtar, as the commander of a GSPC contingent which had taken thirty-one European tourists hostage against the payment, it was alleged, of a massive ransom.  It took three months for the crisis to be resolved, apparently on payment of a $5 million ransom by European governments and with the GSPC group responsible retiring to Taoudenni, under the protection of local Malian and Touareg notables.  It has remained there ever since, increasingly operating independently of its parent organization, the GSPC in Algeria’s Kabylia. 

The group has prospered there under the protection, it is believed, of the DRS, even though ‘Abderrazak le Para’ was soon detained in Chad and handed back to a very reluctant Algeria, where he has now disappeared without ever being brought to trial.  The GSPC/AQIM has threatened surrounding states, particularly Mauritania and Niger – where France has massive interests in uranium mining – but never really threatened Algeria itself until very recently.  Nor has Algeria tried to suppress the group, despite its military power and its promises of participating in regional initiatives to repress terrorist redoubts in the region.  Instead, Algiers has gone out of its way to exclude other powers, such as France and the United States. despite its apparent willingness to cooperate.   It is as if the GSPC/AQIM has been acting as a vehicle to project Algerian influence along the country’s southern border, even if at the cost of intensifying regional instability for the other states concerned. 

The latest crisis

If that has been Algeria’s regional strategy, it now appears to have become seriously disrupted and the problem of Sahelian terrorism has suddenly worsened.  The immediate cause has been the civil war in Libya last year, although it should also be said that the GSPC/AQIM has expanded its activities, both criminal and political, during the past year.   A major consequence of the Libyan crisis was that, as NATO’s air attacks destroyed the logistics infrastructure of Colonel Gaddafi’s armed forces, illicit arms flooded the country.  Against a general expectation that extremist groups in North Africa would pour into Libya to participate in the war – as they seem to be doing in Syria, for example – those groups who did become involved, led by the GSPC/AQIM, were far more interested in spiriting arms out of the country!  The Algerian authorities were acutely aware of the problem, hence their very reluctant and belated support for the insurgency against the Gaddafi regime. The result is that the GSPC/AQIM’s military strength and mobility has dramatically increased. 

Its potential has grown too, as a result of the resentful Touareg rebellion against the Malian government and its successful annexation of Northern Mali as ‘Azawad’, a new Touareg homeland, independent of Mali itself.  The GSPC/AQIM collaborated in the early military successes for its own reasons as it wished to form the nucleus for an Islamic emirate out of the region, given the weakness of the central Malian government.  Very soon after the initial Touareg success, the Mouvement National pour la Libération d’Azawad  (MNLA), the movement that had spearheaded the rebellion, fell out with its Islamist allies and suddenly found itself forced onto the defensive as its fighters were expelled from town after town in June 2012

Nor, indeed, was GSPC/AQIM the sole Islamist counterpart to the MNLA any longer.  It has been joined by two other groups, one with Touareg connections and the other with links in Mauritania.  The Ansar ad-Din  and the West African-dominated MUJAO (Mouvement d’Unité et du Jihad en Afrique Occidentale – Jama’at at-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad fi’l-Ifriquiyya al-Gharbiyya) emerged late last year, apparently in response to growing irritation inside the GSPC/AQIM over the way in which it was dominated by its Algerian leadership.  MUJAO made its presence felt last October by kidnapping three NGO workers in the Polisario-administered refugee camps close to Tindouf in Western Algeria.  

In the Touareg rebellion, the two groups have taken over major cities in Northern Mali, such as Timbuktoo and Gao, from the MNLA.  There they have imposed harsh authoritarian rule, coercing popular cultural compliance and destroying treasured Sufi shrines in the region.  The MUJAO, in addition, captured six Algerian diplomats in Gao and, when the Algerian authorities refused ransom demands, apparently killed one of them to encourage compliance.   It is difficult not to conclude that, if Algeria had been using these groups indirectly to reinforce its border security, the plans have gone very seriously awry – hence, no doubt, a sudden Algerian enthusiasm for suppressing  Sahelian terrorism. 


The GSPC in Northern Algeria, aware of its loss of control over the South, has attempted to encourage a regrouping of Islamist power in the Sahel.  Just two weeks ago, Algerian gendarmes in the south of the country arrested a group of travellers, only to discover they had detained the deputy to Abdelmalek Droukdal, on his way to arrange a reconciliation meeting with Ansar ad-Din and even to link it to the new al-Qa’ida-like movements grouped together under the generic title of the Ansar al-Shari’a in Eastern Libya and elsewhere. There also appear to have been plans to link the Sahelian and North African movements with Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria - a development that would certainly have alarmed Africa, Europe and the United States, were it to have come about. And Abdelmalek Droukdal has publicly admitted that his leadership inside the GSPC has weakened, as the movement itself has fragmented in these new conditions.

What does this then mean for Algeria’s project of indirect control of its southern borders and the Sahelian regions abutting them?  It seems clear that, if Algeria’s DRS had been exploiting its infiltration of the country’s extremist groups as a means of achieving such control and minimal cost, its project has failed.  The fragmentation of the GSPC/AQIM because of its predominantly Algerian leadership is evidence enough of that.  It also means that, whereas the wider regional Islamist threat from the GSPC/AQIM appeared to be minimal in the past (except to Mali, Niger and Mauritania) , this is no longer the case and that such movements are proliferating and reforming in ways that could seriously threaten security inside Algeria itself.

The Algerian government, too, could find itself facing some searching and embarrassing questions from its western partners in Europe and the United States.  After all, they had effectively delegated control of any threat from the deep Sahara and the Sahel to Algeria itself but now they face a much more intensified and variegated threat that has acquired a substantial territorial base.  Since ECOWAS and the African Union are reluctant to remove it, as are the United States, France and Britain to intervene - Algeria might now find it extremely difficult to successfully confront western pressure to act on their behalf and thus may now have to take the action it has tried to avoid for the past decade.  Truly, he who sups with the devil needs a long spoon!

[1] Whitehouse, Bruce, “What went wrong in Mali?” London Review of Books, (August 30, 2012)

[2] Izel B., Wafa J.S. and Isaac W. (1999), “What is the GIA?”, in Bedjaoui Y, Aroua A. and Ait-Larbi M. (1999)(eds), An inquiry into the Algerian massacres, Hoggar Books (Geneva).


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