UNDERSTANDING THE ALGERIAN REGIONAL DIPLOMACY MACHINERY: THE CASE OF MALI CRISIS
How Algeria is positionning itself toward an exit strategy from the crisis in Mali
A revival of the Algerian diplomacy?
After almost a decade of internal violence (1991-2000) that caused Algeria to be erased from the international scene, the Algerian authorities desired to be firmly integrated into the new North-South security system. The country found its way to emerge from its diplomatic isolation through a rapprochement with the United States on the security level. The results have undoubtedly been beneficial for Algiers, which has now become a new partner for Washington in the “Global War On Terror” (GWOT), resulting in a new American perception of Algeria, and in a considerable improvement of the relations between the two countries. Then in 2002-2003, the U.S., in collusion with its new regional ally Algeria, launched a second front in its global war on terrorism across the Sahara and Sahelian regions of Africa.
By retrieving a new legitimacy from outside, Algiers then tried ceaselessly to centralize the GWOT in the Sahara and Sahel by making itself the pivotal actor. In April 2010, a Joint Military Command (CEMOC) comprised of Algeria, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger was set up in Tamanrasset. This committee was supposed to implement a new regional security plan including joint monitoring forces that were expected to total 75,000 (including 25,000 Tuaregs), though these forces have yet to be fully committed.
But despite its reputation for counterterrorism expertise, Algeria is not militarily active in the Sahara. The weak security in the zone is evidenced by the June 30, 2010, attack on Algerian security forces in Tamanrasset, which killed 11 gendarmes and border guards; the kidnapping of an Italian tourist on February 2, 2011 by Abou Zeid’s katiba in the Djanet region; the kidnapping of the Wali of Illizi on January 17, 2012, by youth who handed him over to AQIM in Libya; the March 2012 bombing of a gendarmerie barrack in Tamanrasset, followed by the Ouargla bombing in June 2012; and, finally, the April 5, 2012, kidnapping of the Algerian consul (who was assassinated at the beginning of September) and six other staff from the consulate in Gao by the MUJWA for a 15 million euro ransom.
Like its Sahelian neighbors, the Algerian government struggles to maintain control over its entire territory: 1,102 attacks and bombings since 2001 (including two suicide bombings to Algeria’s premier military academy at Cherchell, killing 18 people on August 2012), demonstrate the persistently high level of violence in the country, despite a sweeping offensive that successfully thwarted several terrorist plots and led to the elimination of several emirs in the mountainous areas east of Algiers (Kabylie). The military and security forces have come under harsh criticism for being unable to contain the so-called "residual violence", while suspicions and accusations of the manipulation of militant groups dating back to the civil war have also questioned a possible military role in the violence.
The threatening new geopolitical framework
At a time when northern Mali is in the midst of secession and Libya is in an uncertain transition, Algeria appeared unwilling to assume the responsibilities that the hegemonic status of a pivotal nation would demand. Refusing to consider any joint strategy, as seen in its position on the Malian crisis, Algeria has once again succumbed to the fear of encirclement that characterized its policies in the 1970s. Behind this refusal, there is also the desire to maintain its position as a key country in regional security matters while conducting a wait-and-see diplomacy, which many observers and regional leaders have deemed incomprehensible.
In the topical context of the arab uprisings, the Algerian regime emphasized repeatedly the country’s differences compared to its neighbors, a statement meant to underscore both Algeria’s traditionally strong nationalistic sentiments and it’s perceived ‘exceptionalism’ compared to the rest of the region. “We don’t need lessons from outside” declared the then Algerian Prime Minister, Ahmed Ouyahia, in a speech delivered at a mass rally held in Algiers a day before the 2012 May elections. In the same speech he also described the Arab Spring as a “plague” and the revolutions that followed it the “work of Zionism and NATO”, while adding that “our spring is Algerian, our revolution of 1st November 1954”. Such rhetoric demonstrates both the government’s unease with the current changes taking place across the region and the extent in which elites in Algeria appear to be detached from the daily realities affecting their countrymen. By referring to Algeria’s war of independence as “Algeria’s spring”, the Ouyahia's speech was attempting to evoke Algeria’s nationalistic sentiments in the hope of restoring the long-lost revolutionary legitimacy Algeria’s institutions.
The national unity rethoric has been also recalled by the government to warn the algerian people of a foreign tentative to destabilize the country, thus referring to the prospect of a military intervention in Northern Mali. Facing the pressure from different countries and actors (France, the US, Qatar, Ecowas), that may delight the algerian authorities since they confirm and seal the importance of the country position and evaluation of the regional issues, new Algerian prime minister Abdelmalek Sellal, « was calling for an 'internal strong front' able to protect the country from 'malicious hands » (El Watan, 28/09/2012).
Insecurity and instability in the neighbourhood
Internal power struggles at the highest levels of government have without a doubt permeated Algeria’s policy vis-à-vis the Malian crisis, hampering Algiers’ ability to act regionally and weakening its position as a regional leader. In other words, the initial lack of commitment could in fact be the result of conflicting positions and divergent interests within the regime and of the lack of transparency in decision making. These factors are crippling its diplomatic power.
After condemning the military coup in Bamako in March 2012, Algeria opted for a low profile, and the government remained silent in the following months, issuing occasional statements of concern about Mali’s growing instability. This relative absence from the international policy response was first interpretated as a cautious position related to the abduction in April of seven Algerian diplomats in Gao by MUJWA. Algiers’ wait-and-see attitude could also be attributed to political internal preoccupation with domestic turbulent affairs, and the elite competition over the 2014 presidential elections. It would seem that Algeria was waiting to see how the regional situation plays out before making any decision and leaving the risks of resolving the crisis to others.
The Algerian Paradox
Algiers’ opposition to the concept of a regional intervention force is part of its constitution that forbids its forces from taking part in military action outside its own territory. Algeria has been continually invoking this constitutional principle, thus justifying why its forces have not crossed into Mali to eradicate AQIM, even when invited to do so by its Sahelian neighbours. Yet the Algeria-led CEMOC has been created for precisely this purpose.
However, on December 20, 2011, Algerian army forces crossed into Mali, five days before Iyad ag Ghaly had announced the establishment of a new jihadist group called Ansar eddine in northern Mali. The question then is why Algeria had its forces entered in Mali if Algeria is so keen not to intervene militarily on foreign soil? Officially Malian military elements were reported to be training with Algerian military counterparts in Kidal Region. Algeria withdrew its military advisors from Mali at the end of 2011 when the conflict was clearly about to begin and cut off military assistance.
Algeria has long positioned itself as a traditional mediator of conflicts in the Sahel, at times in apparent competition with Gaddhafi. Algeria mediated peace processes that brought a precarious end to previous Tuareg uprisings in Mali in 1991-1995 and 2006-2009. Indeed, the Algerian treatment of the Tuareg issue was always motivated by the fear of contagious effect on Algerian Tuaregs and by the containment of Libya or any other neighbouring State influence. Algeria knows what is expected of it in this crisis, given its status as the region’s military power, as intermediary in previous crises in northern Mali, and as the original home of AQIM.
This influential role in the Tuareg rebel movements, was also aimed to use Tuaregs to fight against GSPC groups in the Sahel. Many former rebels offered their services and join the future specialised unit settled after the 2006 Algiers agreement, which was supposed to maintain security in northern Mali.
Calling upon friends
In the summer 2012 context of rapidly shifting developments with uncertain implications, Algeria has first maintained contacts with a wide range of actors, and seemed to be prioritizing access to information and influence over a clearly formulated strategy. On the international front, the situation was immensely embarrassing for Algeria who was accused of passivity and had little choice, but to try and negotiate a deal with all Tuareg rebels in order to calm a potentially explosive situation.
Some leaders of the Tuareg rebellion are known to work closely with the Algerian intelligence services (the DRS). One of them is precisely Iyad ag Ghaly who came to prominence when he founded in 1988 a Tuareg secessionist movement in Northern Mali. He was the main leader of the Tuareg rebellion that began in 1990 and ended with the peace ceremony at Timbuktu in 1996. During that period, Iyad came under the eye of the DRS who were concerned that the rebellion might spread into Algeria (see Appendix).
The Mali dossier (as well as the Western Sahara one) has always been taken in charge by the DRS. Convinced that it should hold the monopoly of mediation in the Northern-Mali crisis, that excludes other actors, Algeria’s attitude is no longer necessarily to wait and see: Algeria has expressed its preference for a political solution in Mali. ECOWAS and Mali’s transitional authorities might ask Algiers to say more about what it can contribute to a negotiation process with the armed groups, particularly Ansar Dine, whose leader Iyad Ag Ghali is well known in Algeria. His first involvement with the GSPC/AQIM was in 2003 when he facilitated the liberation of the 14 out of 32 hostages abducted in the Algerian Sahara by Abderezak Lamari (a.k.a El Para), a former algerian parachutiste to be said a DRS agent. As a local notable, Iyad ag-Ghaly recycled himself in the hostage liberation business, taking large percentages of the ransoms, and playing all sides of the table.
That may explain the off-the-record set of talks Algiers led last summer.
In July 2012, Bouteflika discretly received envoys from Ansar ed-Dine, MNLA, and even from MUJWA (the kidnapper of algerian diplomats in Gao). Few days after, the MNLA excluded publicly the mediation of Algiers and accused the algerian government of expelling the injuried Tuaregs who are seeking a shelter in southern Algeria, and of infiltrating the MNLA with agents from the DRS. The Algerian authorities never recognised officially that meeting.
Again in October 2012, another "secret" delegation of Ansar eddine visited Algiers and was led by Amada ag Bibi (a.k.a "The man of Algiers") and ag Awissa, the right-hand man of Iyad ag Ghaly. The same month the Algerian government sent to Kidal, and under the control of Ansar eddine, a humanitarian convoy and three military vehicles. Another Algerian convoy reached Gao under the control of MUJWA. In both cases, islamist organizations were in charge of distributing the food to local populations. The same month, French intelligence services assess that Iyad Ag Ghali received a medical treatment in Aïn Naadja military hospital in Algiers, thus confirming that the islamist leader is at home in Algeria.
Algerian security services' preference for negotiating with Ansar eddine's loose cannon resulted in an unexpected switch from Iyad ag-Ghaly: in November 2012 he declared to cut ties with terrorism, smuggling and foreign radical groups.
The gradual imposition by Algiers of Iyad ag-Ghaly as the sole interlocutor had made him a more important actor in the regional conflict-resolution plan, to such an extend that even the ECOWAS representative finally accepted to hold talks with him in Ouagadougou in November 2012. After Iyad ag-Ghaly announced he was giving up to implement the Sharia law throughout Mali (but in Kidal), some Malian and Western observers were still suspicious about this sudden shift. In the meantime, the MNLA was put aside from further negotiations - even after having stepped back from their original claim for independence.
The longstanding ties between the DRS and some key-individuals of Ansar eddine (see Appendix), the blood ties between Iyad ag Ghaly and Abdelkrim al-Targui who leads the AQIM-katiba “al-Ansar”, and the presence of Ansar eddine men in southern Algeria's supply base and base camp, demonstrate that once again Algeria is holding the Mali crisis dossier.
Where are the gains?
Algeria's stance on Mali crisis appears increasingly prevailing among a greater number of stakeholders: the secretary general's recent report (29 November 2012) urging caution and the preferability of dialogue, consolidates the Algerian diplomatic strategy. On the other hand, west African officials who condemned the UN for being "out of touch" over its lack of urgency in taking action in Mali, are pushing the Mali government to cut an autonomy deal with Tuaregs in exchange for their joining the fight against al-Qaeda.
For the time being, Algeria succeeded in finding out an opportunity to regain its traditional role as regional power-broker and mediator in any Tuareg conflict. By using Ansar eddine as a proxy in Northern Mali, Algeria can pretend to provide an apparent peacemaker foreign policy, and retrieve a consistent leadership after decades of diplomatic decline.
However, on the ground the jihadist groups have strengthened their hold on the northern part of Mali and are preparing themselves for the possible military confrontation with the African forces.
On November 28, 2012, AQIM announced the creation of a 6th brigade called "Youssef ben Tachfine", made up mainly of Touaregs residing in northern Mali. It is led by El Kairouani Abu Abdelhamid al-Kidali, a local Touareg member of the group's al-Ansar brigade, whose leader is Abdelkrim al-Targui, the cousin of Iyad ag-Ghaly. Such a new ethnic distribution system reflects the need to contain growing resentment by non-Algerians after they were denied leadership positions. It is also an alarming sign that locally-rooted djihadist katibas are under consolidation and will be more difficult to chase away. Moreover, concerns are raising about the extension of jihadism in West Africa after Oumar Ould Hamaha, an associate of Mokhtar Belmoktar, declared: "We want to enlarge our zone of operation throughout the entire Sahara, going from Niger through to Chad and Burkina Faso."
Yet many questions remain unanswered:
- will the Algerian strategy of dividing radical groups in northern Mali will be able to prevent the worsening of an already fragile humanitarian situation and to eradicate hardline extremists and criminal elements that are proliferating in northern Mali?
- Given its counterterrorism expertise, how Algeria's long inflexible positioning toward violent islamism, has turned into a dialogue with Ansar eddine whose legitimacy proves to be exaggerated, and honesty remains doubtful?
- And where stands the Algerian preference for a political dialogue when such dialogue is not driven primarily with the Malian authorities?
The present muddled situation, mixing conflicting and reversal exit strategies, appears to favor Algeria's underground diplomacy:
- First its proves that the MNLA is unable to control the Azawad and to build a viable State; the recent failure of MNLA's surprise attack in Menaka against MUJWA confirms the operational weakness of the separatist movement.
- Second, Algeria can benefit from a remote control on the situation in Northern Mali and on the moves of AQIM and MUJWA thanks to its proxy man.
- Third, it allows Algiers to keep its hands free, and to preserve it from any prospect of failure and/or turmoil that the military offensive might cause.
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