In Algeria, old habits die hard. The country is classically conditioned to act automatically and secretively when it comes to issues of sovereignty and national security. Such a reflex-like reaction was on plain display on January 17 when Algeria’s security forces launched an assault on militants who had taken hostages and were in control of the In Amenas natural gas field in eastern Algeria, near Libya. 

The risks might have been too high, but the payoff was never in doubt. Holding its fire would have violated the military’s creed of never blinking first in showdowns with its enemies. It would also have invited Western involvement—something Algeria has been keen to avoid. 

Anouar Boukhars
Boukhars is a nonresident fellow in Carnegie’s Middle East Program. He is a professor of countering violent extremism and counter-terrorism at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, National Defense University.
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The mastermind behind the hostage siege was none other than the one-eyed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who at forty years old is an Algerian veteran of violent Islamism. In 2007, he swore allegiance to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In December 2012, Belmokhtar left AQIM to form his own group called Signatories in Blood—an outgrowth of the deep rivalry that exists within AQIM’s top ranks. 

The dramatic attack on Algeria’s gas industry was possibly an attempt by Belmokhtar to brandish his reputation as the region’s foremost jihadi warlord. But it was also driven by Belmokhtar’s desire to strike back following France’s intervention in Mali. France began airstrikes on January 11 to stop the advance of insurgents—led by the powerful AQIM-backed Islamist group Ansar Dine—from northern Mali further into the country. 

Ansar Dine operates solely in northern Mali while AQIM is based in both northern Mali and Algeria. AQIM was born in Algeria, and most of its leadership is Algerian—radical Islamist groups know no borders in this part of the world. There is no better way to both bolster a reputation and exact revenge than by striking at the economic lifeline of the Algerian regime, which Belmokhtar has been harassing for the last two decades.

After the tragedy in Algeria, world leaders are pledging once again to respond strongly to armed militant groups roaming the Sahara Desert of northern and western Africa. If left unchecked, violent militancy is bound to grow and expand. 

The first place to take a stand is in Mali, but the effort cannot be limited to antiterrorism measures alone. In an environment of political and economic instability, organized crime, and corruption, the focus of the international community must be on institutional capacity building and strengthening regional cooperation. 

There is hope that after the attack on In Amenas, Algeria will put its secretive and insular tendencies to the side and work with other states to help Mali tackle the political and security problems it faces.

Algeria’s Flawed Approach to Fighting Militancy 

The message of In Amenas was clear: those who doubt Algeria’s firmness are bound to lose their wager. But Algeria’s counterterrorism units are not trained for rescue missions that require precision and utmost care to minimize civilian casualties. The whole hostage crisis has demonstrated the limits of Algeria’s approach to fighting violent extremism. 

Algeria’s hard-line position dates to the 1990s, when the country’s military intelligence waged a brutal and unrelenting campaign against violent Islamist insurgents. It has never wavered in its hard-line eradication efforts nor has it ceded to international pressure to negotiate or compromise. 

Since the end of the 1990s, Algerians have wanted to give the impression that they have settled their “Islamist” problem. Yet, despite its hard-line policy of eradication and cooptation, the state failed to stamp out residual militancy within its own territory. 

In reality, Algeria has only succeeded in internationalizing its war with disgruntled Islamists. The transformation of Algerian violent Islamist groups into a regional franchise for terror began over a decade ago when Algerian forces chased Islamist combatants into the southern part of the country. By 2003, the Islamists had spread into Mali and other neighboring countries. 

These violent extremists gradually embedded themselves into Malian society, patiently building and expanding a network structure of family ties, social support, political relations, and economic exchange. They established close links with Arab communities, rebels of the Tuareg ethnic group who are spread across national borders, and networks for smuggling fuel, drugs, and arms. 

By the late 2000s, they had successfully built a terrorist-criminal sanctuary in northern Mali. AQIM has become the best-funded terrorist and criminal organization thanks to the toll it imposes on the transborder smuggling of drugs and the large number of ransoms it extorts from Western governments to save the lives of their kidnapped countrymen. And by June 2012, AQIM, in collaboration with the armed Islamist forces of Ansar Dine and the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (often referred to by its acronym, MUJAO)—a splinter offshoot of AQIM— had complete control of Mali’s north.

Algeria watched these developments with great concern, but its reaction was tepid. The resources it has applied to fighting AQIM outside its territory have not matched its capabilities. 

In Mali, Algeria had hoped to stay on the sidelines during the country’s latest cycle of insurrections. It focused on securing its own borders and containing the terrorist threat within the confines of Mali, Niger, and Mauritania, which neighbor Algeria to the south.

Until the sudden French military intervention in Mali, Algeria was attempting to negotiate a political solution to the conflict by nudging the armed actors with whom it has connections. Algiers has been a perennial mediator of conflicts between Mali’s government and the Malian Tuareg—Algeria itself has a small Tuareg population. 

Algeria was especially focused on Ansar Dine, which does not seek the partition of Mali but the implementation of sharia law throughout the country. The group’s Machiavellian leader, Iyad ag Ghali, is a known quantity in Algiers, which banked on getting ag Ghali and his group to loosen their ties with AQIM and negotiate a peace deal with Bamako. Ag Ghali withdrew from the negotiation process with Bamako on January 7, 2013, putting a stop to Algeria’s efforts to secure a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Mali. 

There have been encouraging signs that Algeria is progressively becoming more practical and pragmatic in its approach to the conflict in Mali as it loses control of Ansar Dine. Algeria opened its airspace to French military jet fighters and closed its southern border with Mali when the French intervention began. 

In fact, since the 2011 Libyan conflict to Algeria’s east, the country has become slightly more responsive to problems on its periphery. It significantly beefed up its troop presence on its eastern and southern flanks and increased the number of checkpoints and surveillance flights to track the movement of drug dealers, arms traders, and terrorists that could carry conflicts across a range of territories. Border crossings were also tightened and the transport of goods controlled and monitored. In January 2013, the prime ministers of Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia met in the western Libyan border town of Ghadames, where they agreed to form joint teams to better coordinate security along their porous borders and stem the flow of drugs, arms, and fuel. The interdiction of the latter is critical as it allows militants mobility. 

For years now, senior European and American counterterrorism officials have complained that Algeria was not doing enough to monitor its southern border and control resources that help various armed groups flourish. Controlling this border is necessary to weaken AQIM’s capabilities and disrupt its logistics operations. In the current conflict, if AQIM and its allies are cut off from the amenities they get from Algeria, they will have difficulty prolonging their fight. 

It is therefore not surprising to see French counterterrorism officials who only few months ago suspected Algeria of playing a double game in Mali applauding its decision to seal off its long border with Mali. President François Hollande’s vociferous defense of Algeria’s deadly hostage raid stems from this necessity to enlist Algeria’s help in controlling the border. 

Hollande’s reaction was in stark contrast to that of officials in the United States and Britain, who barely hid their frustration with being kept in the dark by Algeria before the raid. The British wanted the rescue to be “tough” but “intelligent”; the Americans wanted it to be precise and driven by detailed surveillance. The Algerians preferred the “sledgehammer approach.” 

For France, however, the hostage ordeal is an opportunity to mobilize Algerian and international help for its military campaign in Mali. Since the Islamist takeover of northern Mali, France has incessantly pushed for a military option. The French fear that the takeover of northern Mali by armed Islamist groups will threaten their economic interests in the region and destabilize their far more important allies in North Africa. The attack on the gas field in Algeria was hatched in northern Mali and executed by a multinational group of militants who crossed through Niger and Libya. This concern over transborder militancy is exacerbated by the difficult democratic transitions in North Africa. 

Regional Unrest

The risks of contagion and spillover from the conflict in Mali are real. In interviews, senior officials from Tunisia’s ruling Ennahda Party, for instance, expressed their grave concern that Tunisia is quickly becoming a smuggling corridor for arms dealers operating between Libya and Mali. Seizures of large arms caches are becoming frequent, as was the case on January 17 when Tunisian security forces arrested members of a militant group and confiscated rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikov rifles. And Tunisia could become more than just a transit route as Tunisians fighting alongside AQIM return home from Mali and elsewhere. 

Privately, Ennhada members are concerned that protracted French involvement in Mali might become a potent recruitment magnet for disgruntled Tunisian Islamists and hard-core Salafists. There is also genuine concern of backlash against countries supportive of the French incursion. Morocco, for one, has supported the French from the beginning. And the Islamist government in Tunisia has offered tepid support for the French mission, declaring that it understands the reasons behind the intervention.

So far, cross-border links between militants have been tenuous, based more on greed and criminality than ideology. But the fear is that widespread jihadi gangsters, militant Salafists, and rebels might join forces, destabilizing countries that are transitioning from authoritarian rule and that have weak security institutions. Tunisian authorities, for instance, are struggling to reform their dysfunctional security services and develop the capacities of the police and gendarme to counter the threats. 

Even in countries with strong security forces, danger looms. Since the launch of France’s intervention in Mali, Morocco has been on high alert. Several Moroccans are known to have joined militant groups in Mali. The country is also worried about stability in the huge swath of the desert in the Western Sahara. 

Now What?

After he was informed of the French incursion into Mali on January 11, General Carter Ham, the head of U.S. Africa Command, asked, “Now what?” In Mali, the real test, of course, is preventing a reenactment of the errors that followed the NATO’s operation in Libya, as well as the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. But military responses alone will not defeat terrorist groups or eradicate violent ideologies. Armed militant groups might resemble each other, but the local circumstances (political, economic, and security) that drive their actions differ and need to be examined meticulously. 

The goal set by Paris is ambitious: reconquer the north, defeat armed groups, and restore national unity to Mali. To quiet any accusation of neocolonialism, the French are scrambling to give an African face to their intervention by helping ready the local Malian army and an African-led International Support Mission to Mali.

The Malian and African troops are the weakest link in the plan to retake a territory twice the size of France. Poorly trained, ill equipped, and disorganized, they will not be fully operational for months. Their level of professionalism also constitutes a problem. Nigeria, for instance, has committed troops to the effort. But in Nigeria, the behavior of these forces and the collateral damage they cause actually fuels the country’s insurgency and increases popular sympathy and support for Boko Haram, Nigeria’s homegrown Islamist organization.

The French intervention will likely drive radical Islamist combatants out of Mali’s main cities and urban centers and into the massive desert mountains near the Algerian border. Algeria’s cooperation is crucial here, as border interdiction and sanctuary denial is essential to the success of the French mission in Mali. 

The incursion might also exacerbate intercommunal tensions and inflame ethnic relations. There is a risk that the Malian army or vigilante militias will exact revenge on Tuareg and other light-skinned Arabs who participated in the rebellion that chased Malian troops out of the north. Clashes between the army and Tuareg in three prior rebellions resulted in horrific abuse of civilians. 

The overlapping of ethnic communities and armed groups in West Africa also increases the possibility of a spillover into neighboring countries and an escalation of militancy and terrorist attacks. 

To mitigate the risks, the intervention must be accompanied by a sound political strategy that manages disparate group interests and integrates a coalition of key elites from all communities of northern Mali, including Tuareg and Arabs. It is urgent that Malian authorities and their Western allies analyze carefully who supports militant organizations and why. 

AQIM has developed impressive networks in northern Mali, though the group’s presence rests on unstable foundations. The vicissitudes of tribal allegiances, clan loyalties, and nomadic alliances make for an ephemeral existence, as does the unstable equilibrium within and between the different communities that populate the north. In a complex social environment where loyalties change constantly, several individuals will readily switch sides if they stand to benefit from the peace dividends. 

But without an understanding of the human terrain, it would be difficult to dry up the militants’ base of support. Even if AQIM is severely weakened, clan- or ethnicity-based militancy will continue. 

These political and human elements of the war effort in northern Mali are critical to the stabilization of the north. That will not happen, however, unless the Malian state resolves its crisis of legitimacy and opens sincere dialogue with the disenchanted populations in the north. The north has been a theater of environmental degradation, demographic change, and resource conflict between farmers and pastoralists. Weak governance and neglect of the vast area exacerbated ethnic and tribal tensions and left unattended the structural problems of underdevelopment and poverty that produced northern rebellions in 1963, the 1990s, and 2006–2009.

So far, the ruling class in Bamako seems more interested in recapturing the north and restoring an intolerable status quo ante than in facilitating national reconciliation, recovery, and reconstruction. That has to change. Only a legitimate government can tackle the festering grievances in the north. The political leaders in Mali must rebuild a new sociopolitical order that grants real autonomy to the north and strike a proper balance between religion and state. 

But Mali cannot do this alone—it will need help from the international community and its neighbors to tackle its socioeconomic and security problems. And Algeria in particular no longer has the luxury of staying out of what’s unfolding in Mali nor can it afford to ignore the links between its domestic radical Islamists and those roaming the desert wastelands of the Sahel. After all, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is an Algerian phenomenon. Only time will tell if the country’s shift toward a more pragmatic foreign policy will lead to a permanent change in approach.