Algeria: Ignoring The Sand Bandits

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December 10, 2011:  For the last six months, troops from Mauritania and Mali have been seeking out and killing al Qaeda members hiding in the Wagadou Forest (actually a thousand hectares/2,500 acres of brush and trees in a semi-desert area), which lies astride the border. Al Qaeda has apparently been there since early last year. The Wagadou Forest has become a way station for cocaine and hashish that al Qaeda escorts from Guinea-Bissau to the Mediterranean coast. This, and kidnap ransoms,  is how al Qaeda finances itself in West Africa these days. Until this year, al Qaeda had an informal agreement with Mali, whereby al Qaeda would behave itself (no kidnappings or terror attacks) and the Mali government would leave the terrorists alone. But pressure from neighbors, NATO and the United States changed that, and Mali agreed to try and shut down al Qaeda operations.

Over the last five years Al Qaeda been organizing a new chapter south of Algeria, among tribal rebels and disaffected urbanites in Niger, Mali, Chad and Mauritania. This was called Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (North Africa), or AQIM. This was more PR than reality at first. There are some Islamic terrorists in the region, and these pronouncements appear to be an attempt to unify pro-Islamic terrorist elements via the Internet and the mass media. So far, the many disaffected groups in the region have shown little interest in uniting, especially under the leadership of al Qaeda. Too many different objectives and al Qaeda has a reputation for being a loser. But the terrorists have extracted over a $100 million in ransoms from kidnapping Western visitors, and millions more by working for drug smugglers. This has enabled the group to expand from less than a hundred paid staff, to over 300. The money went to bribing local officials and tribal leaders, as well as buying vehicles, weapons, satellite phones and much more.

The Wagadou Forest was one of their main base areas. Learning from their mistakes in Algeria (where Islamic radicals tried to use murder and terror to gain the cooperation of civilians), AQIM does not use violence against civilians unless attacked. AQIM spreads the money around and is polite. AQIM hires local men for support jobs and tries to recruit locals to become Islamic radicals. The locals are wary of al Qaeda, for they know of the death and destruction the group brings with it. People throughout the region know how savage the Algerian Islamic radicals were to civilians during the 1990s rebellion. But the people in the Sahel (the semi-desert south of the Sahara) are poor and the money is accepted, as long as the terrorists are peaceful. Some of the young tribesmen are tempted to join al Qaeda, much to the dismay of their parents and elders.  Thus the government raids on al Qaeda bases is spurred in part by the fear that al Qaeda will gain control over the rural population and threaten the governments of the countries south of Algeria.

Mali, Niger and Mauritania see Algeria as part of the problem, because Algeria limits its cooperation with its neighbors, and will not allow foreign troops to pursue Islamic radicals into Algeria. Al Qaeda is less of a problem in Algeria than are the remnants of the Islamic terror groups that were a major threat in the 1990s. Algeria sees the Islamic terror groups in the far south as sand bandits and much less of a threat than the several hundred Islamic terrorists remaining in the north. One must also remember that Algeria is still run by a military dictatorship that did not appreciate the help the West gave to rebel movements in Tunisia and Libya. There, Algeria lost long-time allies, replaced by democratic governments which accuse Algeria of supporting the deposed dictators. The situation is likely to remain tense for a bit, and sand bandits are considered a distraction by Algeria.

December 8, 2011: Al Qaeda has admitted it kidnapped five foreigners (two French, one Dutch, one Swede and a South African) last month in Mali. Al Qaeda denied responsibility for the recent kidnapping of three aid workers in Algeria. The terrorists claim the two French captives are spies and that all five were taken in revenge for al Qaeda members recently arrested in Mali. The terrorists are demanding ransom of over $20 million for each of the European captives. While there is public pressure in Europe to pay ransoms, the governments don't want to because they recognize that the money supports Islamic terrorism and encourages more kidnappings. The African governments oppose paying big ransoms as well, because the terrorists do most of their damage locally. To make matters worse, there are three factions in the AQIM and they don't always get along. Right now, the three factions are competing to see which one can kidnap for foreigners and gain the most ransom.

December 6, 2011: Noting the electoral success of Islamic parties in neighboring Tunisia, Algeria refused requests to allow Islamic parties to again operate in Algeria. This ban has been in place since the 1990s Islamic terrorist effort to take control of the country. This terror campaign also made the Islamic radicals very unpopular, despite promises that their rule would reduce corruption and government mismanagement.

December 5, 2011:  Mauritanian police announced they had arrested two refugees from Algeria and charged them with participating in the kidnapping of three foreign aid workers in Algeria last month. The two men said their group had sold the three captives to al Qaeda.

December 4, 2011: In the Kabylie region, a hundred kilometers east of the capital, a doctor was released by kidnappers (who had taken him on November 15th.) The family says no ransom was paid. It’s illegal to pay ransom, and since last year, kidnappers have been forced to release their captives by a popular uproar in the region over kidnappings. There have been about 70 kidnappings in the region in the last six years, mainly by al Qaeda groups and for ransom.

November 28, 2011: Police arrested two men and accused them of participating in the kidnapping of three foreign aid workers last month.

November 26, 2011: The EU (European Union) has agreed to send technology and police experts to help Mali, Niger and Mauritania deal with its growing Islamic terrorism problem.

 

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