Algeria: Mysteries Of The Western Sahara


July 17, 2015: The continued low oil price means Algeria made 45 percent less on oil sales in the first five months of 2015 compared to the same period in 2014. The falling price of oil is doing a lot of damage to the economy but the government says it has a plan to cope. That may be difficult once Iran resumes shipping oil because of the recent peace treaty and the oil price sinks lower for longer. In late 2014 Algeria prepared its budget for 2015 based on oil selling for an average of $37 a barrel. That follows price of oil falling 50 percent since 2013 (from $110 to $55 a barrel) in 2014. Oil and gas are nearly all (97 percent) of the country's export revenues, and 40 percent of GDP. The 2015 budget keeps spending levels largely the same and to do that over $30 billion will have to come out of the reserves. This cannot continue for long as Algeria only has $200 billion in reserve and not much in the way of credit for big loans to cover budget deficits. Still, the oil revenue is an essential tool for keeping an increasingly unhappy population quiet. For example in 2011 the government announced huge (over $200 billion) investment plans for the rest of the decade, to build infrastructure and support job growth. But such promises had been made before, and somehow never panned out. This time the charm offensive was more sustained and extensive. Local officials were ordered to try harder, a lot harder, to do something for the poor and unemployed who come to them for aid. This resulted in a sudden surge of reports from all over the country about how cranky officials had suddenly taken happy pills and undergone amazing transformations. This time the investment plans have largely been fulfilled, at least so far and that had managed to keep a lid on popular discontent. Until late 2014 government spending plans assumed an oil price of $100 a barrel. Some programs can be cut or delayed while some money can be borrowed. But not enough of this will make up for revenue lost when oil sinks below $50 a barrel. A few years of very low oil prices and the situation gets dangerous and possibly ugly as the populations suffers more economic privation.

The current government is eager to please because they managed to survive the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, but just barely. This was mainly because many Algerians are still traumatized by the 1990s war against Islamic terrorists, which is still not completely over. But the anger is growing because of decades of inept dictatorship. There are few Islamic radicals left in Algeria and the security forces spend most of their time along the Tunisian, Libyan and Mali borders dealing with terrorists coming or going to those places. Over the last decade most of the Algerian Islamic terrorists were killed, captured, ran off to Europe, or south into the desert and across the southern borders into Black Africa. Too many civilians remain hostile to Islamic radicalism and will phone in a tip via the growing cell phone network. Algeria has become a very dangerous place for Islamic terrorists. Algerian Islamic radicals tried to capitalize on the Arab Spring unrest in neighboring Tunisia and Libya. But in both those countries, the popular uprising was against the local dictators and for democracy, not for Islamic radicalism. Islamic political parties were popular, but not Islamic radicals. The uprisings in Tunisia and Libya weakened the local security forces, and made it easier for Islamic radicals to move around and recruit. Algeria increased its border security to help deal with the growing number of Islamic terrorists in Tunisia and Libya. Many expect another, and larger, Arab Spring in Algeria eventually but so far the geriatric government is making concessions and trying to reform itself. This is delaying another revolution.

Algeria is relived that Tunisia has come down hard on recent Islamic terrorist attacks. This was largely in reaction to the June 26 ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) sponsored terror attack there where a university student smuggled an AK-47 (hidden in a folded beach umbrella) onto a popular tourist beach and killed 38 people before police shot him dead. Three-quarters of the victims were British. Police soon arrested several local ISIL members who turned out to be involved with planning and carrying out the attack. So far fifteen suspects have been arrested and charged with terrorism. The investigation also found that the shooter had recently received several months of weapons training in Sabratha, which is an ISIL stronghold in western Libya between Tunisia and Tripoli. Tunisian security forces have also killed two Algerian Islamic terrorists who were involved with a March attack on a museum. These two attacks increased popular anger towards Islamic radical groups and religious conservatives in general anyone who expresses any enthusiasm for religious inspired violence. There are a lot of Tunisians who lean that way. The government believes at least 3,000 Tunisians have gone to Libya to join Islamic terrorist groups. That’s about 28 per 100,000 population which is about three times the rate of European Moslems but lower than some other Arab countries (especially Saudi Arabia). Tunisia never considered itself a particularly religious nation, certainly not as strict as Saudi Arabia. Such religious moderation has always been more common in North Africa than in Arabia. Being a tolerant place Tunisians tolerated their more religiously conservative citizens. No more and it’s not just fear of getting physically hurt, but fear of poverty as the last two attacks were directed at foreign tourists. In a good year (like 2010 when there were over seven million visitors) tourism accounted for nearly ten percent of GDP. That fell by a third in 2011 because of the Arab Spring revolution but began to rebuild after that. Now, with these two attacks and the threat of more has tourism in decline and over 20,000 Tunisians unemployed as a result. All the other North African had the same problem with the economic and security impact of Islamic terrorism and this has led to more popular support for increased counter-terror efforts. At the moment the Tunisian government believes they have killed, captured or driven out the country nearly all the Islamic terrorists involved in the recent tourist attacks. Security is being increased on the Libyan border and Tunisia, like Algeria, is becoming a very hostile environment for Islamic terrorists.

July 12, 2015: One Islamic terrorist was killed and another arrested at a police checkpoint near Ain El Hadjel (180 kilometers southeast of the Algerian capital). The two Islamic terrorists in the car opened fire when the police approached their vehicle. Two weapons, ammo and a cell phone were seized.

July 9, 2015: The government accused Morocco of funding and advising Berber activists in the south and claims this illegal foreign aid is largely responsible for the current violence down there in Ghardaia. The accusations were first made by a newspaper known to be controlled (or regularly taking orders from) Algerian military intelligence. The fact that the accusations also included speculation about Israeli involvement made the issue of any Moroccan involvement dubious. Morocco denied any connection with the Ghardaia situation. Morocco has the largest Berber population in North Africa (11.5 million) followed by Algeria (10 million). These accusations are believed to be more about decades of disputes with Morocco over Algerian support for the anti-Morocco Polisario group. Relations between Algeria and Morocco have been tense since 2013, mainly because of a group of Moroccan terrorists (Polisario) that Algeria helped create decades ago. Polisario has always caused problems with neighboring Morocco and the problem got worse in 2013 when the two countries recalled ambassadors and there was talk of escalation. This made cooperation in counter-terrorism efforts (or anything else) with Morocco difficult. Meanwhile Islamic terrorists have found safe haven in Polisario refugee camps in Algeria (90,000 refugees) and Mauritania (24,000). This is all connected with the declining prospects of Polisario, which has been in bad shape since 1991. Back then, Morocco finally won its war with Polisario Front rebels, who were seeking independence for the Western Sahara (a region south of Morocco). Polisario remains powerful in Mauritania, where the rebel group has official recognition and maintains several refugee camps. In the beginning (the 1960s) Polisario was lavishly supported by Algeria and this enabled Polisario to keep going for decades. The current situation in Polisario refugee camps has provided recruits and sanctuary for al Qaeda and other Islamic radicals. Since the 1990s the UN has been trying to work out a final peace deal between Polisario and Morocco. This seemed possible because in the 1990s Algeria cut off all support for Polisario. Despite that UN efforts to mediate the differences have just not worked.  The contested area is largely desert with a current population of less than 600,000. Logic would have it that the area is better off as a part of Morocco. But there are still thousands of locals who would rather fight for independence than submit to Morocco. Some resistance is tribal and cultural, with the Moroccans seen as another bunch of alien invaders. The area was administered until 1976 as a Spanish colony. Most Western Saharans have made peace with Moroccan rule. Polisario still has several thousand armed men based in the refugee camps and refuses to accept Moroccan rule of Western Sahara. If the fighting breaks out again, possibly inspired by Islamic radicals, it could go on for years, just as it does in many other parts of Africa and the immediate neighborhood. Even though Algeria has technically renounced support for Polisario many Algerians still see Morocco as “the enemy” because of decades of anti-Morocco Algerian propaganda. This was all in support of Polisario, but few Algerians are enthusiastic about Polisario anymore.  

July 8, 2015: Ethnic violence (between Berbers and Arabs) continues down south in Ghardaia where 22 people killed and 30 wounded during five days of violence. Several buildings were also burned down. This is a continuation of violent incidents and ethnic unrest that began down there in late 2013. The last violence was in January 2015, but that only produced a dozen casualties. The clashes in early 2014 left two policemen dead and at least ten civilians injured. Earlier in 2014 the government sent more than 10,000 additional police to deal with the persistent unrest and that helped keep things quiet. This came after several outbreaks of violence there left five dead in 2013. In Ghardaia the violence between Arab and Berber residents is all about water rights, jobs, land, ethnicity and religion. Arabs also accuse the 800,000 Berbers in the south of supporting al Qaeda. The province of Ghardaia is 600 kilometers south of the coast. It is on the edge of the Sahara Desert and contains only 200,000 people. The unrest has been going on since late 2013. Since then several hundred people have been arrested and since then there have been over nearly a thousand casualties (including over fifty dead). Over a hundred building has been burned down along with dozens of vehicles. Thousands have fled the city and many businesses stayed closed for days or weeks at a time. The police, who are largely Arab, are accused of being biased against the Berbers. The ethnic tensions in this area have been growing since 2008 and the violence got much worse in October 2013 that was put down with some brutality. As bad as the ethnic tensions have been there are also disagreements over religion. The Arabs belong to the Maliki school of Islam while the Berbers are largely from the smaller Ibadi sect. About 30 percent of Algerians are Berber, but the percentage is higher in the south. Ghardaia is an ancient Berber city of 90,000 that contains many Ibadi shrines. Berbers are found throughout North Africa, west of Egypt and down to the semi-desert Sahel (where the closely related Tuareg tribes live). The ten million Berbers of Algeria are considered the most abused in the region. Ghardaia Arabs got the recent unrest started by desecrating some of the Berber shrines. This led to violent Berber reprisals, especially when images of the damage appeared on the Internet. The government is concerned for several reasons. For one thing there are oil fields are nearby. Worse, the sustained unrest among the Berbers could be the first breeze in an uprising that could engulf the entire country.

July 1, 2015: The government revealed that in the first half of the year 102 Islamic terrorists were killed, captured or surrendered. Over 1,300 weapons (including grenades, bombs and rockets) were seized. In all of 2014 about a hundred Islamic terrorists were killed, and more were captured or surrendered.

June 30, 2015: Near Ain Defla (100 kilometers west of the capital) soldiers killed an Islamic terrorist and captured an AK-47 and a suicide bomb vest. This area has had a lot of Islamic terrorist activity in the last two months.

June 29, 2015: The United States believes that a June 13 UAV missile attack in Libya killed Saifallah Benhassine. He was a major and veteran Tunisian Islamic terrorist who has operated in Algeria as well as Tunisia and Libya.

June 27, 2015: Near Ain Defla (100 kilometers west of the capital) soldiers killed three Islamic terrorists and captured three rifles over the last four days.

June 23, 2015: The government has agreed to train several dozen Tunisian border guards in the course given to Algerian police commandos who specialize in border security. Algeria will also improve coordination with Tunisia in border security matters. All this is mainly to help Tunisia improve security along their Libyan border. Security along the Algerian border is already pretty tight.

June 22, 2015: About a hundred kilometers east of the capital (Tizi Ouzou) troops killed two Islamic terrorists and captured an AK-47, a pistol, a cell phone and over a hundred rounds of ammo.

June 20, 2015: With a lot of help from Algeria the peace deal between Mali and its northern rebels was finalized by all parties when the last group of Tuareg rebels (CMA or Coordination des Mouvements de l'Azawad) signed. Tuareg rebels and Islamic terrorists (from Mali and neighboring countries) took over most of northern Mali in 2012 and remained in control until a 2013 French-led invasion restored government control. Most of the Islamic terrorists were killed or fled to Libya and Niger. Algeria hosted several rounds of peace negotiations between the Mali government and the rebels. All this peacemaking has greatly reduced Islamic terrorist activity in southern Algeria along the Mali border.




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