Algeria sees security challenges after Mali attack
Tunis - Algeria closed its lengthy borders with Libya and Mali after the terrorist attack in Bamako in which at least 19 people died as jihadists widened their challenge to France’s interests a week after the Paris attacks.
The massacre at Bamako’s Radisson Blu Hotel underscored security frailty of Mali and the struggle of 10,000 French and UN peacekeepers to bolster stability of the former French colony.
The Arabic-language daily El Khabar quoted an Algerian security source as saying a military intelligence report triggered the decision to close the borders and stage a “wide military operation to search suspected areas”.
Algerian soldiers reportedly arrested five fighters and 30 smugglers with links to jihadist groups who gave details about a coalition between Tuareg rebels, al-Murabitun, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa. The jihadist formations have ties to both al- Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Islamic State (ISIS)
“The armed forces chief of staff office and the minister of defence took seriously that information into account,” said El Khabar.
The border move, which locked down most of Algeria’s 6,734- mile desert borders, aims to hold off ISIS and other jihadist groups throughout Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and the Sahel region.
In Nigeria and the Sahel region, the Boko Haram terror group is competing with ISIS in savagery and expansionist ambitions. Boko Haram has reportedly killed 3,500 people this year in an area stretching from north-eastern Nigeria to Niger and Chad and Cameroon.
Experts say Algeria could play the role of a “bastion of last resort” with its powerful military and experience in fighting Islamist violence for more than ten years. But it still has to meet several challenges, including ensuring a smooth transition towards a more open political system after nearly two decades of rule by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and shrinking oil revenues that constitute its economic lifeline.
Algeria had already broken a taboo. In 2013, it allowed French jet fighters to fly over its territory to intervene against Islamist fighters in neighbouring Mali — sealing a de facto alliance with France against jihadists since then.
AQIM was born in Algeria and maintains a presence east of Algiers in the Kabylie mountains. It killed at least nine Algerian soldiers in an ambush not far from the capital in July. Smaller groups, including al-Murabitun, an al- Qaeda breakaway faction led by former Algerian army paratrooper Mokhtar Belmokhtar and which claimed the Bamako hotel assault, al-Qaeda-linked Uqba ibn Nafi and ISIS-linked Jund al-Khilafa continue to operate across and within Algeria’s borders.
El Khabar, apparently basing its article on a recent intelligence report, talked of an unprecedented alliance between ISIS and other jihadist factions for the purpose of opening a new front against France’s presence in Mali.
The new threat could create a problem for Paris as it fears spreading too thin, between facing off to the jihadist challenge at home, ensuring the defence of its huge interests in Africa and pursuing a second war front against ISIS in Syria.
Despite a UN-backed deal in June 2014, the Malian army and thousands of peacekeepers are struggling to impose order amid deep inter-communal tensions and frequent attacks by jihadists. The West African country is seeking to put an end to successive Tuareg uprisings dating back to independence from France in 1960.
French newspaper Le Monde quoted unnamed Defence Ministry sources as saying Paris could be forced to trim its military presence in Africa to meet military requirements stemming from French President François Hollande’s demand to intensify the fight against ISIS in Syria.
Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal said a global front by the “civilised world” is needed to crush the “barbaric group”. Former Defence minister Khaled Nezzar, lionised by Algerian anti-Islamists for spearheading the fight against Islamist insurgents to “safeguard Algeria’s republican order”, said only troops on the ground can defeat ISIS. Air strikes, according to him, will have no decisive effect in the global war on ISIS.
Local analysts privy to the thinking of security and military leaders say Algerian authorities fear jihadists outside its borders could boost the ranks of remaining jihadists on its soil as weary Algerian youth have lost enthusiasm for jihad.
They cite estimates by Algerian security services putting the number of Algerians fighting with ISIS in Syria and Iraq at about 250 for a population of around 40 million compared to 4,000 Tunisians from a population of 11 million. They also note that most of the assailants in the raid by an al-Qaeda affiliate against the Amenas gas field in southern Algeria early in 2013 were foreign jihadists who crossed into Algeria from Libya.