Algerian army targets southern smuggling

Friday 22/05/2015
Libyan smuggler carrying African migrants in Ghat, southwest Libya near the border with Algeria.

Algiers - Fearing armed chaos in neighbouring Libya and renewed conflict in Mali, Algeria’s army is shifting its focus from fighting Is­lamist militants at home to Sahel border smuggling that supports those militants.
The Algerian military said it had arrested more than 650 suspected smugglers on its borders with Lib­ya, Mali and Niger since April in a campaign to tighten the largely desolate and trackless desert fron­tiers with the Sahel to its south.
“Algeria’s army is aware that fighting terrorism in the Sahel is useless if you do not include fight­ing smugglers,” security analyst and writer Anis Rahmani said.
Algeria, a major OPEC oil and nat­ural gas exporter, managed to neu­tralise an Islamist insurgency only at the cost of thousands of lives in the 1990s and became a seasoned US ally in the fight against Sahel armed factions.
Militant attacks in Algeria are rare compared with a decade or more ago but authorities appear to be taking extra precautions against spillover from the worsening disor­der in adjacent countries.
Anarchy in Libya, where two ri­val governments and their ex-rebel allies have fought for control since the fall of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, has focused the attention of Algeria and other North African countries to their sprawling, re­mote border zones.
A relapse into fighting in lawless northern Mali, where separatist and Islamist factions are active, has worried Bamako’s neighbours since French troops withdrew last year after an operation to sweep out al-Qaeda-affiliated militants.
Algeria has sent thousands of troops south since it closed more than 6,000 kilometres of its bor­ders with Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Libya in May 2014.
But it has stepped up southern operations in the last few months and increased cooperation with Tunisia on its eastern frontier, where militants operate in moun­tainous border areas.
The southern operation ap­pears focused, in part, on smash­ing smuggling networks run by veteran Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who heads an alli­ance of Islamist fighters involved in moving contraband, an Algerian security source said.
Belmokhtar used southern Libya as the springboard for an attack on Algeria’s In Amenas gas plant in 2012 during which militants seized foreign oil workers, triggering a siege that left 40 captives dead.
Smugglers arrested recently were armed with Kalashnikov as­sault rifles while others served as scouts infiltrating the Libyan bor­der for armed groups, the security source said.
The army also seized weapons caches near its borders with Libya, the latest consisting of two mor­tars, two rocket launchers, 45 rock­ets and 225 kilograms of explosives and landmines, according to the Defence Ministry.
As a sign of the operation’s im­pact, the price of illicit arms, most­ly filtered in from Libya to south­ern Algeria, has risen, the security source said.
Smuggled items included weap­ons, petrol and food that are subsi­dised by the Algerian government.
But migrant trafficking is an es­pecially lucrative trade with mili­tants cashing in on Sub-Saharan Af­ricans and Syrians trying to sneak into Libya to make the perilous trip from the Mediterranean coast to Europe.
Last summer, 200 Syrians were seized by Algerian security forces near the border with Libya as they were trying to reach Italy with the help of Libyan Islamists who had promised to smuggle them there by boat.
Although the two main armed groups still active in Algeria — al- Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Islamic State’s local wing the Caliphate Soldiers — op­erate in remote northern areas, Algeria’s army has become more concerned about threats to its southern borders.
“Algeria is the only country in the region that has the capacity to effectively patrol its borders,” said Geoff Porter, a North Africa spe­cialist at the Combating Terrorism Center in the United States.
“Even with the presence of for­eign troops in northern Mali, Bam­ako cannot or will not enforce se­curity along its border with Algeria. Likewise, Libya is a failed state that has no interest in border security.”