Algerian army targets southern smuggling
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.”