Regional military force begins operations in Sahel region amid Maghreb disunity
Tunis- Algeria’s absence from a regional African military force combating terror and crime in the Sahel raised concerns about its loss of influence in the region.
The G5 Sahel, a counterterror coalition that includes Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger is operational in strategic areas of the Sahel.
A brainchild of France, the 5,000-troop force had been in the works for two years and began patrols in September. With additional funding from the United Nations and the United States, it is expected to increase its operations in the coming months.
Algeria was the first country to form a military coalition in the Sahel, setting up the Joint Operational Committee of Chief of Staffs with resources from Mauritania, Niger and Mali in 2010. However, the planned 7,000-troop force failed to materialise, leaving a vacuum that is being filled by France, the United States and the United Nations.
Jihadist groups gained traction in the Maghreb as early as 2011, when former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi was toppled in a NATO-backed insurgency. The ensuing conflict in Libya allowed al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) to gain a foothold in the country.
This influence spread to Tunisia. In 2015, Seifallah Ben Hassine, who heads the Tunisian branch of Ansar al-Sharia, an Islamist militia group, is believed to have helped plan terror attacks in the country, including the massacre of dozens of British tourists at a beach resort in Sousse.
Algeria has an even more troubled history with extremism, having fought a brutal civil war with Islamic rebel groups in the 1990s. Two leading suspected terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda — Abdelmalek Droukdel and Mokhtar Belmokhtar — started in Algeria. That made Algeria’s absence from the regional fighting force even more surprising.
“Algeria is the first military power in the region but it is excluded from the new military alliance even though it has 2,786 sq.km of border area with G5 member countries,” said Algerian security analyst Brahim Takheroubt. “Algeria has been praised by Western powers and experts for its experience in fighting terrorism but on the ground Algeria is neither consulted nor asked to participate.”
Takheroubt questioned whether the foreign military presence, which includes thousands of US and French forces across the Sahel, could threaten the country’s stability.
“The build-up of foreign military forces appears exaggerated when compared to the nature of the threat,” argued Takheroubt. “Most experts and observers agree that the jihadist groups together number some hundreds.”
Takheroubt echoed concerns by Algerian officials that the aims of United States, France and their European allies could be to counter the resurgent influence of China in Africa and spark regime change in certain countries.
After watching the downfall of Qaddafi in 2011, Algeria has been particularly concerned about potential Western interference and has had annual military drills focused on repelling air attacks from foreign bases every year since.
“Algeria is in the cross hairs of foreign powers and we have been aware of this for a long time now,” a senior government official was quoted by the Algerian daily Le Quotidien d’Oran as saying. “Algeria is part of the Arab Islamic world that must be disintegrated according to the plans of these powers.”
The unidentified official, whose comments were unusual given the government’s strict privacy policies, was said to be in charge of military and political issues in the top echelon of government.
“These powers eye Algeria in their broader strategies to punish it for its stance in support of the Palestinians and other good causes,” said the official, adding that “what is happening in Libya and the African Sahel strip is not fortuitous and could disturb Algeria’s stability.”
However, the official acknowledged that the principal reasons Algeria was not involved in the Sahel were its fragile domestic situation and disunity within the Maghreb.
“Our influence is declining because of the physical weakness of the president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, and the fall of oil prices,” the official said, adding that the mission “to build the Great Maghreb” had failed.
“We have to reach out to Morocco and Tunisia very soon to build alliances. Our future, our stability and the stability of our region depend on that alliance,” added the official.
He downplayed remarks by Algerian Foreign Minister Abdelkader Messahel accusing Morocco of drug laundering as a “mere drop in the sea which has been already troubled by hurtful comments made by some Moroccan circles against Algeria.”
Messahel angered Rabat when he accused its banks of “being used in laundering the revenues from the sales of hashish.”
Niger has said it would allow US forces stationed in the country to use armed drones to track jihadists. It previously only allowed the use of surveillance drones.
The move comes a month after jihadists ambushed a joint US-Niger patrol near the Mali border, killing four American soldiers and four Nigerien soldiers.