Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM): Implications for Algeria’s Regional and International Relations

Rebranded in 2007, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is the latest incarnation of Algerian radical Islamism. Initially focused on attacks with great political resonance against Algerian governmental and military targets, the group has progressively shifted its priorities, alongside its geographical and operational features. In the past few years, the countries of the Sahel region (Mauritania, Malì, Niger, Chad) have been increasingly affected by AQIM’s actions. This geographical shift was the result both of a weakening of AQIM within Algeria, due to the tough counter-terrorist measures adopted by the regime, and of the “business opportunities” and the wider operational freedom offered by the Sahelian environment. The aim of this paper is to briefly address a series of questions concerning AQIM’s “Sahelization” and its consequences for Algerian foreign policy.

Algerian Senate confirms lifting of emergency rule

The Algerian Council of the Nation (Senate) adopted unanimously President Bouteflika’s order to lift the state of emergency, which announced the official end of a situation that existed since 1992 to fight Islamist violence. Two other orders that were previously adopted by the National People’s Congress (ANP Chamber of Deputies), were adopted as well. The first order confirms that the National Popular Army (ANP) remains in charge for “rescue missions of public order outside emergency situations”, which covers counter-terrorism activities. The other order replaces administrative detention in the Code of Criminal Procedure by a new measure which has to be determined by a judge: a terrorist suspect can now be placed under house arrest for a period of three months. This period is renewable twice. Police custody has now been reduced to 48 hours, renewable only by the prosecutor. Similarly, arrests, searches and wiretapping are henceforth to be done under the supervision of a magistrate.

UN Movie about repentant terrorists from Algeria

This brief 10 minute  film examines the experiences of an Algerian fighter and the factors that influenced him to disavow the use of violence and reenter “mainstream” society. The documentary series was developed by the UN as part of an effort to assist member states in taking action to counter violent extremism by providing a platform for former terrorists and their victims to speak out against terrorism. Referring to the aim of the initiative, Mr. Barrett stated, “We must show that terrorism is not an acceptable solution and that is why we focus on both the victim and the perpetrator in the films.”

Algeria to debate scrapping emergency powers

(Reuters) – Pro-government members of Algeria’s parliament have proposed lifting a 19-year-old state of emergency, a sign the authorities may consider scrapping a measure opponents say is used to stifle political freedom.

Opposition groups inspired by protests in Tunisia and Egypt have made the repeal of the state of emergency one of their main demands and some commentators say the government may make concessions to its opponents to avert unrest.

The government has said it needs the emergency powers to fight Islamist insurgents linked to al Qaeda. The violence has abated in the past few years, sparking public debate about whether the powers are still justified.

Trade unionists, opposition parties and civil society groups are planning a march in the capital on Feb. 12 to seek an end to emergency rule and greater democracy. Officials say the protest is illegal.

Britain, Algeria boost counter-terrorism strategy

Britain and Algeria will step up cooperation on security with the creation of a committee on counter-terrorism, a British minister said last week.

“We face a common threat from Al-Qaeda and in order to counter this there is a need for the nations to work more effectively together…,” said Alistair Burt, the British Foreign Office Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, in a statement.

“The bilateral committee is a manifestation of the determination of both the UK and Algeria to confront terrorism,” he said, adding that it would involve cooperation on training and intelligence sharing with a first meeting due to take place in London in two weeks.

Algeria to arm civilians to fight terror

The interior minister has reportedly said that Algeria will resume a policy of arming people to reinforce the fight against terrorism in the north African country. Dahou Ould Kablia says the government would honor a request of some civilians in insecure areas for weapons “to fight against terrorism.”

He didn’t specify which people would be armed and said the defense ministry was behind the decision. Algerian media on Wednesday published the comments made Tuesday.

The government had a policy of arming civilians during the Islamist insurgency that left up to 200,000 people dead in Algeria in the 1990s.

The EU as a counter-terrorism actor abroad

This paper by the EPC looks at thehandling of counter-terrorism in the ensemble of EU external relations and assistance vis-à-vis five countries of recognised importance for European interests: Algeria, Morocco, Yemen, Pakistan, and Indonesia.

North African spy chiefs set up joint intelligence centre

Last Wednesday the heads of intelligence services of four Northern African countries (Algeria, Niger, Mauritania, and Mali) have set up a joint intelligence agency which aims to collect information on terrorist activities and make them available to their joint military operations center based in Tamanrasset in the Sahel. Other countries including Burkina Faso, Chad, and Libya are expected to join the four member coalition at a latter date.

The centre will be run by a coalition of high-ranking officers from Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Algeria who would share information on the activities of terrorist groups in the region, their movements and the identities of members, the Algerian daily Al Watan said.The newspaper said the suggestion to include Morocco in the group had been rejected because it was not regarded as part of the region.

The centre will have a rotating leadership, like the regional military post in Tamanrasset, Algeria, where the meeting is taking place and which was set up in April this year to coordinate activities with the armies of Mauritania, Mali and Niger. The “Tamanrasset Plan” calls for officials from Algeria and the three Sahel countries to co-ordinate intelligence-gathering in a campaign against terrorism, organised crime, arms smuggling and kidnapping. The plan also calls for military patrols in shared border areas to monitor and control the movement of terrorist groups.

At the meeting it was decided recruit smugglers to help them track down the militants’ desert camps.

Sahel analyst Jeremy Keenan told RFI that the meeting is unlikely to provide “anything of use” in terms of intelligence because agencies from all four countries are already “pretty clued-up”.

“They also know that AQIM has been, and still is, fairly well infiltrated by Algeria. They also know that basically Algeria is trying to call all the shots. And there are fundamentally bad relations between Algeria and every single one of her neighbours, except at the moment Tunisia,” says Keenan.

He believes that AQIM has been infiltrated by at at “the highest levels” which has created “huge amount of distrust from all the surrounding countries”.

“The bottom line is extremely simple – if you wanted to clean up this problem you could do it in 24 hours – the location of all these people is known precisely. They’re not far over the border from Algeria. The Algerian armed forces certainly has the ability to completely wipe out the whole lot in no time at all, if it wanted to.”

Former French colony Algeria is fiercely opposed to the al Qaeda threat being used to justify Western military intervention in the Sahara, and is seeking to demonstrate that the region’s governments are dealing with the problem on their own.

Nowak and Scheinin urge US to ensure no forcible return of Guantanamo detainees

The UN Special Rapporteurs on Torture, Manfred Nowak, and on the Protection of Human Rights while Countering Terrorism, Martin Scheinin, have called on the US Government to ensure that it does not forcibly return anyone to another State where the person could be subject to torture.

While welcoming US efforts to close Guantanamo Bay detention facility, the two experts  expressed their concern for two recent decisions by the US Supreme Court, which paved the way for the transfer of two Algerian detainees held in Guantánamo.

“We are extremely worried that the lives of two Algerian detainees could be put in danger without a proper assessment of the risks they could face if returned against their will to their country of origin,” the experts stated in a news release.

One of the two men in question, Abdul Aziz Naji, has already been repatriated to Algeria, according to media reports. He was among a group of six Algerian nationals held in Guantánamo, who feared that, if returned to Algeria, they could be subject to torture or other forms of ill-treatment by the security services or non-State actors.

“Diplomatic assurances are unreliable or difficult to monitor and cannot substitute the sending country’s obligation to assess the real risk facing the individual,” said the experts, who added that this could become the first involuntary transfers of Guantánamo detainees of the Obama administration.

Research paper: “Could Al-Qaeda Turn African in the Sahel?”

Jean-Pierre Filiu (Professor at Sciences Po, Middle East department) has written a paper for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace entitled “Could Al-Qaeda Turn African in the Sahel?”. Here’s the summary:

Since its founding in January 2007, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has continued the jihadi fight begun by its predecessor, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), against the Algerian government. Algeria’s ability to contain the jihadis has forced AQIM to develop networks in the Sahara and to cooperate with smuggling rings there. Its mobile commandos, already active in Mauritania, now represent a serious security threat in northern parts of Mali and Niger, where they have abducted Westerners and frequently clashed with government forces.

Osama bin Laden appears to have no grand plans for Africa. But the Algerian-run AQIM could help al-Qaeda central incorporate a new generation of recruits from the Sahel. This jihadi progression south of the Sahara is limited, but troublesome, especially given a recent offer by AQIM’s leader to train Muslim militias in Nigeria.

However, the ethno-racial divide within al-Qaeda has kept African recruits out of leadership roles. AQIM cannot prove its commitment to “Africanized” jihad without Africanizing at least some of its leadership. Also, AQIM has partnered throughout the Sahel with criminals, not local salafi movements, limiting its appeal and preventing it from becoming a revolutionary challenger. This does not mean deterring AQIM will be easy: Mauritania, Mali, and Niger are among the world’s poorest states and will require international support to defuse AQIM’s momentum. Algeria is right to push for regional cooperation to address the threat, and discreet aid from the West is crucial to help the Sahel countries regain control of their territory from al-Qaeda forces and prevent the terror group from taking hold in Africa.