October 24, 2010

US Creeping Into Algeria

AQIM commander Abu Zeid

For once America seems to be acting correctly in its endless war against al-Qaeda. The consensus among historic and modern counterinsurgency studies dictates an early response, exploiting the guerrilla’s weakest stage and, more importantly, heading off grievances before they snowball. So as al-Qaeda’s newest branch, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), begins to bear fruit in Algeria and the Sahel, US officials almost make sense when they raise Yemen and Somalia as examples of states that ran away from the West.

America, Britain, and France are determined not to make the same mistake again.

Unfortunately so much more lurks beneath the desert. AQIM isn’t new but the evolution of another group, Group for Call and Combat (GSPC), that in turn was part of a long-standing radicalization of the region, specifically Libya. Western governments have also sounded AQIM’s alarm since GSPC, a gradual intervention into North Africa. So despite AQIM’s small numbers, around 400, its earliest form is long passed, leaving the conflict deep in life-span and progression of US activity.

Though COIN manuals agree on a proactive strategy, they also believe that honesty and integrity defeat insurgencies, while clandestine activity encourages them. What Washington and Paris consider a righteous task hasn’t stopped their Special Forces from operating in the shadows, once again checked by justifiable anti-imperialism. The progression is straightforward: intelligence sharing, military supplies and funding, followed by training and reconnaissance from US Special Forces, surveillance equipment like drones, and finally, if necessary, Special Forces raids and air-strikes.

Yemen and Somalia are waist deep in the final level. And according to AQIM’s northern commander Abu Zeid, also known as Abid Hammadou, America has reached the second-to-last phase in Algeria.

Zeid isn’t the most credible source of intelligence, though his decade of fighting lends evidence to the conflict’s age. Alleging that his troops spotted US Special Forces at an Algerian base in Tamanrasset, near the Malian border where Zeid is supposedly headquartered, his actions indicate how susceptible and oppositional AQIM believes Algerians are to US operations. His claim was confirmed by The Washington Post’s designated expert, Mathieu Guidere at the University of Geneva.

According to Guidere, Zeid recently ordered his unit to halt satellite communications in the face of US drones and satellite systems.

This potential truth creates a problem since the Algerian government rejects a Western presence inside its borders, despite several publicized raids by French forces. As a regional leader - and a state founded on a successful insurgency against colonial France - succumbing to Western assistance could inflame nationalistic and Islamic passions, ultimately fueling the insurgency. Such is the case in Yemen and Pakistan, where hyper-sensitivity of their sovereignty presents a major obstacle to US influence.

Logic also works in Zeid’s favor. In September 2009, The New York Times revealed an expanded Special Forces directive authored by David Petraeus during his tenure at Central Command (CENTCOM). In conjunction with the CIA, Special Forces units have inserted themselves into over 70 countries, many of them hostile, with missions ranging from reconnaissance to building local alliances, to tracking, lacing, and capturing potential targets.

Special Forces already operate in Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, and the US Navy maintains an active presence in the Mediterranean, so an outfit in Algeria seems reasonable in light of developing US activity. All hardware comes with some form of personnel - that’s how Washington's game works.

The main question is what comes next. Dramatic changes are unlikely in the immediate future. AQIM lacks the ability and, without orders from al-Qaeda leadership, the motive to stage an attack in Europe (though the two cells are in contact). And North African states aren’t in danger of being over-run by AQIM’s tiny guerrilla force. Openly challenging Algerian and US forces is suicidal, but the region also remains unprepared for US air-strikes on vulnerable AQIM positions, a temptation in the vast expanses of desert.

Panic-inducing air-strikes would repeat the new-found success of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

AQIM is also being used as a scapegoat by Paris, where threats of AQIM have escalated in relation to France’s economic unrest. Ties with Algerian intelligence (DRS), a mainstream conspiracy inside and outside Algeria, have yet to be conclusively disproved, and neighboring states have criticized Algeria for chasing AQIM fighters across their borders. The group simply doesn't pose the exaggerated threat it's made out to be.

However North Africa’s conflict is poised for growth, and it may be a matter of time before US or French drone raids. In conjunction with Washington, the quartet of Algeria , Mali, Mauritania, and Niger have signed a security pact and established outposts in the desert, with bases under development. A corresponding increase in kidnappings and ransoms is assured. To demonstrate its strength and ideology, AQIM might begin systematically raiding Algerian positions in the coming years, triggering an overt backlash.

This reaction would feed back into Washington's military expansionism.

But with the West increasing its activity without the necessary diversification, the Sahara offers AQIM an endless expanse to grow into its own. That North Africa poses an “easier” threat is only relative to failed states such as Somalia. North African contains over 100 million people, many of them impoverished, unemployed, politically marginalized, and looking for an outlet. AQIM holds a monopoly on the region too, a key advantage that already elevated it to the transnational level. One day it might connect to Somalia and Yemen's cells.

US opposition doesn’t run as high as the Middle East, a small advantage that must be nourished. Mali polls well in Pew global surveys, and none of the states infected by AQIM lean towards al-Qaeda’s ideology. This doesn’t mean Western military activity is welcome though. Each state is susceptible to disinformation and alienation. Even Mali military officials warn against Western forces getting too far ahead in the battle. Done wrong and AQIM will have all the support it needs.

While regional security cooperation is a must, military coordination should function as the base of a wide political and social platform, not drive the policy. Countries must attack their own political marginalization, corruption, and other areas of inequality. If the West seeks a preventative counterinsurgency, it must correct the failed strategy of leading with force and expending the majority of funds on military operations. Many of AQIM’s recruits also verge on the criminally-minded, concerned more with West Africa’s traditional arms and drug routes than global or national jihad.

It mustn’t be forgotten that AQIM partly stems from a drug pandemic in Europe and Asia, requiring an internationally holistic solution - one more reason to fight the war out of the shadows.

Counter-terrorism remains a poor substitute for counterinsurgency, as non-military operations invested in the population exceed military benefits in the long-term. Counterinsurgency is about networking with the local population, something that can’t be accomplished from the sky and behind a veil of secrecy. For now the West’s strategy remains dominated by military measures.

Not the way to enter its newest showdown against al-Qaeda.


  1. I was listening to a U.K. General last night on the BBC.
    He used the three M's for counterinsurgency.
    Military, money, message.

    The West does not have a monopoly on the 3 M's.

  2. Not the worst equation, although military and money mean nothing without the right message. The West always has more than enough of the first two and never enough of the last.

  3. LOL
    I had a funny feeling you would say something like that.

    It seems that their message is to themselves.
    As if they are trying to convince, and justify this madness to themselves.

  4. I think you'll enjoy the chaos of our next analysis.