March Algerie monthly report (4/4)

Security

Political violence in February was markedly one-sided. The security forces kept up a steady rate of ambushes targeting small groups of jihadists in Kabylia and to a lesser extent other parts of the country[5], while AQMI remained for the most part passive. Overall, the jihadist group took the initiative in only around a third of the 22 incidents recorded in February[6].
One significant exception to AQMI’s pattern of passivity came early in the month, when a group of “several jihadists” attacked a military camp near Boudoukhan in the wilaya of Khenchela, in the east of the country, on February 5. The group, dressed in military uniforms, commandeered a vehicle used to supply the camp and tried to use it as a “Trojan horse” to infiltrate the facility, provoking a three-hour battle in which at least one jihadist was killed and an unspecified number of soldiers wounded. The army immediately launched a major search and destroy mission in the area to track the group, using helicopter gunships and even jet fighters according to press accounts, and the following day freed a hostage (believed to be the driver of the hijacked vehicle) the attackers had taken with them in their flight. Initial press reports claimed that there had been as many as 50 attackers, “most of them Tunisians and Libyans”[7]; the Algerian Defence Ministry officially denied this in a statement on Feb. 8, saying there no more than “eight criminals” involved. 
There was also an unusual report of an attempted suicide-bombing in the capital, Algiers, which has not seen any incidents of political violence for a number of years. According to Arabic-language daily Echorouk (Feb. 28), the security forces, expecting terrorist acts against French interests in the capital following France’s military intervention in Mali, tightened their surveillance of jihadist activity and towards the end of February discovered a plot to suicide-bomb a “civil security centre” in the Bab el-Oued district; when apprehended in a mosque the would-be bomber “was already wearing his suicide belt”, but the security forces “managed to immobilise him” before he could detonate it, claimed the daily. 
Although this story should be viewed with some caution (Echorouk, which has a tendency to sensationalism and cannot be considered an entirely reliable news source, was the only newspaper to carry it), the reference to the potential threat to French interests in connection with the war in Mali does nonetheless raise the serious question of whether and how AQMI in northern Algeria will take part in the “revenge” operations promised by Mokhtar Belmokhtar following the bloody denouement of the In Amenas siege, and more broadly in supporting its comrades-in-arms who are battling French and allied African forces in the Malian Sahara. Documents allegedly found in Timbuktu after it was taken back from the jihadists in late January[8] indicate that ties between AQMI’s two branches — the Kabylia-based arm which comprises the central leadership and the Saharan branch in northern Mali — are closer than seemed to be the case, with AQMI’s national emir Abdelmalek Droukdel (a.k.a. Abou Mosab Abdelwadoud) effectively laying down the line for the southern branch. And yet, two months after the beginning of France’s Operation Serval in northern Mali, AQMI in northern Algeria has largely kept quiet, or even reduced its activity. This may be due to pressure from the security forces, pre-emptively stepping up their harassment of jihadists in the north of Algeria with constant search and destroy missions and ambushes of isolated jihadists, and/or the effects of harsh winter weather on AQMI’s depleted forces. However, AQMI theoretically still has the option of suicide bombings, which are more difficult to prevent by means of classic military operations, and it cannot be entirely ruled out that the French war in Mali might provides the context for a suicide strike against French interests or symbols of the Algerian state and military in northern Algeria. 
In the oil producing regions of the south, there was one minor incident on February 2, when a group of armed men “believed to be bandits” hijacked a 4WD vehicle belonging to an Italian company “working in the oil industry”. The assailants beat up the occupants of the car — none of them expats — and held them hostage for some time before letting them go and making away with the car. The fact that armed men on pick-up trucks could still roam the areas around Hassi Messaoud suggests that security of Algeria’s oil and gas sites was still not optimal more than a fortnight after the In Amenas incident. There have since been reports that the security forces have beefed up their presence beyond the perimeters of oil and gas facilities and suggestions that foreign oil companies will no longer be allowed to employ local private security firms for facilities protection, in which role they are supposedly to be permanently replaced by the army. On Feb. 20, Energy Minister Youcef Yousfi, speaking at a forum organised by government-owned daily Echaâb, indicated that the Ministry of Energy and Mining was still in discussions with the DRS and the army concerning the oil and gas industry’s security needs.
Two incidents were reported on the borders with Libya. On February 16 the security forces detected an off-roader that was trying to cross into Algeria from Libya near In Amenas, wilaya of Illizi, and launched an operation to intercept it. Two “terrorists”, one Libyan and one Egyptian, and a third unidentified individual were killed in the operation. Echorouk (17/2) said these jihadists are believed to have fled from Mali to Libya with the beginning of the French intervention there. For its part, El-Khabar (28/2) reported that security forces had on Feb. 26 arrested four men in an off-roader as they tried to cross into Algeria from Libya near Djanet, also in the wilaya of Illizi. The vehicle bore no registration plates and the men, dressed in military uniforms, carried two machine guns. They claimed to have lost their way while on a hunting trip.
Algeria’s southern border saw three incidents early February but no further clashes have been reported since Feb. 16[9]. On February 1 security forces intercepted an armed group travelling in three off-roaders as they tried to cross into Algeria from Niger near In Guezzam, in the south of the wilaya of Tamanrasset. Helicopter gunships were used in the operation. Two “terrorists” were killed and ammunition and a number of weapons and satellite phones recovered. On Feb. 8 the Algerian army “eliminated” two jihadists who were trying to cross the border with Niger in the south of the wilaya of Tamanrasset to “deliver a shipment” of weapons. They were found to be carrying machine guns and communications gear. On Feb. 11 El-Khabar said that security forces on February 9 intercepted three individuals smuggling weapons from Mali in the area between Tin Zaouatin and Bordj Baji Mokhtar. They were carrying machine guns and ammunition and “admitted working for Mujao[10]”. And on February 15, security forces, acting on intelligence, tracked and intercepted a jihadist group near Bordj Baji Mokhtar in the south of the wilaya of Adrar, on the border with Mali. After a “three-hour chase” the security forces killed four of the jihadists, believed to belong to Ansar Dine, and forced three others to flee into Mali. Five machine guns were recovered.
In northern Mali, meanwhile, French and Chadian forces continue to battle jihadists in the Adrar des Ifoghas uplands, which run right up to the Algerian border where they merge into the foothills of the Hoggar. In late February it was reported that Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, emir of AQMI’s Katiba Tarek Ibn Ziad and one of the organisation’s top three commanders in Mali, was killed in a French air raid on or around February 25. A week later, Chadian sources claimed that their forces had killed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, commander of AQMI’s Masked Men Brigade which carried out the In Amenas raid. French official sources say news of Abou Zeid’s death appears to be credible, pointing to posts on jihadist forums that admit he was “martyred”, but are more sceptical of reports of Belmokhtar’s death. 
Meanwhile French military commanders say their forces fighting in the Adrar des Ifoghas have discovered “terrorism infrastructure on an industrial scale” in the area and weapons in very large quantities, including armoured vehicles, artillery pieces and other heavy weapons, but no manpads. According to a usually well-informed French journalist and defence analyst, French forces “have found no surface-air missiles in working condition” in the arsenal the jihadists left behind, and there have as yet been no reports of such weapons being used against French aviation in the conflict.
END
Ambassador Edward M. Gabriel
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[1] Cherdima, a particularly derogatory word in Algerian colloquial Arabic – which the Prime Minister’s spokesmen have since tried to deny he ever used.
[2] Significantly, banners reading “national unity is a red line [not to be crossed]” were raised at the Ouargla demonstration on March 14.
[3] Now being referred to as the ‘Sonatrach II case’. The first investigation into corruption at Sonatrach, which led to the conviction of the company’s CEO Mohamed Méziane and most of its top management, was launched in 2010.
[4] Founded by Abdelmoumen Rafik Khalifa in 1998, El Khalifa Bank, one of the first private banks in Algeria, enjoyed a meteoric rise during Bouteflika’s first term of office thanks in part to its management of the accounts of several large, government-related institutional clients, before abruptly hitting a wall and going into liquidation. Having fled to London, Abelmoumen Khalifa was tried in absentia in 2007 along with over 100 other defendants and sentenced to life imprisonment for corruption, abuse of trust, forgery and criminal association. Widespread suspicions that he had been ‘covered’ for years by the regime and that members of Bouteflika’s entourage had profited directly or indirectly from embezzlement at his bank were swept under the carpet.
[5] Seven incidents reported in AQMI’s Kabyle heartland in February; one in Algiers; five in the eastern wilayas of Batna, Tebessa and Khenchela; two in the western wilaya of Chlef; five in the south, mostly on the borders. 
[6] So far in March five incidents all told, including two AQMI operations, have been registered.
[7] Following the Algerian authorities’ assertion that as many as 11 of the In Amenas attackers were Tunisians, and in light of the ongoing instablility in Libya and Tunisia, rumours of Libyan and Tunisian nationals being involved in attacks in Algeria are likely to be a recurrent theme in Algerian media reporting over the coming period. It is not yet possible to state with any certainty, however, that Tunisian and Libyan fighters are present in any significant numbers in AQMI’s ranks in northern Algeria. 
[8] Radio France International and French daily Libération (25/02/13) give an account of a document entitled ‘Roadmap relating to Islamic jihad in Azawad’, signed by Abdelmalek Droukdel and dated 20 July 2012, which summarises internal discussions about the way forward for AQMI in building an Islamic state northern Mali, managing its relations with Ansar Dine and the MNLA. A fortnight earlier, Britain’s Daily Telegraph (13/02/13) published what it claims were partial minutes of a meeting of AQMI’s leadership, held under the command of Droukdel on 18 March 2012, covering similar themes. 
[9] With a war on the other side of the southern border which has already leaked into Algeria through its eastern border, there is clearly a big effort by the Algerian authorities to keep the borders, especially in the south, closed and keep infiltrators out. The relative lack of reporting since Feb. 16 does not necessarily mean a lack of incidents, since information appears to be controlled and some activity is likely not to be reported in the press.
[10] The Movement for Unicity and Jihad in West Africa, a group which split off from AQMI’s southern units in mid-2011 but continues to work closely with its parent organisation.

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