What's So New About Al-Qaeda Being Active In North Africa?

02 February 2013

By Osman Mirghani

The tragic events in Algeria and the consequences of Mali's crisis have overshadowed all other news stories over the past few days and have been met with understandable shock. However there is nothing surprising about what happened, even if some analysts are portraying the situation as if the world is experiencing terrorism for the first time, or as if North Africa never experienced Al-Qaeda's violence and abhorrent terrorism. It is true that the hostage-taking and the subsequent killing of at least 38 people-37 foreign national and 1 Algerian- is awful and deserving of condemnation by any standards. However such an incident was not out of the question in light of what is happening in our region, not to mention the threats being issued by groups affiliated to Al-Qaeda, particularly Signatories in Blood battalion commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

The Algerian government had been concerned about such an operation and so it resisted international and regional pressures and overtly voiced reservation about military intervention in Mali. Algeria viewed such intervention as a measure that would not end the crisis but rather exacerbate and prolong it. This was in view of the ethnic composition of the region, the rugged landscape of the vast desert which is home to a number of militant groups, and the history of struggle in this particular region, something that the terrorists and militants exploited following the eminent lack of national and international concern for the Tuareg Cause.

Algeria did not want to be involved in the Mali war, but this war came to the Algerians' own backyards because fire spreads quickly following that first spark. In addition to this, a number of leaders and members of armed groups that are fighting in Mali are Algerians who are seeking to transfer the war to Algeria. This is not because Algeria allowed French warplanes to cross its airspace but rather out of a desire to wreak vengeance on the Algerian government that defeated them following a bloody war that lasted for long years. Even if Algeria completely distanced itself from the Mali quagmire and these armed groups had been able to defeat the central government and take control of this country, they would still have sought to transfer the war not just to Algeria but also to Mauritania and other neighboring countries.

The dilemma is that the Mali crisis has fallen into the abyss and the country had become a hotbed for armed groups, regardless of French or African intervention. In reality, failing to find a solution to the Tuareg Cause, not to mention the grievances of other ethnic and tribal groups, created a climate of escalation and fertile ground for armed groups which the already widespread Al-Qaeda members could infiltrate. What is certain is that Al-Qaeda is not a new arrival to North Africa. After its long domestic war with armed groups, Algeria suffered greatly as a result of the spread of groups tied to Al-Qaeda. Following this, we witnessed the establishment of the so-called Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb franchise. Similarly, Tunisia and Mauritania also suffered from operations carried out by groups with ties to Al-Qaeda, or which followed Al-Qaeda's ideology and approach. Morocco was also subject to terrorist attacks that aimed to destabilize the country. Terrorist operations extended from Egypt and Sudan all the way to Somalia, while we have lately witnessed extremist organizations emerging in Nigeria and other African states.

There are those who view the In Amenas hostage crisis and the emergence of organizations in Mali with ties to Al-Qaeda as an outcome or consequence of the Arab Spring. However the truth is that terrorism had been present in North Africa for many years prior to the Arab revolutions. It is true that the manner in which Gaddafi was ousted, the chaos that followed this, and the subsequent proliferation of weapons-which ended up in the hands of numerous factions-all contributed to large quantities of weapons finding their way outside of Libya and into neighboring states. However this does mean that if Gaddafi had not been ousted then the situation in Mali would not have moved towards war or that the terrorists would have disappeared from the region. In fact, Gaddafi himself tried to utilize the Al-Qaeda card, receiving a number of Al-Qaeda detainees according to a deal concluded with Western intelligence apparatus. We also recently discovered that organizations with ties to Al-Qaeda and which previously fought side by side with Gaddafi's troops prior to his 2011 ouster are now fighting in Mali. Despite all this, Colonel Gaddafi brandished the Al-Qaeda card to intimidate the world, saying that terrorist organizations would dominate the region if his regime was toppled.

The state of unrest that followed the collapse of some regimes may have created a climate that Al-Qaeda used to its advantage; however we would be missing the target completely and ultimately fail to resolve the situation if we view the recent occurrences as mere consequences of the Arab Spring. Terrorism has been present for decades and the war on this phenomenon has never stopped, while all signs indicate that this war will be a protracted one. Although security solutions are a necessity when confronting terrorist groups, this alone will not succeed in completely eradicating this from the roots because terrorism is a very profound phenomenon with complex cause. We must deal with all of its political, economic, and social dimensions and remove the causes of injustice that push some to embrace extremism. We must also take into account the fact that circumstances and the environment differ from one country to another; meaning that solutions must be modified to fit the circumstances of each country. Most importantly, we must confront extremism ideology that incites hatred and intolerance and pushes youth to die on distant and not-so-distant battlefields.

The US, backed by an international coalition, fought for over ten years in Afghanistan: Can we say that Al-Qaeda or the Taliban have been eradicated? The fact of the matter is that Al-Qaeda elements have moved to other regions, while others have lately returned to Afghanistan in order to resume the fight side by side with the Taliban. After the US exhausted itself by deploying its troops in remote battlefields, Washington has resorted to utilizing drone attacks with the objective of killing some Al-Qaeda commanders and elements to the point that such attacks increased three-fold from the previous year. An American website, citing a statement made by a US Congressman a few months ago, claimed that drone attacks have killed 3,378 people in Pakistan, 1,952 in Yemen and 170 in Somalia. Despite all this, terrorism has not been defeated; rather it is spreading from region to region.

Drying up the sources of terrorism requires confronting extremist ideology wherever it may exist, as well as addressing the root causes that terrorists use to recruit youth. Otherwise the In Amenas hostage crisis or the war in Mali will be nothing more than another incident in a never-ending war.



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