Algeria's the key power against al-Qaida

Oct. 29, 2012 at 1:58 PM   |   Comments

ALGIERS, Algeria, Oct. 29 (UPI) -- Algeria, the military heavyweight in North Africa with two decades of battling Islamic extremists under its belt, is becoming the focal point of efforts to crush the jihadist-held enclave in northern Mali.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is to visit Algiers this week and has been stressing Algeria's recent decision to support African-led intervention in Mali bankrolled by the West, a significant shift in its position.

The Algerian government, led by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, has long argued against outside interference in regional affairs, particularly by France, the former colonial power in most of the Sahara, while Algiers maintains a fragile internal equilibrium amid rising social unrest, poverty and unemployment, as well as a political power struggle.

But it seems the Algerians have been sufficiently alarmed by the emergence of a jihadist "state" in northern Mali that they believe threatens the entire region to endorse a U.N.-mandated military intervention.

After months of dithering after the jihadists seized control of northern Mali in March, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution Oct. 12 giving Mali's shaky government, the African Union and a 15-member West African alliance 45 days to come up with a workable strategy to drive out the heavily armed jihadists.

Once consensus is reached, and some Western powers have serious doubts that a militarily sound plan will emerge, the way will be open for Western support -- primarily French -- for an African-led offensive.

Clinton's not the only Western policymaker courting the Algerians and their seasoned counterinsurgency forces which fought Islamist militants in the 1992-2002 civil war, the first serious attempt by Islamist hardliners to take power.

At least 150,000 people were killed, many in massacres perpetrated by both sides. The conflict ultimately produced the organization that became one of al-Qaida's most active branches, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the Arabic word for North Africa.

French Interior Minister Manuel Valis was in Algiers in July and President Francois Hollande, who favors military action against the jihadists in Mali, is expected to visit Algiers in the next few weeks.

Since Algeria's bloodletting petered out, spurred by a general amnesty declared by Bouteflika after he became president in 1999, Algeria's security forces -- an army of 110,000 and paramilitary security forces totaling 187,000 -- have been engaged in combating diehard Islamists.

Many jihadists are veterans of the civil war and form the hard core of AQIM.

Armed with weapons plundered from Libyan armories during the 2011 Libyan conflict that led to the downfall of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi and reinforced by local Islamists and hundreds of foreign jihadists, including veterans of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, AQIM has become a serious threat in Western eyes.

"Algeria's primary aim has been to prevent foreign military action that could break the fragile calm in northern Mali and send jihadists and refugees northward," global intelligence company Stratfor observed.

"Algiers is also concerned about a reintroduction of Western influence into the region.

"Algeria's tenuous political reforms and internal power negotiations are aimed at helping the country sidestep the upheaval experienced by the region following the Arab Spring," Stratfor noted.

"Algiers thus also fears the domestic disruptions a military intervention near its southern border might trigger."

Algeria has been struggling to achieve leadership of the region since its ferocious war of independence against France in 1954-62. In recent years, it's become one of the most politically stable states in the region, with by far the most capable military. Its oil and natural gas have helped make it the strongest economy in North Africa.

If, with the encouragement of Clinton, Hollande and other southern European leaders who worry about a jihadist enclave just across the Mediterranean, Algeria emerges as the leader of an offensive against AQIM and its fellow-travelers, it will likely find itself involved in a major re-engagement with the West.

"To be clear, lack of Algerian support can seriously impede the success of any foreign intervention in Mali or the broader region," Stratfor cautioned.

So what happens in the new few weeks could determine not only the fate of the jihadist enterprise in the region, but a geopolitical shift there as well.

"The crisis in northern Mali, against the backdrop of ongoing instability in North Africa, has become the chance for Algeria to demonstrate its increased regional sway," Stratfor said.

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