Al Qaeda is using cash, and coercion, to increase its power in the area south of Algeria. This can be seen in how al Qaeda arranged the release of one of their members (Omar Ahmed Ould Sidi Ould Hama) from a Mauritanian prison last month. This was apparently part of a secret deal to get two Spanish aid workers released by al Qaeda. Hama was aided by the intercession of UN recognized rebel group Polisario, and officials in Mali (where Hama was expelled to) who looked the other way as Hama promptly disappeared. Malian officials and Polisario have both been seduced by al Qaeda cash. Hama had been convicted of masterminding the kidnapping of three Spanish aid workers in late 2009, and sentenced to life. Now he is free again.
Polisario is an armed rebel group that could prove very useful to al Qaeda. Back in 1991, Morocco finally won the war against Polisario Front rebels, who were seeking independence for the Western Sahara (a region south of Morocco). Polisario is powerful in Mauritania, where the rebel group has official recognition and maintains several refugee camps. Because Polisario was so well-subsidized by Algeria, back when Algeria was a radical state, Polisario still has enough diehards out there to keep lots of people in Western Sahara unhappy. This provides a potential resource for al Qaeda and other Islamic radicals. For two decades, the UN has been trying and work out a final peace deal between Polasario and Morocco. In the 1990s, Algeria cut off all support for Polasario. But that, and UN efforts to mediate the differences, have just not worked.
The contested area is largely desert, and has a population of less than 300,000. Logic would have it that the area is better off as a part of Morocco. But there are still thousands of locals who would rather fight for independence, than submit to Morocco. Some resistance of this is tribal, with the Moroccans seen as another bunch of alien invaders (the area was administered, until 1976, as a Spanish colony). If the fighting breaks out again, possibly inspired by Islamic radicals, it could go on for years, just as it does in many other parts of Africa, and the immediate neighborhood.
Al Qaeda has established a lucrative cocaine smuggling operation in West Africa. As a result, the Islamic militants are believed to be building fortified bunkers in the mountains along the Mali border. They are doing this in cooperation with local tribal groups, who provide cover. Local security forces on both sides of the border are always out hunting for Islamic terrorists, so no one down there openly identifies themselves as such. But an increasing number of known Islamic terrorists from the north have been killed, captured or spotted in the south, and especially along the Mali border. The Islamic radicals are armed, and have turned to kidnapping foreigners and drug smuggling to pay for supplies, bribes and gifts for their new tribal buddies. Foreigners have been warned to stay out of the area, but there are always a small number of them too dumb, or adventurous, to stay away. The Islamic terrorists are believed to be helping move 50-100 tons of cocaine (and other drugs) a year, north to Mediterranean ports. Some of the smuggling fees are shared with local tribesmen, who have long engaged in some smuggling on the side. But the drugs are very valuable cargoes, and the Islamic radicals had the international connections (all up and down the coast of West Africa, as well as in South America) to put this deal together. The local tribes are suitably impressed. So are Western counter-terror forces. While there are only believed to be a few hundred Islamic terrorists operating along Algeria's southern border, there are nearly as many American Special Forces to the south, training African troops and police on the best methods for hunting and killing the newly arrived (in the last few years) Islamic terrorists. The relations with the local tribes, especially the powerful Tuareg, are complicated. The Tuareg are not fond of Islamic terrorism, but young Tuareg are allowed to work with al Qaeda as hired guns. The pay is good, and, so far, not too dangerous. But the young Tuareg are picking up some radical ideas from their al Qaeda bosses, and that is causing some tension with tribal leaders.
The drug smuggling is actually handled by Arab gangsters that are not terrorists. Al Qaeda gets paid lots of money to provide security for the drugs as they make the long run through the Sahara. The Tuareg provide local knowledge of the terrain, and people, at least in the far south. Meanwhile, along the border, Islamic radicals openly talk (on their web sites) of planning to overthrow the governments of Algeria, Mauritania and Mali. Given the sorry track record against Algeria, Islamic terrorism in Algeria's neighbors is seen more of a nuisance than real threat. In the more populated northern Algeria, the Islamic terrorists are able to launch one or two operations a month, and spend most of their time dodging army and police efforts to find the terrorist bases (mostly in rural areas.)
September 1, 2010: A suicide truck bomb went off near a military convoy, east of the capital. Two soldiers were killed and over twenty wounded. Al Qaeda later took credit for the attack.
August 28, 2010: About a hundred kilometers east of the capital, troops killed seven Islamic terrorists. One soldier was also killed. The al Qaeda groups have long established camps in the mountain forests in this region. The police and army constantly hunt for the camps.
August 26, 2010: About a hundred kilometers east of the capital, troops killed three Islamic terrorists.
August 19, 2010: Three soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb, that was set off 60 kilometers east of the capital.
August 16, 2010: Police arrested seven Libyans and accused them of being Islamic terrorists.
August 14, 2010: Bomb experts dismantled three bombs, found 54 kilometers east of the capital. The bombs were sound as troops searched the local forests for al Qaeda camps and weapons caches.
August 10, 2010: West of the capital, five soldiers were wounded when a newly planted landmine went off. The mine apparently belonged to a local al Qaeda group, that is buying mines on the black market, and using them to protect their camps and drug smuggling operations.
August 9, 2010: Soldiers killed an Islamic terrorist 110 kilometers east of the capital, and went in search of the camp the dead terrorist came from.
August 6, 2010: Al Qaeda assassins killed the uncooperative mayor of a town fifty kilometers east of the capital. The Islamic terrorist seek to force local officials to back off from helping counter-terrorism efforts.
August 1, 2010: The army cleared 5,960 landmines from eastern and western border areas. This effort was made possible by the French finally turning over the maps of minefields they planted in the 1950s and 60s.