Algeria: ISIL Comeback Campaign Collapses

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October 19, 2016: So far this year the security forces has killed nearly as many Islamic terrorists as in all of 2015. Most of these clashes took place east of the capital or in the far south near the borders of Mali, Niger and Libya. Algeria is one of the growing number of North African nations (like Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt) that are defeating Islamic terrorism. Despite efforts by popular (elsewhere) Islamic terror groups to get established in Algeria the local population and security forces have successfully opposed this. During 2016 surrenders of wanted Islamic terrorists increased as did the discovery of hideouts and arms caches belonging to Islamic terror groups. When Islamic terrorists lose this much infrastructure and armed supporters they are in big trouble. This can be seen in the declining number of terror attacks and growing number of Islamic terrorists clashing with the security forces and losing. For example, during all of 2015 security forces killed 157 Islamic terrorists. In 2016 over 15 percent were killed in June alone. Things quieted down a bit after than then picked up again in late September. Only about fifteen ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) members have been killed this year and nearly all once belonged to AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), which was formed in 2007 from several of the 1990s era Algerian groups.

AQIM now operates throughout northern and west-central Africa. Because AQIM leadership still contains a lot of Algerians the Algerian government has been helpful to African nations where AQIM is operating. AQIM now spends most of its time smuggling drugs, people and whatever else pays (like kidnapping Westerners). They still carry out some terror attacks, if only to remain competitive with ISIL, which is trying to displace (or absorb) AQIM and other Islamic terrorist groups in Africa. That is not working out either.

Meanwhile AQIM stays in the news because of things like the recent (September 20th) kidnapping of two Italians and a Canadian in southwestern Libya (next to Algeria’s Illizi Province). This was organized by Abdellah Belakahal, an Algerian Islamic terrorist, one of many who have fled to Libya (and other African nations) since the late 1990s. The kidnappers are demanding $4.4 million in ransom. The Algerian government told Italy and Canada that they would reinforce the border area involved and pass on whatever new information they received. Algeria has maintained good relations with tribes in the south, especially Tuareg ones that have good connections with Tuareg across the border in Mali, Niger and Libya. This connection enables the security forces down there to keep watch on what is really going on in northern Mali and southern Libya. These Tuareg connections also enabled Algeria to help mediate the recent peace deal in northern Mali that ended the latest Tuareg insurrection. To maintain these good relations the Algerians have to observe tribal rules and boundaries. That means no Algerian troops entering Tuareg territory in Mali or Libya without permission from the tribal leaders involved. The Tuareg tribal leaders on both sides of the border are cooperating to get the three foreigners released, in part because the three were hired by the Libyan government to restore the airport in Ghat. This is part of an effort to revive the economy in southwest Libya. AQIM and similar groups survive in southern Libya because the tribes can defend themselves and tribal territory but don’t act as a substitute for the national police or counter-terrorism forces. Islamic terrorists and smugglers can operate in tribal territories as long as they pay their way and don’t cause any trouble. Kidnapping foreigners is generally considered trouble, although tribal leaders have been known to earn a commission by helping facilitate ransom negotiations.

Oil Income Losses Solve Social Problems

The government announced it was cutting the government budget another 17 percent in 2017 after a nine percent cut in 2016. The cuts are necessary to reduce the budget deficit to 8 percent of GDP versus 15 percent for 2016. These deficits are covered by drawing on cash reserves (essential to pay for imports, especially food) built up (to about $200 billion) before 2013. In 2015 these reserves fell 22 percent to $143 billion. In 2016 efforts are being made to reduce reserves only about ten percent depending on the price of oil. Current estimates are that the foreign exchange reserves can be drawn on for another six or seven years. After that severe cuts will have to be made and there will be much unrest. To avoid that the government has actually addressed problems like corruption and mismanagement that have long crippled the economy and created popular discontent. This led to the Islamic terrorist uprising of the 1990s. That was defeated but not forgotten. The Islamic radicals still have supporters, especially among men under age 30 (about 30 percent of whom are unemployed). The government has tried, especially since 2010, to reduce the youth unemployment rate but so far has not had much success. But the government still has a chance because economic reforms have enabled Algeria to keep GDP growing despite the price of oil dropping fifty percent in the last three years and not showing any sign of increasing. Even as that GDP growth keeps moving towards four percent a year it will not quickly fix the jobs shortage. If the population growth rate remains under two percent and the economic growth continues lowering the youth unemployment rate is still possible. Meanwhile the government also had success, largely because of popular support, in shutting down mosques and religious schools run by Islamic conservative clergy that support Islamic terrorism. The collapse in oil prices provides a brief opportunity and so far Algeria is making the best of it, which is unusual in this part of the world.

Old Wounds

Algeria and neighboring Morocco are again feuding over the activities of Polisario rebels. This latest flare-up began in September with accusations that Morocco and Algeria were both illegally sending government officials into the Guerguerat region near the Morocco-Mauritania border. Morocco now claims to have recently arrested six Algerian officers in that neutral zone. What this is really about are decades of disputes with Morocco over Algerian support for the anti-Morocco Polisario group. Relations between Algeria and Morocco have been especially tense since 2013, mainly because of a group of Moroccan terrorists (Polisario) that Algeria helped create decades ago. Polisario has always caused problems with neighboring Morocco and the problem got worse in 2013 when the two countries recalled ambassadors and there was talk of escalation. This made cooperation in counter-terrorism efforts (or anything else) with Morocco difficult. Meanwhile Islamic terrorists have found safe haven in Polisario refugee camps in Algeria (90,000 refugees) and Mauritania (24,000). This is all connected with the declining prospects of Polisario, which has been in bad shape since 1991. Back then, Morocco finally won its war with Polisario Front rebels, who were seeking independence for the Western Sahara (a region south of Morocco). Polisario remains powerful in Mauritania, where the rebel group has official recognition and maintains several refugee camps. In the beginning (the 1960s) Polisario was lavishly supported by Algeria and this enabled Polisario to keep going for decades. The current situation in Polisario refugee camps has provided recruits and sanctuary for al Qaeda and other Islamic radicals. Since the 1990s the UN has been trying to work out a final peace deal between Polisario and Morocco. This seemed possible because in the 1990s Algeria cut off all support for Polisario. Despite that UN efforts to mediate the differences have just not worked. The contested area is largely desert with a current population of less than 600,000. 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 is tribal and cultural, with the Moroccans seen as another bunch of alien invaders. The area was administered until 1976 as a Spanish colony. Most Western Saharans have made peace with Moroccan rule. Polisario still has several thousand armed men based in the refugee camps and refuses to accept Moroccan rule of Western Sahara. 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. Even though Algeria has technically renounced support for Polisario many Algerians still see Morocco as “the enemy” because of decades of anti-Morocco Algerian propaganda. This was all in support of Polisario, but few Algerians are enthusiastic about Polisario anymore.

October 17, 2016: In the far south (Tamanrasset, 2,000 kilometers south of the capital) soldiers operating near the area where the Niger and Mali borders intersect with Algeria intercepted a four-wheel drive vehicle and found a machine-gun, ammo, satellite phone and some hashish (cannabis resin). The men in the vehicle insisted they were smugglers, not Islamic terrorists and that turned out to be true as three more vehicles were soon seized in the same area carrying 220 kg (484 pounds) of hashish as well as over 10,000 bottles of alcoholic beverages.

October 16, 2016: In the east (Skikda province, 510 kilometers from the capital) soldiers found a stash of six locally made bombs (used for roadside bomb attacks). These explosive devices were blown up. When explosive devices are found in remote areas it is safer to just blow them up there. The alternative is the much riskier effort to disable the devices and take them apart. That sometimes leads to unwanted explosions, a problem the Islamic terrorists often have with locally built bombs and landmines. Meanwhile another operation nearby found and arrested four people wanted for supporting Islamic terrorists.

October 15, 2016: In the far south (Tamanrasset, 2,000 kilometers south of the capital) a known Islamic terrorist surrendered. The man was carrying an AK-47 and ammo and appeared willing to cooperate.

October 13, 2016: In the east (Skikda province, 510 kilometers from the capital) soldiers ambushed two Islamic terrorists and killed them. One of the dead turned out to be Abu Doujana, the much wanted leader of a small group (Jund al Khalifa) that had allied itself with ISIL. The other dead man was later identified as a senior official of Jund al Khalifa. ISIL had recently announced that it was back and undertaking a major campaign against the Algerian security forces. Aside from one roadside bomb and the death of the leader of the local ISIL branch leader today not much has happened. ISIL itself never established much of a presence in Algeria but one of the few al Qaeda factions still active in Algeria did. This took place in coastal areas east of the capital that had been used by Islamic terrorists since the 1990s. By 2014 many of the remaining Islamic terrorists here belonged to a faction called Jund al Khalifa. This was the local branch of AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). In September 2014 Jund al Khalifa renounced its ties to al Qaeda and declared its allegiance to ISIL. Only two months before that AQIM leaders had reaffirmed their allegiance to al Qaeda and condemned ISIL, which had recently declared a new caliphate (Islamic empire run by ISIL) in Syria and Iraq. Since joining ISIL Jund al Khalifa became a lot more violent. Small groups of AQIM have been hiding out in the coastal mountains east of the capital for years and security forces were constantly searching the thinly populated mountains and forests of several coastal provinces. One reason AQIM survived in this area was because they kept quiet and tended to their criminal activities (drug smuggling) and cultivating new members. This strategy did not appeal to the more radical Jund al Khalifa and that led to joining ISIL. This meant losing a lot of members, some of whom surrendered to the government and provided information on Islamic terrorist activities in the coastal areas. That, plus the public outrage at the renewed Islamic terrorist violence and the growing availability of cell phones (the Islamic terrorists’ worst enemy) was the beginning of the end. By mid-2016 Jund al Khalifa appeared to be gone from their usual coastal haunts. There was little evidence that many AQIM members remained either. There are still some Islamic terrorists and supporters in Algeria but they are gone from their usual areas of operation and the search is on to find out where any may still be in the country. The fact that so many locals are telling police who among them has been supporting Islamic terrorists (who threaten to kill informers and often do). These tips from locals do not begin until the people in the area believe the Islamic terrorists are gone and it is safe to identify their local fans.

October 10, 2016: In Boumerdes province (55 kilometers east of the capital) troops found bunkers apparently used by Islamic terrorists because these hideouts contained bomb components. In Sidi Bel Abbès province (370 kilometers west of the capital) troops found similar bunkers. In Batna (500 kilometers east of the capital) troops arrested seven civilians wanted for providing support for Islamic terrorists.

October 8, 2016: In the east (Skikda province, 510 kilometers from the capital) a roadside bomb went off as an army convoy passed by. There were no casualties and ISIL later took credit for the attack and said this was the beginning of their comeback campaign.

October 7, 2016: In Tizi Ouzou (120 kilometers east of the capital) troops clashed with four armed Islamic terrorists and killed them.

October 6, 2016: In Boumerdes province (55 kilometers east of the capital) troops encountered a veteran (since 1994) Islamic terrorist who refused to surrender and was killed.

October 3, 2016: In the south, across the border in Mali mortar shells were fired at the Aguelhok peacekeeper base near the Algerian border. In response two vehicles carrying peacekeepers were sent to find those who fired the mortar shells. These vehicles took a route where landmines had been placed and detonated at least one of them. One soldier from Chad died and several others were wounded. Islamic terrorist group Ansar Dine took credit for both incidents. The 12,000 peacekeepers in Mali have lost 32 dead so far this year. The Mali government has cooperated with Algeria to keep Islamic terrorists from using Algeria for a sanctuary or source of supplies. So far Algeria has provided most of the border security forces to do this and Malian leaders regularly thank Algeria for that. Algeria has had similar success along its Tunisian and Libyan borders.

September 29, 2016: In Batna (500 kilometers east of the capital) troops encountered five armed Islamic terrorists and after a brief gun battle killed all of them. One of the dead men was later identified as a veteran (since 1995) Islamic terrorist.

September 20, 2016: In the southeast (Illizi Province) troops patrolling the Libyan border were alerted by the Tuareg tribes control the Libyan side of the border that three foreigners (two Italians and a Canadian) had been kidnapped near the border town of Ghat by an Algerian Islamic terrorist who led a local faction of AQIM.

 

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