Algeria: The Kif Wars


October 23, 2017: The economy is still broken but Islamic terrorist activity continues to decline even though next door in Libya Islamic terrorism still thrives (along with hostile criminal gangs and armed militias looking out for themselves at the expense of everyone else). Algeria appears to have impressed on all these outlaws that moving into Algeria is not a good option. While the relative lack of Islamic terrorism should attract foreign investors it is not because of the corruption and generally feeble government (dominated by families of those who led the 1950s rebellion against the French.

The sorry state of the Algerian economy is more likely to trigger another civil war. The last one in the 1990s was over allowing Islamic political groups take over the government. Algerians are still hostile to Islamic terrorism and Islamic rule but they are also hostile to growing poverty and unemployment. The permanent (since 2014) low price for oil is a major factor here, but so is the fact that the oil and natural gas will start running out in another few decades (or less, given government corruption and mismanagement). Desperate measures to fix this do not include removing a lot of the corrupt officials but instead things like adopting Islamic banking (no interest and so on) practices to attract more investments and deposits from wealthy Gulf Arabs who prefer to deal with banks that can work with Islamic banking practices (which are more expensive than more common Western banking methods).

Meanwhile Algerians can’t help but notice how the relatively poor (lacking oil) neighbors seem to be doing better. With 40 million people and per capital income of $4,200 all that oil wealth has not helped Algerians of being jealous of neighbor Morocco (population 33 million and per capital income of $3,100). Morocco has no oil and thus a lot less corruption and mismanagement. Moroccans, forced to survive on traditional resources (agriculture, for example and business in general) are doing better because it’s become obvious to most oil-rich nations that without honest government the oil and gas is more of a curse than a blessing. In Morocco nearly half the population is involved in agriculture and one reason for that is many farmers also produce cannabis, as Moroccan farmers have done for centuries. Because cannabis produces a crop that earns over 20 times more profit that legal crops, many farmers produce some cannabis to provide extra cash and protection against the usual ups and downs of farming. It also means the farmers are living better than their legal income would indicate.

This disparity apparently underlies the most recent diplomatic spat as Morocco and Algeria are again feuding rather openly. Diplomats are being recalled and official protests issued. This sort of thing has been going on for centuries but the two most peaceful nations in North Africa have managed to avoid actually fighting each other for several generations. The current ill-will is over Islamic terrorism and hashish (the concentrated paste containing the active ingredient of marijuana), known in Morocco as kif. It is also about things not acknowledged openly.

First, let’s put Islamic terrorism and hashish into perspective, at least as far as Algeria and Morocco are concerned. International surveys find that two of the three safest nations in Africa are Algeria and Morocco (the other is Rwanda). Algeria is also unique in that it had the least ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) activity of any country in the region. This is largely due to the still vivid memories of the Islamic terrorist uprising during the 1990s that left over 200,000 dead. Thus while thousands of young men from Tunisia, Libya and Morocco went off to join ISIL only about 200 came from Algeria. That said, there were already thousands of former (or still active) Algerian Islamic terrorists in exile (since the 1990s) throughout the West as well as the Middle East. ISIL did make a major effort to get established in Algeria but that apparently ended in 2016 because Algerian security forces (with a lot of help from the public) killed or arrested over 300 ISIL members and active supporters. For 2017 it has been difficult to detect much ISIL presence in Algeria. There has been some ISIL activity but no attacks.

At the same time Morocco has been even more successful in suppressing Islamic terrorism and has done so with far fewer casualties and a lot more cooperation from Moroccans in general. The current tensions were triggered by the Algerian foreign minister, during a recent meeting with Algerian business leaders, attributing the success of Moroccan banks was due in part to their handling of drug money. This was no secret and the tolerant Moroccan attitude towards hashish production and use in the kingdom was one of the reasons Morocco has been so successful detecting and suppressing Islamic terrorist activity. The Moroccan families that have produced hashish, often for centuries, developed links with regional drug smugglers who in turn monitor all manner of illegal activity. Most Moroccans consider hashish a local custom even if they don’t use it. In the 1990s Morocco went through a well-publicized effort to suppress hashish production and export to Europe. The government soon realized that suppression was not going to work and with a murderous war with Islamic terrorists going on in Algeria, it was decided to respect tradition and back off. The often rebellious Berbers in the Rif Mountains, long a major source of kif (hashish), became an ally of the government, rather than a major problem.

Since World War II Morocco has become one of the main sources of hashish for the growing European market. Wild species of cannabis (marijuana) have been used as an edible item in North Africa and the Middle East (and elsewhere all the way to China) for thousands of years. Moroccan law bans the sale and consumption of cannabis (or “kif”) but because the use of cannabis and hashish have been a traditional part of the economy seemingly forever successful Moroccan rulers (like the current dynasty) tolerate cultivation of cannabis for commercial (and export) use.

The Lebanese civil war (1975-90) and years of Syrian interference after that put the largest supplier of hashish to Europe out of business for decades. Morocco was second but seized the opportunity and by 2003 became the largest supplier and kif was the main source of income for over a million people. After that Lebanon began making a comeback and Afghanistan drug gangs found it profitable to export hashish as well as heroin to the world. While heroin is worth 3-4 times more much per kilogram than hashish, the cannabis based product is easier to move and sell because in many parts of the world it is not considered a “hard drug” as cocaine and heroin (both the products of modern, or at least 19th century, technology) are. Morocco is not the only part of the world where eating or smoking hashish is considered traditional and not worth prosecuting. Meanwhile customs and technology related to hashish have been changing. The concept of smoking hashish spread from the Americas and Africa 5-6 centuries ago and modern plant breeding techniques have produced more potent (in terms of THC, the main active ingredient) cannabis plants. More efficient methods for turning cannabis into hashish have spread around the planet in the last century. For Morocco this meant since 2003 less farmland is needed for cannabis but what is produced is more potent and valuable especially for the nearby European market.

The other incident that raised the tension level was Moroccan officials recently releasing details of their counter-terrorism efforts since 2001. Morocco has detected and “dismantled” Islamic terrorist groups (or “cells”) since 2002 and nearly a third of them were recent (since 2013) and associated with ISIL. Because of Moroccan success at making the country inhospitable for Islamic terrorists many locals who wish to succeed at being a holy warrior (Islamic terrorist) has left Morocco. The government believes that nearly 2,000 Moroccans joined foreign Islamic terror groups, nearly half of them choosing ISIL. The government has been able to keep track of this relatively small number of men (and a few women) and noted that so far it has detected about 220 of these Moroccan Islamic terrorist survived their overseas adventures and returned home (to mandatory debriefing by police and years of being monitored). About three times as many Moroccans who went overseas to be Islamic terrorists were killed, most of them while members of ISIL in Iraq and Syria. What annoyed the Algerians was the Moroccan accusation (apparently true) that refugee camps in Algeria, a result of an unresolved dispute with Morocco over Polisario, has become a major source of Islamic terrorist recruits for Islamic terrorist organizations throughout North Africa, including Morocco.

This latest riff comes after Algeria and Morocco had calmed down after yet another Polisario related dispute a year ago. That started in September 2016 with accusations that Morocco and Algeria were both illegally sending government officials into the Guerguerat region near the Morocco-Mauritania border. Morocco claimed to have 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 and Morocco is accused of making it worse by pointing out the obvious reason why.

October 20, 2017: Throughout Algeria police have been arresting illegal migrants from the south (mainly from Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso) and sending them back south, to the Niger border where Niger accepts them. This was apparently part of a mid-2107 government program that allowed some illegal migrants from those three countries to apply for legal status and obtain work permits. Although young Algerians of the same age face a 30 percent unemployment rate there are still a lot of unskilled construction and agricultural jobs that go unfilled because educated young Algerians consider such jobs unacceptable. It appears that if the illegals can’t find a job they get rounded up and sent back south. This is part of a larger deportation agreement where Algeria accepts illegal Algerian migrants sent back from EU (European Union) countries. This is usually the case with illegals found to have Islamic terrorist links or attitudes.

October 11, 2017: Mauritania and Algeria agreed to reopen their borders after being closed for two years as a side-effect of yet another Algeria-Morocco spat over unresolved Polisario issues.