While Europe remains distracted with the upcoming elections in France and Germany, extremist and terrorist groups are regrouping and expanding in the Sahara and the Sahel region.
News of the creation of a new Al-Qaeda inspired alliance is troubling and alarming. After years of Algerian political and security mismanagement in the region, it is time for the European Union (EU) and the African Union (AU) to step in and break Algerian Intelligence Agency’s (DRS) blockade and obstructionism in the Sahel.
This week’s Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) attack on Malian security forces on the borders with Burkina Faso that killed 11 soldiers is yet a new proof that Algeria is in retreat and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadi groups are on the attack in the Sahel. After fresh assaults in Algeria, Niger, and Mali an unchallenged and free to move around big swamp of land Al-Qaeda is now expanding to Burkina Faso.
However, the most alarming news coming from the region is the announcement last month of a merger between several Jihadist groups under the umbrella of a new organization based in Northern Mali. This new terror cluster called itself “the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM),” and congregates the most lethal and hard to track extremists from Algeria, Mauritania and Mali including fighters form known terror groups like Ansar Dine and Al-Mourabitoun.
In fact, the leader of the GSIM is no other than the Touareg Iyad Ag Ghaly the head of Ansar Dine, a protégé of the DRS and a key figure in Algeria’s strategy in Mali. According to several news reports published in French media, including the respected daily Le Monde, Algerian officials convinced French intelligence not to neutralize this notorious jihadist during France military actions in Mali in 2014.
Because of Algeria’s military incompetence and political arrogance in Mali, Iyad Ag Ghaly lived to form a new lethal organization that threatens the national security and vital interests of European nations and the stability of vast regions in Africa.
The other main component of AGIM is Al-Mourabitoun formed by the Algerian born jihadi Mokhtar Belmokhtar. In large part because of the DRS claims that this group is an Algerian problem that must be resolved by Algerians, Al-Mourabitoun never faced the full wrath of French air attacks in 2013.
Furthermore, France political decisions to appease Algeria in exchange of the Algerian military blessing in Mali during France’s Operation Serval led to the continued existence of Al-Mourabitoun terrorist organization. It actually survived and thrived to stand today as the most sophisticated terror group in the Algerian Sahara and the Sahel.
Alongside Ansar Dine and Al-Mourabitoun, GSIM boasts fighters from the “Emirate of the Great Sahara” and the “Brigades of Macina” jihadi groups active in Mali and Mauritania. This new alliance has pledged allegiance to Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda leader.
The Algerians viewed Operation Serval as an attestation of the DRS failure in resolving the Malian crisis. For Algerian intelligence services, Mali is Algeria’s backyard and thus any diplomatic or military interventions in that nation should go through Algiers. For that reason, Paris at its peril had to appease the Algerians in 2013.
Nevertheless, the January 17 car bombing at a military camp in the northern city of GAO in Mali that killed 80 people is a clear indication that Algeria’s outdated approach in the Sahel and its meddling in local politics are failures and a liability for the AU and France that spent blood and treasure to secure that part of Africa.
The emergence of GSIM is a testament to the breakdown of the DRS’s old fashion alliances and a sign that Algeria’s ethnically based diplomacy is destabilizing Mali and weakening the governments of Niger and Burkina Faso. It is also evidence of France’s failure to win peace in the Sahel and the collapse of its goals to secure the region.
It is past time to denounce DRS’s old strategy of bullying the central government in Bamako and buying the Touareg rebels with petro dollars. If the same old leaders have been ruling Algeria since its independence, the Touareg rebel movements have evolved with a young and energetic leadership teams that espouse a different agenda and strategy in the region than their elders did during the last decades.
Europe cannot ignore the deteriorating situation on Mali and the AU cannot afford to let the Algerians run the show. Algeria’s peace plan between Bamako and ethnic Tuareg is dead and the two main armed groups behind its collapse have links to Algerian intelligence agencies.
The AU and the EU must take al-Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa seriously by keeping Algeria at bay and entrusting the defense of the region to the UN and the AU.
This latest terror merger will present a security challenge to Malian and Nigerian armed forces struggling to secure their borders, and could easily destabilize fragile governments in Mauritania and Burkina Faso. Furthermore, GSIM poses an existential threat to all of the Sahel and Sahara nations; therefore, an Afro-international intervention in the region is warranted.
By Hassan Masiky