ALGIERS — The Malian army continues its hunt against the last pockets of jihadist resistance, and neighboring Algeria has been the first country to suffer the impact of that war. After the Jan. 16 attack on British Petroleum and the Algerian oil company Sonatrach in Tigantournine, Illizi, the nebulous al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) continues to conduct operations in the Algerian Sahara.
AQIM wants the Algerian Sahara to be its rear base, and it wants to conduct terrorist operations that have a big media impact. The Islamists of AQIM had planned to carry out suicide operations at the carpet festival — held every year to promote traditional carpets — which started at the end of March in Ghardaia, in south Algeria. But the vigilance of the security services, which have been on alert since the Mali events, thwarted that plot. Contrary to what some political observers have suggested, however, AQIM’s capacity to cause harm is far from destroyed. If the security services lower their vigilance, the results would be fatal.
Harouna Abdouramane, a political analyst in Niger who closely follows the security situation in the Sahel, told Al-Monitor: “I do not think the destructive capacity of the jihadists has been completely eliminated. Do not forget that the Malian situation is a consequence of the Libyan crisis. Weapons are scattered across the Sahara and it would be wrong to believe that the French military action has solved the problem. This war is here to stay. The French are preparing to leave and the UN is trying to ensure continuity. Nature abhors a vacuum. In addition, the Malians have proved incapable of cohesion. Anyway, I am not very optimistic.”
The Algerian Sahara is the region most threatened by terrorism, because of weapons proliferation and Algeria's porous borders with neighboring Libya and Mali.
Those issues were discussed in a meeting on Jan. 12 between Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali and Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal. The meeting was held in Ghadames, Libya, a city and a desert oasis located 400 miles from Tripoli. The discussion focused on the security situation along the common borders, as well as on fighting terrorism and organized crime. “All concerned departments must coordinate to preserve the security and stability of the three countries...The [prime ministers] of those countries will meet every four months. Also, the officials in charge of security will hold regular meetings to better coordinate their efforts against the threats to the region,” said Sellal.
Aware that Tunisia and Libya are overwhelmed by recent events, Algerian authorities want to “combine efforts to deal with the dangers and the security threats by adopting a coordinated security approach, as part of an overall strategy” by the three parties.
War in the Sahel threatens instability and insecurity for the Maghreb countries over the long term. The situation in the Maghreb is related to that of the Sahel. “It is very complex," Abdouramane said. "And I think the problem extends to far beyond the Sahel’s borders. It is part of a struggle and positioning by diverse interests in this part of Africa, which has for too long been the site of all kinds of trafficking. The insecurity is already at Europe’s doorstep."
For geostrategic reasons, the Algerian south continues to attract terrorists operating in the Sahel. Only last week, a terrorist group composed of members with various nationalities unsuccessfully tried to infiltrate Algeria by means of two all-terrain vehicles. A dozen of them were killed in the operation, but more attempts are expected. The governor of Medea, Brahim Merad, survived an assassination attempt this week. This suggests that there are unidentified cells in Algeria’s south and that more vigilance is needed. The war against AQIM is far from over.
Kaci Racelma is an Algerian journalist with Inter Press Service news agency and Afrik.com, an online magazine. He is based in Algiers and covers the North African region.