ALGIERS, Algeria — Earlier this month, the Algerian military said it was engaged in a sustained manhunt against terrorist elements that infiltrated Algerian territory across the desert in the regions of Tamanrasset, the capital of the Tuareg tribes, and in the nearby tourist town of Janet, which is close to the border with Libya.
Algeria’s military reported that the operation killed 10 “terrorists,” according to the latest toll, and revealed in the same context that it uncovered a hiding place under the sand holding a large cache of military hardware near the town of Janet.
In a statement issued May 6, the Algerian Ministry of Defense said: “A quality operation was carried out by a joint contingent of troops from the People’s National Army on the border strip in the area of Taoundart, 80 kilometers [50 miles] west of Tinzaouatin, in the state of Tamanrasset in the province of the sixth military region. [The army], on May 5, 2014, was able to eliminate nine terrorists. The toll then rose to 10 terrorists killed, and the seizure of 12 automatic Kalashnikov rifles, one RPG-7 launcher, one hunting rifle, one GP58 grenade launcher, 11 RPG-7 rockets, 13 hand grenades, three boxes filled with FM ammunition, one box filled with ammunition for a 12.7 mm machine gun, four anti-tank mines, 20 loaded ammunition magazines for Kalashnikov rifles, five mobile phones, one GPS navigation system, one solar energy plate, one laptop, three four-wheel drive vehicles and two motorcycles. The operation is still ongoing.”
The quality and quantity of the arms seized point to what has become commonly available to jihadist groups in the Sahel region, especially after the fall of former Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi’s regime three years ago and the subsequent spread of weapons beyond the control of governments in the region.
In the same statement, the Defense Ministry said: “Based on the information, a detachment of joint forces from the People’s National Army launched a search operation in the area of Col d’Anai, in the operational sector of the city Janet, which is administratively affiliated with the state of Illizi, in the fourth military region. On the morning of May 5, [the army] was able to recover one traditionally made cannon for launching C5KO rockets (specific to helicopters); 87 C5KO rockets and 75 detonators for those rockets, which were buried under the sand.”
Three days after the Ministry of Defense statement was issued, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika held the first Cabinet meeting in his fourth presidential term after he appointed the members of the new government, which is being headed, for the third time, by Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal.
The statement issued by the Cabinet said the Council of Ministers was briefed about the operation that was “ably” led by the army in Tinzaouatin and “foiled an infiltration attempt by a terrorist group that was heavily armed with heavy weapons. [The terrorists] came from Mali, Libya and Tunisia.”
Algerian authorities have been warning about the terrorism danger for years. These fears were reinforced after the operation carried out by Mokhtar Belmokhtar in January 2013 on the Tigantourine gas production facility in Illizi, which is close to Janet, where a weapons cache that included anti-helicopter weapons was found. Algiers is warning about the increased danger of armed groups deployed in southwestern Libya and in northern Mali, and whose presence sometimes reaches southern Tunisia.
But this is the first time that authorities have identified the armed elements that infiltrated Algeria by name, without merely referring to where they came from. Most likely, those elements have moved across the desert and entered Algeria from Libya, and that is the road taken by the group that carried out the Tigantourine operation.
The main source of the terrorist threat stems from Libya, where large swaths of its south and southwest have started threatening the interests of countries in the region and the large concessions obtained by international oil companies.
Hamid Bouchoucha, a professor at the University of Constantine, said in an interview with Al-Monitor that Algeria is not clearly treating the developing security concerns. He said that Algeria has so far used a fixed formula to deal with the deteriorating security situation on the southeastern border, which spans more than 1,200 kilometers (745 miles). “Early last year — when the French military attacked gunmen who declared north Mali’s secession from the central government in Bamako — Algeria dealt with the matter by only tightening the guard on the land border with Mali, and that exhausted the Algerian army,” he said.
At the same time, Algerian security forces are facing attacks by al-Qaeda-linked groups in the Islamic Maghreb. The last of those attacks killed 11 soldiers on April 18 in Tizi Ouzou, 100 kilometers (62 miles) east of the Algerian capital.
The yearly US State Department report issued in early May noted that Algeria faces cross-border threats to its internal security. On terrorism in Algeria, the report said: “Algeria remained a key US counterterrorism partner.” Bouteflika asked US Secretary of State John Kerry during his recent visit to Algeria in early April to help in the efforts to address the jihadist groups in the Sahel region. The Algerian president called on the United States to provide intelligence to Washington’s partners in the region and establish, through a program of military cooperation with the Sahel countries, working relationships in the field through a joint headquarters in the city of Tamanrasset. The headquarters would include military representatives from five countries in the region.
For many observers, including former soldiers and diplomats, the Sahara might soon become the scene of limited military operations to eliminate a new terrorist nest in the process of being formed. The terrorists rely on networks that are financially dependent on arms dealing, aided by the arsenal of weapons obtained from Libya and the smuggling of cigarettes and drugs. Algerian security officials, who spoke to Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity, said such terrorist groups suffer from a lack of coordination, with some of them infiltrated by regional and Western intelligence.
To intervene in the region, the Algerian army may soon be forced to change its strategic doctrine, which it has long maintained, at least officially, to not send soldiers outside Algeria. A potential new alliance with Cairo would be a sign that a new power axis is being formed in North Africa. The Joint Algerian-Egyptian Higher Committee is expected to meet in June for the first time in five years, after a new Egyptian president is elected.
Egyptian and Algerian diplomatic sources indicated to Al-Monitor that Egypt and Algeria will become the two arms of a pincer on the Libyan desert, which has been troubled since the fall of the Gadhafi regime, to prevent militant fundamentalist groups from enjoying oil riches and sophisticated weapons. There is no doubt that the Algerian-Egyptian convergence, despite some problems, will be a principal security factor in all of Africa’s northern coast, adjacent to what is described as the soft underbelly of the European Union.