Counterterrorism Across North Africa: Complicated, Messy but Moving Forward

This week, while everyone in the U.S. has been bickering about what happened in Benghazi more than 3 ½ months ago, counterterrorism operations have occurred across North Africa with the apprehension/battling of militants in Algeria, Tunisia and Libya.  I’m not even going to get into whether these individuals are in al Qaeda or not, since the definition of “al Qaeda” is completely unclear at this point.  But, what is clear is that North African countries have seemingly made some counterterrorism gains against militants of one type or another.

(Note: Appears for the media and select Congressmen the current definition of al Qaeda is “all angry, armed men in Africa, the Middle East or South Asia that are not already a part of Hezballah or the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.”)

Here’s a quick rundown on the latest developments.

Tunisia:

Brandon Darby reports that:

“Tunisian security forces arrested seven men for actively playing a role in the recruitment of Al Qaeda terrorists. The North African government claims to have completely dismantled the cell.”

While Tunisia led the way in the Arab Spring, they’ve always had an al Qaeda recruitment problem.  While most discussion of Iraq foreign fighters has focused on the boys of Darnah, Libya, I’ve always thought the Tunisian foreign fighter supply line to be more interesting. The rate of Tunisian foreign fighters revealed in the Sinjar records was quite high and a main facilitator to Iraq was a Tunisian – “Abu Omar”.  See here for a breakdown of the 2007 records by a) country and b) city.   According to Darby, the arrests in Tunisia were close in proximity to Algeria and related to Benghazi – whether its Ansar al-Sharia, al Qaeda or both is unclear.

Algeria:

According to AllAfrica.com, the Algerian government arrested Salah Gasmi, AKA Salah Abou Mohamed near Bouira, Algeria.  Gasmi is allegedly:gasmi

“responsible for the terrorist group’s propaganda and the co-ordination of the various small groups operating in Kabylie. A computer and communications specialist by profession, he is the suspected mastermind of the 2007 suicide bombings in Algiers.”

This arrest follows a string of other alleged interdictions in Algeria in recent months:

“This security operation follows another carried out November 18th on the border between the provinces of Tizi-Ouzou and Bejaia (east of Algiers) in which three terrorists were killed. They included the head of AQIM’s military committee, who was also a member of its committee of dignitaries.

This dangerous terrorist, Makhfi Rabah (aka Cheikh Abdenacer), a former member of the Armed Islamist Group (GIA) had been actively sought since 1992.”

So why is Algeria, now, suddenly so mobilized to interdict AQIM?

Libya:

Lastly, Juan Cole describes an interesting scene in Benghazi – one that resembles the “Old West” cowboy days of the U.S.

Last Saturday, Benghazi security forces loyal to the elected government in Tripoli, captured a man they suspected of being involved with the groups behind the violence. (in Benghazi) And, he appears to have been willing to spill the beans. So let’s call him the Libyan Deep Throat.”

Wow, this would be a major development for the U.S., and yet I haven’t heard a peep about it in the U.S. media.  Cole continues:

“Deep Throat is so knowledgeable about the conspiracies facing the city and so dangerous to those hatching them that the latter immediately attempted to spring him from jail.”

Cole describes a fascinating series of jailbreaks and shootouts in Benghazi and I encourage all those truly interested in Libya to take a read.  While the veracity of the news report Cole cites is unknown, which he points out in his post, the alleged detainee may have spilled some interesting beans on Benghazi’s militant landscape.

“So what is Deep Throat saying? According to local journalist Mohamed Bujenah of the Libyan Herald, a senior figure in the Benghazi police told him that the informant had fingered as many as 7 prominent Muslim fundamentalist leaders in connection with these attacks, of whom the police named 6 explicitly:

1 Sufyan Ben Qumu, from the notoriously radical town of Derna, and a former prisoner at Guantanamo

2. Ahmad Bukatela, leader of the Ubaida Militia

3. Muhammad al-Zahawi, head of the Ansar al-Sharia militia

4. Muhammad al-Gharabi, a leader of the Rafallah al-Sahati Militia

5. Ismail Sallabi, another leader of Rafallah al-Sahati

6. Salim Nabous, head of the Zawiya Martyrs’ Brigade

It is just a newspaper article. We don’t know if the informant actually named these individuals or if he did so to escape torture, in which case we can’t trust what he said. But if the allegations are true, there is collusion among several hardline militias in the city to create instability in hopes of taking it over”

Only time will tell if these claims are true, but what is certain from this past week, counterterrorism actions across North Africa are in high gear.  So why all the counterterrorism energy and coordination now?  Terrorists have been operating in these countries for years, and this week each of these countries has undertaken significant actions.

6 comments

  1. Most likely something did happen. All three countries have undertaken counter-terrorism operations against AQ (loosely defined) for years. These particular actions could be coordinated across all three states or two of them or simply concomitant. You would have to be inside to know that. There will probably be no more reporting on these operations in the local press. But there is a sense of greater need for coordination among local authorities. At last week’s international conference of police chiefs in Algiers, the Algerian Minister of Interior called for increased cooperation against terrorism and international crime.

  2. I think this may be a manifestation of independent endemic developments in each country rather than an indication of greater regional coordination.

    I don’t know about the timing in Tunisia – it may have just be opportunistic.

    Regarding Algeria, part of it is political, part of it is cyclical. While President Bouteflika may or may not run for reelection for the presidency in 2014 (he has said he won’t, but a lot depends on else puts their name forward as a candidate), he has in part staked his legacy on having ended the insurgency and restored security. As he enters the sunset of his political career or prepares for one final run, he is likely trying to mop things up the best he can. There is also a cyclical dimension. Operations – both terrorism and counterterrorism – in Tizi Ouzou and the Boumerdes always pick up in the autumn and then tail off as the weather worsens in the winter. Seasonal patterns and a long perspective matter here.

    Regarding Libya, the new government was sworn in a little more than a month ago. The new MoD is from Benghazi, as is the new MoI, who was a former police and intel chief under the previous regime. Although the central government’s reach is limited, it is possible that they are now bringing some forces to bear in Benghazi.

    • Geoff,

      I didn’t know there was a seasonal pattern to the Algerian CT ops. I’ll keep an eye for that in the future.

      Thanks for posting. What do you think about Libya really breaking into two countries over time? A Benghazi capitol in the east and a Tripoli capitol in the west?

  3. The chances of a coordinated effort by Tunisia, Libya and Algeria seem a little slim.

    Algeria will continue to augment its AT efforts internally, AQIM/GSPC established themselves in N. Mali pretty much based on a displacement model. Displaced by Algeria’s AT effectiveness and drawn into the welcoming and profitable security vacuum of N. Mali. This displacement model can easily run the other way once operations commence in N. Mali. Mauritania also runs a similar risk.

    Personally I was quite interested in the Algerian authorities picking up Nacib Tayeb on the outskirts of Ghardaia his way to a leadership meeting.

    Most seem to be convinced that MBM’s split from AQIM is an indication of the groups weakening, but MBM was always a bit of a financially orientated individualist who seemed to have a level of conflict with Droukdel.

    His departure could be indicative of an increased jihadist nature to the group under Droukdel’s improved control.

    It will be interesting to see how MBM’s new group and MUJAO work together from Gao.

    Concerning Libya, the choice of Abdel Wahab Qayed as the head of Southern Border Security is a tad disconcerting all things considered.

    • Thanks for you thoughts. And I’d be interested as to why in particular you think Abdel Wahab Qayed’s appointment is a bad thing? I don’t have an opinion one way or another but am curious why you think he may not be able to handle the job.

      You note:

      The chances of a coordinated effort by Tunisia, Libya and Algeria seem a little slim.

      I guess I was thinking that they were not necessarily coordinating with each other as much as someone was coordinating for them.

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