Al-Quaeda and state sanctuary in the Islamic Maghreb

 

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is developing in the Sahara/Sahel countries as the recent multiple terrorist attacks and the Mali war show. Benefiting from the porous border, weak states, poverty, trafficking and insecurity, AQIM set up in this region and expanded its presence. As Al-Qaeda did in Afghanistan some 20 years ago, AQIM established sanctuaries in several countries. In regard to recent events in Mali, the organization is aiming to go further than establishing simple sanctuaries and create a real Islamic State.

Firstly an Al-Qaeda sanctuary has to offer protection to its members. It is a place where they can neither be arrested or killed by local security forces, nor monitored by intelligence services. That is why the group needs to find an area where the State is poorly present or where local security forces are powerless. Thereby, members can move relatively freely and discreetly in the region. As a result of this freedom of movement, members can take part in trafficking of guns, drugs or hostages so as to provide financial resources.

Secondly, the sanctuary must be established in an area geographically easy to defend – like mountains with caves or valleys – and close to the border of another country. So members can easily stay hidden or defend this area against a military intervention. If they happen to fail to defend the sanctuary they can cross the border and escape to another country.

Finally, a sanctuary gives the opportunity to Jihadists coming from different Islamist groups and different countries to meet each other, to train together and finally to forge links. This last element is particularly important for the future cooperation between the different groups. Indeed, most of the leaders of Islamist groups linked with Al-Qaeda met in training camps. Those links form a wide network between the different branches, groups or members throughout all of Africa.

A sanctuary – as described above – was established for years in Mali before the Tuareg rebellion. Indeed in January 2012 the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA[1]) – helped by AQMI and its related Islamic groups (Ansar Dine and MUJWA[2]) – ousted the Malian army out of northern Mali. Throughout 2012, Islamist groups controlled the main cities of northern Mali. During that period Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, the leader of AQIM, tried to implement a very ambitious new strategy in Mali in order to create what we could call a “State-sanctuary”.

According to a document found in Timbuktu entitled General instructions about the Islamic Jihadist Project in Azawad written by Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, northern Mali was the object of an “experimentation“. Indeed the AQIM leader gave instructions to the other Islamist groups to create a real Islamic State in Mali. This State would have been composed with all the elements of a real State as the Ministries of Justice, Defence, Education, Foreign Affairs, etc. He suggested incorporating in this State all the leaders of the different tribes. Those leaders had to be put on the front stage in order to convince the local population and powerful foreign countries of their legitimate claims. AQIM presence had to be hidden from the local population who rejects the radical Islam and obviously terrorism. Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud’s advice to Islamist groups was to adopt “a mature and moderate rhetoric that reassures and calms [and avoids] any statements that are provocative to neighbouring countries and avoid repeated threats. [...] Better for you [Ansar Dine] to be silent and pretend to be a “domestic” movement that has its own causes and concerns. There is no call for you to show that we have an expansionary jihadist, Al-Qaeda or any other sort of project”. Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud advises the local groups to meet the expectations of the population. He had perfectly understood that to win the confidence of the population is essential for the future fight against military intervention. As we have seen in Afghanistan, population support is a crucial advantage for the Jihadist fighters. He wrote in the document: “It is difficult to find a population who support us, above all the enemy is constantly trying to work in order to deprive jihadists from their secure area“. For Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, the population and “secure area” (sanctuary) are fully associated.

In spite of this excellent plan, this strategy has never been implemented in Mali. Islamist groups did not follow the advice from AQIM leader and have violently imposed Sharia law. They started to cut the hands off thieves, destroyed some holy places in Timbuktu and persecuted women. So when the military intervention occurred, they were rejected by the population who helped the foreign troops.

However, Mali is not the only country in the region where AQIM could have set up a sanctuary. Indeed in Libya, AQIM members have close links with local Islamist groups, who are very powerful and have a political branch. The situation is critical due to the high level of insecurity, police and army are very weak and many armed militias act as warlords. In consequence the state is coming close to being a “failed state”. AQIM could try to create an Islamist State as it wanted to establish in Mali, while staying hidden behind local groups. But this time the population could be attracted by this idea.

Indeed, the frightened population could turn toward extremists, who are considered as most able to restore security justly because of their radicalism. Sharia could be a gathering element transcending tribes or militias. In Libya, Islamist political parties are directly link or infiltrated by Islamist groups and AQIM. This time the Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud strategy could work out.



[1] From French: Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA)

[2] The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) and the movement of the defenders of Islam (Ansar Dine) are Islamist groups which have close links with AQIM.

 

Laurent de Castelli is graduated in Defence, Security and Crisis Management from the Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) of Paris. He is specialized in terrorist groups in West Africa.

France in Mali… le bordel, quoi!

Like every socialist French government of the post-Cold War era, President François Hollande had pledged to set an end to French interference in African affairs, to end “la Françafrique”. As has happened with every socialist French government, it took merely a couple of months to set an end not to Françafrique but to pledges of ending French fumbling around in their African “précarré”. But even if this intervention is consistent with France’s general interference in this region, the question ‘which concrete motives have pushed the president to send in the troops?’ now comes up (in this interview the former Director of the Collège Interarmées de Défense Vincent Desportes speaks of there being 3000 men in the region soon).  In the French media, there is a lot of speculation but little confirmed information.

The president’s declarations are not very elucidating or helpful either. He speaks of helping a befriended country (“pays ami”) or forestalling an Islamist threat on Europe, both of which are not only contradictory motives to invoke (wouldn’t there be the risk that French Islamists get upset over their government right now?) but also not very convincing. The armed conflict in Northern Mali has been dragging on almost a year, the Malian government is barely legitimate as it has come to power by a coup d’état, and what kind of Islamists actually are involved in the conflict, where they come from, how many they are and what their goals are is, for the time being, still cloaked in dust and vagueness. As for the other motive invoked, namely “saving French citizens” one wonders if a simply evacuation operation would not be more appropriate, cheaper and less, how to say, raising dust?

Several analysts speculate that the motives of securing and maintaining access to valuable natural resources in the Northern Mali, Mauritania, and Niger triangle are the most important. Indeed, a large part of the uranium of French nuclear power plants comes from this region and French companies are heavily involved in the extraction of gas, oil and minerals. A propensity for supporting conservative but secular authoritarian regimes like Boutelfika’s Algeria sits well with such a strategy of using the French military to secure access to mineral resources. As the past has shown, these governments rely heavily on the export rent and are, consequently, “manéable à merci”.

Like the US, France always had much better relationships with authoritarian dictators in Africa than with popular or even democratic regimes, and with Algeria this is certainly the case since the Algerian people were unfortunate enough to vote for the FIS (Front Islamique de Salut) in their first and subsequently stolen elections in 1991. Indeed, France’s schmoozing with Algeria has since always been disquieting given the latter’s way of fighting its own “war on terror”. For Algerians, the regime’s friendliness with the French government must have been even more disheartening given the latter’s sometimes hysterical immigration policies, growing and ever more visible Islamophobia and mischievous treatment of anything related to its colonial past, whether apologizing for the Parisian “ratonnade” of 1960 or the compensation of Algerian Harkis. For both, taking action against long-declared enemies of the state, the Touareg and its new allies, must be a most useful propaganda campaign.

The Islamist threat is another route to go down if one is looking for reasons for this intervention and it is the reason French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian put forward in an interview with French radio station Europe 1. Yet, what remains largely unclear is what is actually meant by “Islamism” in this context. Of course, the one-size-fits-all label of “Al Qaida” appears now and again, and, of course, these Islamists are all Salafists. The problem is simply that both labels don’t tell us an awful lot about what these people want, who they are, where they come from, what they are fighting for or against and so on. The British anthropologist Jeremy Keenan goes so far as to simply deny that radical Islamism exists in the Sahara and claiming that this is all a set-up of the Algerian secret services.

This is, obviously, an unevidenced and hardly provable conspiracy theory yet it points to the utter ignorance and confusion that exists once more serious questions about the programme, identity, organisation, or even nationality and support of these so-called Islamists are asked. Some of them seem to be Touareg, some not. Some seem to have been financed by Qatar, some not. Some seem to be “left-overs” of the Libyan war, some are apparently coming from Algeria, and others are “Malian” by name although not by allegiance. Indeed, as this analysis makes clear their internal dissensions and distinctions make these groups appear less unified.

Since In Amenas it is obvious that some of these groups do represent a major threat to economic interests in the region and to the people living in their way, even with the claim of Mokhtar Belmokhtar to be representing Al Qaida. According to Jeremy Keenan’s The Dark Sahara, Belmokhtar was in the past rather more involved in smuggling and trafficking than in radical Islam, although he has been listed in 2003 on the UN black list of Al Qaida members. As of most terrorists, very little is known of this man, his intentions and workings. Al Qaida also does not seem to be the principal group in Northern Mali that promotes the saturation of Islam as a political system but Ansar Dine, which up to now has not been engaged in fighting and killings. How are the two related, if at all? No clear information is available on this.

Hence, there is much more speculation than secure knowledge about the various armed groups, their finances and financiers, the sources of their armament, and their goals and aims. Even more confusing is the question of whether they are allied with the Touareg forces, namely the MLNA (Mouvement pour la Liberation Nationale de l’Azawad), or not, and if this is an alliance of convenience or of a more durable kind. Just recently the MLNA announced that it would fight back the “Islamists”.

Given that little is known about these groups and that they are represented as terrorists in order to make up for this little and uncertain knowledge, the argument that they represent a threat to Europe is, to say the least, surprising. The right wording does seem to be rather that they are threatening European economic interests in the Sahara. They are also threatening a political order which is certainly not democratic or free but determined to protect “good relations” with France. This is why they are considered dangerous by the French government. Hollande is leading a very simplistic, post-colonial and short-sighted intervention, that’s all, and that will probably soon be too much. Just as with other operations of this kind, France is actually risking making the situation more complicated and risks engaging in a much more protracted and long-lasting war of attrition than they expect.

Critical and notably self-critical reflections on how and why France has contributed to “terror” in the world are indeed not the most obvious characteristic of this or any other French government. It is dragging other countries like the Chad into this operation, thereby legitimizing their anything but democratic governments; it is polarizing even more the antagonism between the Touareg and the Southern Malian population, making any political solution to the Touareg’s claim to autonomy (or even independence) difficult, it is conferring unwittingly a legitimacy to the radicalization of Islam in the region; it is reinforcing fears of Islamist terrorism in France and in Europe, hence playing into the hands of its own right-wing xenophobic parties and probably generally intensifying Islamophobia in France; it is intensifying the guerrilla tactics of those armed groups, hence offering more opportunities for small arms circulation; and, if Stathis Kalyvas’s The Logic of Violence in Civil War is to be believed, creating more situations of brutal exaction as uncertainty in the population’s loyalty is increasing. As one common consequence of most asymmetric and guerrilla wars of attrition is the mushrooming of camps and detention centres with their practices of surveillance and torture, the French government is also pushing even more the war in the shadows. In short, it will be creating a much bigger mess than it can fix.

Catherine Goetze is the Head of the International Studies Division at the University of Nottingham China Campus. This post originally appeared on her person blog.

Torture: Right Under Certain Circumstances?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece that discussed a difficult balance that states and citizens must strike. The balance is between the effectiveness of the implementation of laws, and the acceptability of these laws not just to the law-abiding majority but also to the accused minority.

I discussed this balance in the context of the ‘release’ of Abu Qatada. This is particularly apt as Qatada’s rendition to Jordan was blocked due to legitimate concerns that evidence used against him might be obtained through processes associated with torture. Indeed, this week the Home Secretary, Theresa May, is in Jordan to seek assurances that evidence obtained through torture will not be used against Qatada, in the hope that this may pave the way for his deportation.

Torture is illegal. This is enshrined in international law and in most domestic laws. We should remember that torture is not limited to an act of physical violence but is broadened to include the threat of violence. Put simply, the threat of torture is torture in itself; but is torture permissible or at least understandable under some circumstances?

In April 2009, former U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney appeared on Fox News to formally request the release of CIA documents, which it was claimed proved that harsh interrogation techniques – a euphemism for torture – had worked. In September 2011, the former Director General of the Security Service (MI5), Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, acknowledged that although life saving intelligence had been gathered through the process of water boarding it was still wrong. More so, Manningham-Buller said that it should always be rejected as an option even when it offered the prospect of saving lives.

In 2002, Jakob von Metzler, the eleven year old son of a prominent German family was kidnapped. A few days later Magnus Gäfgen was arrested when he went to collect the ransom. After hours of questioning, Gäfgen would not talk and so the Deputy Police Chief of Frankfurt, Wolfgang Daschner, said that if Gäfgen continued to be silent he would inflict “unimaginable pain” on him. The threat worked and Gäfgen revealed the location of Jakob who was, unfortunately, already dead. In this case, the Deputy Police Chief was charged, convicted and fined for using threats of violence against a suspected kidnapper. Furthermore, the kidnapper was awarded damages due to serious violations against his human rights.

But what if Jakob had been found alive, would this excuse his behaviour? Are there some circumstances in which the use of torture is excusable?

Is our moral repulsion at the thought of torturing another human being one that exists due to the fact that it has occurred, or because we know it has occurred? Clearly, there is a significant difference. My research in this area, specifically in relation to counter-terrorism, suggests that it is the publicity that is associated with torture that is the dominant concern for states and agencies.

However, a large proportion of views that are voiced in my undergraduate seminars are quite surprising in so far as they contend that torture should be permitted in some circumstances. Particularly, however, when there is a reasonable chance of saving a life. To take things a step further, I ran a counter-terrorism simulation with a group of postgraduate students on a module that I convene, entitled Terrorism and Insurgencies. This time-pressured simulation led to some surprising views, particularly when groups came up with policies akin to the suspension of habeas corpus, the introduction of internment and the use of torture to gain life-saving intelligence that could protect the country’s security.

But what does all of this tell us?

It should be noted that questions of torture are difficult to fathom within an abstract environment akin to a classroom. However, this suggests that even though we know that torture is wrong and should not be used – particularly given the backdrop of scandals such as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib – when put in a situation that policymakers face on a regular basis, some of our students did view torture as a permissible response.

To those who view torture as permissible under any circumstances I leave you with the following question. If you believe that torture is permissible under certain conditions where the state and/or associated agencies have a reasonable suspicion of evidence against a suspect – would you, yourself, be forgiving of the state if they made a genuine mistake and tortured you? My own response is no. Torture is wrong and should never be applied; even when it can save lives. A utilitarian approach should recognize that even within the context of counter-terrorism when we, the law abiding majority, either overtly or implicitly sanction the state and/or agencies to use such techniques in order to save lives, we have lost the moral high ground and in some ways are no better than those we are trying to stop.

Dr. Edgar Tembo is a Teaching Fellow in Politics and International Relations.

 

Abu Qatada and the Balance We Must Strike

On a module I convene – Terrorism and Insurgencies – I have been discussing Islamic radicalisation. The timing could not be more apt.  As well as the issues and debates surrounding the use of evidence obtained under torture, the release of Abu Qatada  signifies a fundamental problem that not only the UK but many other liberal democracies face when it comes to threats against the state. How do we strike a balance between the effectiveness of the implementation of  laws and on their acceptability not just to the law abiding majority but also the accused minority.

We should remember that Abu Qatada has not been charged with a crime within the UK’s judicial system and yet he will be subjected to some of the harshest restrictions imposed on any UK resident (both in and out of jail) since 9/11. There is no doubting that he is not only a “truly dangerous individual” but also “a key figure” in Islamist terrorist activity. Having him behind bars would be a benefit to us all. Liberal democracies, however, are disadvantaged in the struggle against terrorism, as respecting the rights of the minority invariably means the application of measured, rule based force. As the late Paul Wilkinson put it: “by tolerating the intolerant, democracies allow terrorists to plan and prepare their strikes [whereas] by definition totalitarian regimes suppress all effective opposition within their boundaries and are entirely unimpeded by any judicial or humanitarian constraints”.

The preservation of values such as equality, freedom, justice and tolerance are not ones that totalitarian-authoritarian regimes subscribe to. As such they are able to employ harsh, unyielding forms of oppression and retribution to counter terrorist related activity; but more importantly, and relevantly, they are able to simply lock-up suspects without charge. We, in the UK tried a similar measure in Northern Ireland, under the policy of Internment. The 1971 British Army initiative undoubtedly served as recruiting sergeant; giving reason and rationale to ever greater numbers wishing to join the Provisional IRA.

Liberal democratic states have historically found themselves having to strike a balance between acceptability and effectiveness; with states asking ‘do we want to sacrifice some democratic substance in order to be effective against terrorism or do we have to tolerate a certain level of terrorism for the sake of maintaining the civil liberties and political rights which we cherish?’

An example of this dilemma can be seen in the October 2005 debate in the UK regarding the proposed extension of the period in which the police can detain, without charge, people suspected of involvement with terrorism. One of the matters considered was whether the state should introduce one law for the majority (non-terrorists) and another for the minority (suspected terrorists), who may be suspected of committing terrorist acts. It may be argued that by defending the proposed extension, the UK Government enhanced perceptions of its inability to govern within the established laws of the state. That being the case, it may also be argued that the lack of formal charges and the use of harsh unyielding curfew restrictions serves as further evidence of liberal democracy’s inability to curtail what is at heart another form of criminal activity – terrorism.

Edgar Tembo

The good terrorists

When I first read Edgar Wallace’s The Four Just Men (1905) I thought it was one of the most shocking books I’d ever read.  I mean that literally: the ending left me bewildered.

Wallace was a writer who just churned out stuff on a prodigious scale – mostly low-grade, thrilling page-turners, the sort of fiction that people read but critics ignore – and The Four Just Men was one of those. As I am writing a book on how fiction depicts politics I felt obliged to read the book – and it was with a heavy heart (as a veteran of too many Edwina Currie novels) that I began my task.

The Four Just Men is the story of how a group of glamorous, continental European vigilantes possessed of almost superhuman powers of ingenuity  – they are described as ‘ubiquitous as well as omnipotent’ – seek to prevent Sir Philip Ramon, the British Foreign Secretary , from pushing through his Aliens Extradition Bill. For they believe this legislation will result in the deportation of numerous continental freedom fighters who had found a safe haven in Britain. Once back home and in the hands of their corrupt and oppressive governments such individuals, the Four Just Men fear, would be imprisoned or killed. So, they send a letter to Ramon – which in the context is very respectful and civilized – explaining these concerns and outline what will happen should he persist with the Bill: he will die.

The Foreign Secretary however believes that his Bill will rid Britain of an unwanted criminal element, that he is honour-bound to live up to commitments already given to foreign governments – and that he must ‘vindicate the integrity of a Minister of the Crown’. The Four Just Men, after all, stand outside the law and have unilaterally assumed the powers of judge and jury: Ramon is in contrast a democratically elected representative of the people.

In the face of Ramon’s resolve, the Four Just Men demonstrate their ability to murder him, if necessary. The press and public becomes involved in the hunt for the men and as the moment at which the Bill passes through Parliament arrives – and so the time when the Four Just Men say they will execute Ramon – crowds gather in Westminster to show their support for the Foreign Secretary.

At this point I assumed Wallace would feel obliged to vindicate British Parliamentary democracy and the rule of law. Surely, the Four Just Men – with the irredeemably foreign names of Manfred, Gonsalez, Poiccart and Thery – would fail? For this was an Edwardian pot-boiler, one serialised in the Daily Mail and written by a future Liberal Parliamentary candidate (for Blackpool, by the way). This was also a time in which the historian James Vernon has claimed the British constitution was ‘deeply embedded within English culture’, being ‘central to the way people imagined themselves’. And yet, despite this – and all the police protection – Ramon dies. Hence my shock.

I read the novel again to try and work out what was going on. Then, I think, I found the explanation. While Ramon is not a bad person he is hardly a sympathetic character. Wallace describes him as a man ‘with that shade of blue in his eyes that one looks for in peculiarly heartless criminals, and particularly famous generals’. He has few friends, no family and induces only fear amongst colleagues. Ramon is a ‘cold-blooded, cynical creature … He was the most dangerous man in the Cabinet, which he dominated in his masterful way, for he knew not the meaning of the blessed word “compromise”’. So, Ramon, the almost inhuman, ultimate, political animal dies because he refused to compromise – the salve of representative democracy – and to recognize that the other fellow might have a point. But, of course, the other fellows in Wallace’s novel are terrorists, albeit men he presents as probably having right on their side.

What was Wallace saying? Did he and his readers even know?  The book was serialised in the Daily Mail and to induce interest Wallace promised to personally pay a cash prize to readers who correctly predicted exactly how the mystery would end. As it turned out Ramon was electrocuted by his telephone. I didn’t see that coming, but then neither did he. Wallace unfortunately failed to notice that the small print of the competition rules did not limit the number of winners – and there were quite a few. If this oversight ruined him it also suggests that it was the ingenuity of the plot that preoccupied the author, and his readers, rather than the possible politics of the work.

Whatever were the author’s intentions and his readers’ reception, if only to pay off his debts Wallace wrote more Four Just Men stories. Rowing back from the subversive implications of the first novel, in these tales they are eventually pardoned and ultimately side with the rule of law. Moreover, when the novel was turned into a film in 1921, while the Four Just Men are still foreigners Ramon has become a bad factory owner, meaning that the awkward political questions originally raised by Wallace could be side-stepped. Taking this process further, the 1939 film version turns the Four Just Men into Great War veterans intent on defending the British national interest. Finally, when the novel was transformed into a 1959 TV series designed for the Anglo-American market, just one of the men is British, but he is an MP played by the redoubtable Jack Hawkins. By this point the inconvenient ambiguities of the 1905 novel had all been ironed out, or ‘dumbed-down’, some might say.

Edgar Wallace, if he evokes any kind of recognition today, is best known as the man who created King Kong. He should however also be remembered as the man who suggested – knowingly or not – that there were some occasions when it might be a good idea for politicians to compromise with foreign terrorists – and that in the Edwardian Daily Mail! A provocative thought, in these times.

Steven Fielding