What are Western and African powers up against in Mali, Algeria?
Leaders around the world are vowing to strike back hard at Islamist militancy that is surging across North Africa. Here are some of the challenges they face.
Today in Algeria, authorities are scouring a Saharan gas plant for bodies in the wake of a hostage crisis that ended in a shootout between the Army and Islamist kidnappers. Around the world, leaders are vowing to strike back hard at Islamist militancy that is surging across North Africa.Skip to next paragraph
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Meanwhile, in neighboring Mali, France is already leading a military intervention to dislodge Islamist fighters who seized the country's north last year. Paris has pledged to keep its troops there until those fighters are defeated and Mali is returned to stability.
So what are Western governments and their North African partners up against? It's a murky picture, but here are some outlines:
Is this a regional problem?
Yes. North Africa is home to various armed groups, from ideologically driven Islamists to criminal gangs. While their aims and loyalties don’t always overlap, they have shown an increasing inclination to work together. Some have international appeal, with members reportedly hailing from a range of countries. And many operate across national borders, which count for little in the deep Sahara.
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Could the problem get worse?
Yes. If unchecked, violence could intensify, at least in North African countries. Hardline Islamist ideology has gathered steam chiefly among poor young men left adrift amid youth unemployment and lack of development. Deepening conflict could also affect oil markets if installations in Algeria or Libya – both major hydrocarbons producers – come under threat.
Where does North African militancy come from?
Much Islamist militancy in North Africa traces its origins to 1990s Algeria, when the Army’s decision to cancel elections that an Islamist party was expect to win tipped the country into a decade of civil strife. Tens of thousands were killed in bombings, massacres, and disappearances, as government forces battled Islamist insurgents led by veterans of the Afghan war of the 1980s.
While Algeria is largely stable today, a militant Islamist faction called the Salafist Group for Call and Combat has continued attacks mainly on government forces. In 2007 the group formally changed its name to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and remains North Africa’s premier militant Islamist outfit.
Who’s out there?
AQIM is North Africa’s most powerful Islamist militant group, operating mainly in Algeria and northern Mali. While its exact structure isn’t clear, it seems to consist of a northern wing based in Algeria’s Kabylie region and Saharan bands based in northern Mali.
Also in Mali are Ansar al Din and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). With AQIM, these groups have seized control of Mali’s north. Their numbers are hard to gauge, but are believed to range in the hundreds to thousands.
Elsewhere in North Africa, small apparently independent groups – sometimes just a dozen or so people – have staged occasional bombings in recent years (Morocco) and gotten into firefights with police (Tunisia).
What do militants believe?
Most Islamist militants appear to share a brand of violent Salafism forged largely in the crucible of the 1980s Afghan war. Broadly, Salafis believe Islam should be followed to the letter in a quest to emulate the first generations of Muslims. That means rejecting centuries of Islamic thought and scholarship that most Muslims see as integral to their faith and worship. While many Salafis don’t espouse violence, a minority – including North Africa’s militants – do.