USIP’s Dan Brumberg considers the potential for al-Qaida’s growth in North Africa, and the challenge this poses to U.S. relationships with the new, post-conflict governments in the region.

Photo courtesy of NY Times

How do you assess the regional implications of the January 16 seizure by radical Islamists of a gas field along the border area of Algeria and Libya—as well as the resulting (and horrific) casualties? And what are the implications for the “Arab Spring” uprisings, which are now in their third season?

Well, let's take those one at a time. Mokhtar Belmokhtar -- the Jihadist whose forces led the attack on the Algerian gas facility -- declared that his actions were meant as a rebuke to France for its military intervention in Mali. But Belmokhtar’s assault was surely planned well before Mali’s acting government invited France to intervene. So, this much is clear: in a strategic sense, the attack on the Algerian gas facility represents an effort by a regional off-shoot of al-Qaida to use the northern Mali conflict as a lever to amplify al-Qaida's violent message throughout the Maghreb.

Would the makeup of the group that led the assault in Algeria illustrate your point?

Yes, for sure. The attackers hailed from the wider region: only three were Algerian, and the rest came from Mali, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Niger, and Mauritania—as well as other countries. Their goal is to exploit the political upheavals to expand and solidify their bases of operations, and in so doing, put the U.S. and its Western allies on notice that regardless of the particular governments that have emerged via the Arab Spring uprisings, the future lies with al-Qaida and its allies. It is very likely that these groups want to derail the transition tracks of democracy, while at the same time signaling that they are ready to revive attacks against the government of Algeria – an autocratic regime that has thus far survived the tremors of political change in the region.

Some experts have argued that the French decision to intervene in Mali needlessly internationalized a conflict. What are your thoughts?

I am not sure I would put it like that. The rise and expanding threat of Jihadist forces in Mali created a dilemma for Western states and those African states that felt threatened by this development. If you failed to act, Mali could become a permanent base for an African/Maghrebi al-Qaida branch. But at the same time, intervention carried the risk that Jihadists would leverage the situation to their advantage by decrying it as an example of Western imperialism. The French decided that the potential cost of waiting outweighed the risks of moving now.

You have asserted that one probable goal of the Algeria attack was to interfere with—even derail—the Arab Spring, or democratic transition efforts. This seems interesting, especially since, in the case of Egypt and Tunisia, elections have put Islamists into power, and/or magnified conflicts between Islamists and secularists, a trend that radical Islamist forces would welcome.

Well, first keep in mind that from the vantage point of al-Qaida affiliates, both in terms of ideology and strategic orientation, the Islamist leaders whose political fortunes have benefited from democratic change are hardly “authentic” representatives of their vision of Islam. The relatively moderate form of Islamism advocated by the Nahda Party in Tunisia, and even the sterner Islamist vision propounded by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, represents –in the eyes of al-Qaida’s allies-- a much watered down Islamist agenda.

Moreover, the continued strategic cooperation between Washington, Tunis and even Cairo –despite all the ups and down of the last few months—represents a strategic challenge for al-Qaida, since from its perspective, these governments remain close allies of Washington.

Are you suggesting that al-Qaida plans to take on or even attack these governments?

No, not in a direct or immediate sense. Whatever the ideological and strategic differences with the Islamist leaders who have come to the political fore in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, al-Qaida affiliates have no incentive to directly challenge or attack these new governments, or even more so, their security forces. But, they are probably trying to establish local cells or affiliates where they can, and these cells could certainly be seen, from the perspective of these new Arab governments – or certainly their security forces—as a threat.

Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, al-Qaida affiliates are keen to exploit the capacity of these new and governments to secure control over their vast territories, be it in Egypt’s Sinai, in the southern areas of Algeria, or the border regions of Libya, Tunisia, Libya, and Algeria. Such efforts not only raise the troubling prospect of geographic fragmentation and state weakening, they can deeply embarrass democratically elected governments, whose Islamist leaders control movements, many of whose young adherents find the radical Islamism of al-Qaida in North Africa and that of Mokhtar Belmokhtar deeply alluring.

(Photo: Perry-Castañeda Library, University of Texas at Austin)

How have the governments of Tunisia and Egypt reacted? Is this strategy working?

I wouldn’t say that the above strategy is working, but the new governments in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt are surely worried. They are seeking to secure their legitimacy in the midst of ongoing political battles between secular and Islamist forces, struggles that have intensified as a result of the growing influence of radical Salafist groups, some of which openly advocate violence. The challenge facing the region’s new governments, especially those that contain and/or are dominated by mainstream Islamist parties, is to distance themselves from the extremists, while maintaining their Islamic or populist credentials. That is something of a balancing act.

For example, Tunisia’s leaders –and interim President Moncef Marzouki in particular –have praised Algeria’s rescue effort. Particularly after the violent attack on the U.S. embassy in October 2012, the Tunisians are keen to demonstrate that they are clamping down on radical Islamists. Moreover the country’s Interior Minister announced on December 21 that the security forces had just discovered and dismantled an al-Qaida outside Tunis. But Nahda, which is the leading political party in the increasingly fragile ruling coalition, would also like to integrate non-violent Islamists into the political process, and thus wants to avoid being seen as simply carrying out the wishes of Washington. This not easy to do when the party finds itself compelled to rely on the very security forces that were once aligned with the previous regime to maintain order.

I assume that Egypt’s leaders are also walking a similarly fine line?

Even more so. Morsi has proclaimed his support for the Algerian government and its assault on the gas compound, but he has also denounced France’s military intervention in Mali. The very idea of Western military intervention in a Muslim or Arab country is something that Morsi and many of his allies in the Muslim Brethren reject on principle. At the same time however, they are striving to rebuild relations with Washington and to reassure the U.S. that Egypt is not rocking the strategic boat.

Your response raises the tricky question of Libya and its role in the wider region.

Indeed. I suppose you can make an argument that full and complete control of one’s national territory is not absolutely required in order to advance a democratic transition. But in the long run, the survival of militias in Libya constitutes a threat to any chances for serious democratic progress. After the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi -- and the tragic killing of our ambassador and other Americans -- there was some hope that the government could reign in the militias, but this has not happened. Indeed, the continuing activity of radical Islamist groups in Western Libya, aided by access the arms seized after the fall of Qaddafi, has been a huge regional boon to al-Qaida affiliates. This represents, as one of my colleagues put it, the “dark side” of the Arab Spring.

Finally, what of Algeria, a country about which we have heard very little since the Arab Uprisings began in early 2009?

We have to remember that Algeria experienced a long and bloody internal conflict following the military’s intervention which in late 1991 put an end to process of democratic elections that would have put the country “Islamic Salvation Front” into power. In the ensuing eight years, some 200,000 Algerian died. But by 2000, through a mix of repression and cooptation, the regime succeeded in restoring some degree of political stability. Thus when the Arab Spring erupted in 2009, the political class –such as it is—and the wider population evinced little interest in emulating its Tunisian neighbors, since the prospect of democratic reform also seemed to raised the prospect of internal political strife and even violence. The key to this strategy, of course, was not only to keep a lid on radical Islamists, but also to make sure that they did not pose a threat to domestic oil production, which is, quite literally, the life line of the regime.

So it seems that the attacks on the gas installation represented a powerful threat to this strategy, no?

Precisely. Algeria’s leaders have been waging a low intensity conflict with al-Qaida’s affiliates in North Africa, managing to keep them at bay. But the attack on the gas installation represents an assault Algiers’ strategy both regionally and domestically. It not only raises the prospect of instability in its oil producing region, it also raises the prospect that Algerian territory will once again become an organizing ground for radical Islamist assaults throughout the region. This concern helps to account for the determination of the Algeria military to draw a literal and figurative line in the sand by assaulting Belmokhtar’s forces at the gas installation and refusing any negotiated outcome. Algeria’s leaders look at the Arab Spring and see a recipe for regional disorder and violence. Events in Mali, Algeria and Libya will only reinforce their determination to hold on to power, and to resist what they see as a black hole of political upheaval in the region.

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