Over the past week or so, I have had recourse to critique the American mainstream, elite press for not doing justice to the situation in the Sahel on behalf of their readers. Over the past few days, the Algerian angle of the evolving situation has come to the fore, and here the MSM has done even worse. To judge by what has gone into print, some of our journalists have failed to understand what the Algerian leadership is thinking and why. The reason for that failure seems clear enough: A horrendous and protracted civil war wracked Algeria from about 1992 to 1999 (2002 by some measures), a war that continues to haunt the Algerian leadership and to influence deeply how it behaves; yet in the first three-day’s worth of coverage of the In Amenas gas-plant hostage ordeal, this civil war was never even mentioned. This is a little like trying to explain the astrophysics of an eclipse without ever mentioning the moon.
Now why was this? Well, it’s possible, I suppose, that the reporters and their editors simply forgot about this civil war. The Western press never covered it well in the first place, and again the reason is clear: All sides, two and more Islamist factions and the military government, had a nasty habit of murdering nosy journalists, Algerian and foreign alike. More than 70 died during the course of the fighting. The sides hated each other and couldn’t agree on much, but they did tacitly share the view that foreigners had no business snooping around their war.
Then again, maybe the reporters didn’t forget; maybe they never knew about the Algerian civil war in the first place. Maybe they’re too young to remember it; it started twenty years ago, after all.
But I don’t think so. The reason has more to do with what cognitive psychologists call the evoked set. This is just another, fancier way of saying that we see what we expect to see, and we disattend (pardon the jargon) what does not fit with our framing of the situation. Hence, when we go to the airport to meet someone, we often “see” that person in several faces before the authentic individual shows up. Similarly, if we’re sure that our range of expectations excludes a particular outcome, we will not see evidence of it until too late—rather like what happened to Admiral Kimmel at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Application here? The press has been strongly primed over the past week or so to see things framed by “Mali” and by “al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM)” and by a war being waged against it and other Islamist militias by France with ECOWAS troops. They are not expecting or looking for anything framed by “Algeria”, so it simply does not occur to them that a civil war that has been over since before even Facebook was invented—imagine that!—could possibly matter. It matters, and that’s not all that matters here.
Now, I don’t claim to be a world-class expert on Algeria, but you don’t have to be to get the gist. It’s enough to have paid professional attention to the MENA region as a whole for about the past forty years, which I think fairly describes my comparative advantage relative to the garden-variety newspaper reporter. So let me briefly go over the basics for those may be interested. To begin we need to get the frame right:
The In Amenas episode was not about Mali or even about terrorism per se. It was about Algeria. That doesn’t mean it has nothing to do with Mali or the Sahel or with AQIM, but it’s important to get the causal arrows straight. So now let’s do exactly that.
The Algerian civil war was the first major blowback from the mujahedin war against the Red Army in Afghanistan. Returning Algerians from that fight, which ended in success in 1989, swelled the then-small cadre of Islamists in Algeria, and indeed at that time were often called “Afghan Arabs” after their veteran status. In 1991 the Algerian military, which ruled the country wearing street clothes and fronting a government political party (FLN), called an election, and, to their shock, lost it to the Islamic Salvation Front—the FIS. With support from France and the United States, the military annulled the election results, banned the FIS and jailed most of its leaders. By 1992, in response, the Islamists had formed an armed opposition and the shooting started. To make a formidably long and complicated story short, the Islamist side split into what turned out to be unstable factions that soon began fighting each other (the MIA and GIA versus the reformed FIS, now the AIS), to the government’s initial glee. But things soon got out of hand, with one of the Islamist factions (GIA) engaging in massacres of entire villages. This insane chiliastic violence gave the Algerian civil war its gruesome quality; at least 100,000 people, most of them complete innocents and all of them Muslims, died over the core 7-8 year period of the civil war. Some estimate that twice that number perished. This puts the only-nearly two-year total for Syria, so far, of 60,000 in some perspective.
Starting in around 1993, and through toward the most horrific years of the war (circa 1996-98), the French and U.S. governments concluded and remained convinced that the Algerian military could not win this war. After having had a hand in causing it by supporting the military’s annulment of the 1991 election, Paris and Washington now urged compromise. The senior Algerian generals, whose seminal experience had been the very bloody war for independence against France, believed otherwise. They doubled down, becoming utterly ruthless in an unshakable determination to win. They refused all compromise and they sustained as well as inflicted great pain—and they won. The main Islamist opposition group called it quits in 1999, but fringe groups, one called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) continued fighting until by 2002 the military had either tracked and killed them, or they managed to flee the country.
And here, folks, in the GSPC is the origin of AQIM (born as such in 2007). That is where Moukhtar Belmoukhtar, the supposed mastermind behind the In Amena raid, came from. He was a fighter in the mujahideen war in Afghanistan; he returned to his native country and fought in the Algerian civil war; and he escaped the country before the army could track him down and kill him, as it did so many of his compatriots. (I have been unable to determine for sure if he is an ethnic Arab or an ethnic Berber or a kindred but still distinct ethnic Tuareg, but his place of birth, in deep southern Algeria, suggests Tuareg. It’s noteworthy that none of the journalists who have written about him in recent days has bothered to establish this not-exactly-trivial fact.)
Over time AQIM became more than just a band of Algerian Islamist exiles with bases here and there, including one in northern Mali. But that is still largely its core, which explains why most of the attackers at In Amenas were Algerian nationals. Moreover, it was obvious from the moment the scale and sophistication of the attack became known that this was not a near-spontaneous response to the entry of French troops into combat in Mali, as the attackers’ spokesmen have claimed. This took a lot of planning, and it’s now clear that the attackers had good knowledge of the physical layout of the plant and the grievances of some of the Algerian workers in it. Some claim that this attack’s source goes all the way back to al-Qaeda central, in Waziristan and Quetta, in which case, if it proves true, it is a more serious matter than had it been a one-off effort from a more or less autonomous, small cell. Be that as it may, In Amenas is still far better seen as a continuation of the Algerian civil war in a post-Libyan War setting, where these exiled Algerian Islamists have more money, more and better weapons, and more allies than they could have dreamed possible back in 2002, or even in 2010.
Is that all? Not quite. Now we know something about the attackers, but we need to know a bit more about the Algerian government to complete the background necessary to make sense of what has happened.
To properly set the stage for what I am about to tell you, dear reader, let me point out that the Algerian leadership is a stark atavism. There was a time when “progressive”, “socialist” and avowedly secular military elites lorded over huge swaths of the Arab world. These elites were invariably friendly with the Soviet Union in the Cold War parallax that defined the region’s geopolitics, with the conservative monarchies and a few outliers (Tunisia, Lebanon) more or less associated—one should not say allied—with the West, and in most cases the United States by indirection. Egypt before mid-1972, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Algeria and, for a time, Southern Yemen all muscled up with a Soviet-supplied and trained order of battle. Of these “progressive” military governments, Algeria is the only one left aside from the Assad regime in Syria, which is reeling on its last legs.
The present Algerian leadership consists of the very last remnants of the old guard that experienced the war of independence against France, and the generation right behind it experienced the civil war. Taken together, then, this leadership is as battle-hardened, ruthless and cold-blooded a group of guys as can be found anywhere. This is not a kind and gentle military that holds regular sensitivity-training sessions; it’s a military that uses eight bullets when two will do nicely, and that has no qualms about feeding still wriggling bodies through the wood chipper. They are also very proud and exquisitely sensitive to any slight coming from the general direction of foreigners. One former U.S. Air Force helicopter pilot (who of course will not be named) involved in a limited training mission has had this to say: “. . . the Algerians . . . . proved to be completely inflexible and almost hostile to the idea of working with us. Could it be their past experiences with the French or just garden-variety suspicion of the U.S. and our intentions?” Answer, friend: Both and neither. Yes, experience and suspicion figure in, but these people are just professional hard-asses and, as I say, they’re proud of it.
That said, they are also these days, I suspect, growing more fearful by the month. They are, as I say, the last of the breed of independence-era Arab military “progressives”, whose legitimacy formula has long since passed its sell-by date. If you look at a map of which parts of the country voted which way back in 1991, you can see that the government party won nowhere outside of the capital, and that the entire Tuareg south was disaffected both from the government and from the Arab Islamist opposition. Since 1991-92 the Amazigh—the Berbers—have also made their ticked-off presence very well known. And the general rise of Islamist energies with the so-called Arab Spring—particularly in neighboring Tunisia and in Egypt, but also in next-door Morocco—has probably got the Algerian leadership feeling not only somewhat antique but also increasingly isolated. At least some of them have to fear that if there is a second coming of their civil war, they might lose this time. These guys are so proud that they would never show fear publicly. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t down there somewhere in their guts.
And that, it seems to me, goes far to explain why they reacted to the In Amenas attack the way they did: quickly, and with deadly force. As I said in my second Flogging Mali post: “What the Algerians are saying, in effect, is we’re not going to come after you if you leave us alone, but if you mess with us we will show no mercy.” Well, just the next day, on the front page of the January 18 New York Times, I found evidence for my interpretation. The government spokesman, a fellow named Mohammed Said Oublaid, said as follows: “Those who think we will negotiate with terrorists are delusional.” Just in case the Western journalists present did not get the point, Oublaid added: “Those who think we will surrender to their blackmail are delusional.”
It’s not hard to imagine the scene behind the curtain. The senior generals tell Oublaid to go out there and make one point, and one point only: We are focused on deterring more attacks against our country, period. And that had the merit of being true. The Algerian leadership did not give a flying fork about the hostages, Algerian or foreign. The way they see it, you play hard-ass and maybe a few dozen people die; you go soft and a new plague of civil war will kill tens of thousands. The bleating of some foreign governments about how the Algerians failed to employ standard counter-terrorist protocol—stun grenades and tear gas to help avoid needless bloodshed—completely missed the point. Maybe the Algerians know how to do that sort of thing and maybe they don’t, but it doesn’t matter because in this instance they wanted to shed blood. They wanted to look as unsentimental as a frozen brick, because that was the way to deliver the message they wished to send. And send it they did.
The Japanese government, in particular, seemed totally clueless on this point. Japan’s new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pleaded publicly and privately for the Algerians to put innocent life above all else. That included negotiations with the attackers, as necessary, and lots and lots of time passing so that cooler heads might prevail. Now this is revealing, and not merely for the sake of general knowledge. Mr. Abe is something of a hard-ass himself by Japanese standards. Just hours after his election he began jutting his finger at the Chinese over the islands’ dispute the two countries are having. But here he is, in the Algerian ordeal, showing the whole world how extremely risk-averse and humanitarian-sensitive Japanese society has become. If Abe means to bump chests with China and strut around the East Asian roost, his supine demeanor in the Algerian business amounts to a case of diplomatic malpractice. The Chinese leadership understands exactly what their counterparts in Algeria are all about, and they are bound now to see Abe as an amateur bluffer. This is quite dangerous.
You will note that not all governments publicly criticized the Algerians. France and the United States held back compared to the Japanese and the British. Again, the reason is clear—and on this point we’ve actually been treated to some decent journalism: from Craig Whitlock in the Washington Post on January 19, and from Michael Gordon in today’s New York Times. The reason is that we have a lot of business with the Algerians and so do the French, whereas the Japanese and the Brits really do not.
What does that business look like? Well, the U.S. government and the French government to some degree have managed to cooperate with the Algerians on the counter-terror agenda for some time now. We have some of the same enemies, and that accounts for the outcome. But the Algerian leadership is extremely wary of allowing any hint of that cooperation to go public because it contradicts its anti-colonialist image and it energizes Algerian Islamists eager to paint the government as infidel poodles of the Americans. So it’s not realistic for U.S. officials to expect the Algerian government to make nice with us in public, and it’s counterproductive to press the point.
Does that mean it has been foolish for U.S. officials since April, along with their French associates, to try to persuade the Algerians to cooperate in dealing with the problem in northern Mali. No. Don’t forget: While the Algerians will, in my view, never march along side the French and the French flag in a former French colony, the original plan, which has since fallen way behind the curve of the Islamist surge, called for a very low to vanishing French profile in favor of a Malian and ECOWAS effort. It was not unrealistic to reason that the Algerians might throw in with that, since it’s a problem for them, too. And it was something worth wanting because the Algerian military is serious, while the Malian and ECOWAS forces are not and were never going to be. But it turned out to be a bridge too far, in large part because the Algerians did not trust the Malian government’s intentions or capabilities, and for good reason. Now it’s beyond the pale of consideration.
But there’s more to it than that. Consider overflight rights. Both we and the French want to overfly Algeria. It’s important tactically to the French flying from France toward Mali, and it’s important to us for intelligence collection purposes. The Algerians refuse to give carte blanche in that regard; they insist that every request be considered on a case-by-case basis, and they usually demand that we share whatever intelligence we collect while loitering in their airspace. This is a problem, because Congress has obliged the U.S. military to deny such requests if there is any realistic possibility that a non-democratic government will use the information against its domestic political enemies. This is of a kind with Congressional insistence that we immediately cut off all military aid and liaison if a government experiences an anti-democratic coup, as happened in Mali not that long ago. These are unfortunate constraints. In the first instance they help to blind us, and in the second they force us to sever contact with others just when we often need it most.
These naïve insinuations into security policy dramatically underestimate the dynamic complexity of any significant bilateral relationship, our “business” with Algeria being only one of several dozen. Every one of these relationships has lots of moving parts, and the orchestration of words and deeds pertaining thereto should be left to professionals insofar as possible. That doesn’t mean the pros don’t make mistakes, don’t have their own blind spots, and don’t always play nicely in the interagency sandbox—no one will ever catch me making a claim like that. But a mélange of 535 Congressman and Senators variously holding forth on such matters, trying to make themselves look noble regardless of consequences, is no way to improve things.
After the September 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, I noted that the success of that operation (from the attackers’ perspective, of course) was worrisome because it illustrated how easy it was to attack symbolically potent but poorly defended targets with focused military assets of but modest capacity. Of course that applied to other consulates and embassies, and residences and so on; but it also applied to examples of non-governmental presence, and not just American non-governmental presence. So was the Benghazi attack a model for the In Amenas attack? Not exactly; in the Benghazi case there is no evidence that taking hostages was ever part of the plan. But we may learn—since some of the In Amenas attackers have apparently been captured alive—that it served as an inspiration if not as an exact model.
Finally for now, everyone seems to be content to call the In Amenas attack an example of terrorism. Is it?
The definition of terrorism, according to the State Department, the United Nations, and all standard texts on the subject, is—if I may paraphrase—the use of deadly force by non-state actors against random civilians for the purpose of generating terror, the better to trick the target government into doing counterproductive things in response. Was the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi full of random civilians? Is a gas-plant in southern Algeria full of random civilians?
It’s clear than when Islamists attack uniformed military personnel on foreign soil—as with the attack on the USS Cole in Aden harbor, for example—that fits no one’s definition of terrorism. Targets of high symbolic profile, like a diplomatic mission or a major economic asset, are hardly random—it’s not like setting off a bomb in a movie theater or a suicide bomber driving an explosives-laden truck into a vegetable market. But they’re not legitimate military targets either, so these are ambiguous cases. Since we do ourselves no favors when our loose language enables others to nefariously counter-define a terrorist as just a freedom fight from another point of view, I would prefer to call these kinds of attacks examples of insurgency—in this case conducted by irregular, out-of-uniform assailants who therefore do not qualify for prisoner-of-war treatment under the Geneva Conventions (ah, but that’s another story). It will be interesting to see what the Algerians do with their captives. Not interesting for the captives, mind you……..