Militancy in the Maghreb

An investigative report in The New York Times tracing the resurgence of terror groups in North-West Africa, or the Maghreb in Arabic, brings out the resourcefulness and resilience of the jihadi spirit under the impact of the ‘global war against terrorism.’ Islamist outfits, which became progressively hard-core and more lethal, were active in Algeria through the 1990s. For a while it was assumed that the fierce counter-offensive launched by the military-backed regime in Algiers had succeeded, with an estimated 1,100 militants killed or captured in 2007. But according to the report, the remnants of the Algerian groups have successfully transformed themselves “from a nationalist insurgency to a force in the global jihad” and the decision to join Al Qaeda was “driven by both practical forces and the global fault line of Sept. 11, 2001.” The Algerian insurgency is now a supplier of highly trained jihadi fighters in Iraq and its “embracing the global jihad was seen as a way to keep more of these men under the Algerian group’s control and recruit new members.” The newspaper report brings out the shortcomings of the mechanisms used in Algeria to respond to the jihadist challenge. In addition to strong-arm methods, the government employed tactics generally used in counter-terrorism operations. Amnesty was granted liberally to those who laid down arms and efforts were made to improve economic conditions in the areas most afflicted by militancy. Financial assistance was sought and obtained, notably from the United States and France, to implement the programme. However, there were slip-ups. Corruption and inefficiency hampered the implementation of development plans. There was no due diligence in the process of granting amnesty. The hard core of the Algerian jihadi leadership capitalised on these weaknesses. What is more, new outfits have emerged in Tunisia, Mauritania, and Mali.

The investigative report also sheds light on the broader role being played by Al Qaeda in the present circumstances. Experts tended to believe that Osama bin Laden’s core group, confined as it was to the mountains on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, could offer little more than inspiration and guidance to Islamist outfits scattered across the world. While there is no evidence that a centralised command and control structure has emerged, there are plenty of indications that bin Laden and his lieutenants are providing material, training, and personnel to groups operating in different parts of the world. The revival of militancy in the Maghreb might have been prevented had the U.S. and its European allies concentrated on operations against Al Qaeda instead of invading Afghanistan and Iraq.

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