Wikileaks, the US, AQIM, and the Sahel

Views on what Wikileaks does run the gamut from admiration to condemnation, but I share the view (articulated here) that the most important question concerning Wikileaks is not whether its staff has acted morally, but rather what impact regular leaks will have on journalism and government, now that it seems likely that regular leaks will become a fixture of the future media landscape. Put differently, some readers might object to Wikileaks’ release of US embassy cables related to, for example, US counterterrorism policy in the Sahel. But now that those materials are circulating, I feel that I should analyze them in order to give readers a sense of how the conversation about the US and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) might evolve. Briefly, leaked cables relating to the Sahel suggest a strong US-Algerian partnership and a weaker role for Mali.

CNN has its own analysis, which stresses themes like increasing US concern over AQIM (including its potential involvement in regional drug trafficking), US approval of regional coordination, but continued mistrust among Sahelian governments. Here are some excerpts:

[The fight against AQIM] is a struggle that the United States is taking ever more seriously, according to U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks…The United States has stepped up its military cooperation with governments in the region.

[…]

In the cables, officials from Algeria and Mali talk of a growing threat from al Qaeda in the region. One cable from the U.S. ambassador in Mali discusses the visit by the commander of U.S. Africa Command, Gen. William E. Ward, last November. President Amadou Toumani Toure told him that while al Qaeda “had difficulty getting their message across to a generally reluctant population, they have had some success in enlisting disaffected youth to their ranks.”

According to the cable, Toure complained: “Military cooperation with Algeria is the problem. … It is not just a matter of destroying a couple of (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) bases, we have to be able to hold the territory. The longer the situation drags on, the stronger the Salafists [al Qaeda] will get.”

The Algerians tended to blame Mali. “The nexus of arms, drug and contraband smuggling in northern Mali created an enabling environment,” according to senior Algerian defense official Abdelmalik Guenaizia, who added that “terrorists will use any means available to finance their activities, including corruption and hostage-taking.”

[…]U.S. efforts to improve coordination in the Sahel region against terrorism do appear to be bearing fruit. Another diplomatic cable from 2009 welcomes the establishment of a regional command for counterterrorism operations.

As contacts on Twitter pointed out, the leaked cables are just one more piece in a jumbled puzzle. Tommy Miles wrote, “This would be the proper moment to stress these cables are what US & Alg gov SAY not necessarily what’s happening.” Andrew Lebovich added, “also, what Alg and Mal officials SAY about each others’ levels of cooperation against AQIM.” Arguably the cables reveal more about attitudes than actions.

The Guardian has posted the text of cables related to counterterrorism in the Sahel, and readers may find them of interest. In chronological order:

  • One from December 2007 (following the December 11 Algiers bombings) stresses the adaptability of AQIM, the influence of Iraqi insurgencies on the group, the inability of Algerian security forces to completely stop terrorism, and the author’s expectation that the security situation would either “stay roughly as it is now or deteriorate.”
  • One from December 2009 discusses a US request to the Algerian government to conduct surveillance flights over Algeria, Mauritania, and Mali.
  • One from January 2010 reports Algerian officials’ outrage over their country’s placement on an enhanced screening list at the US Transportation Security Administration, outrage specifically framed with reference to US-Algerian cooperation on couterterrorism. Algeria’s “Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci January 11 summoned the Ambassador and forcefully objected…He termed the decision intolerable, inappropriate, and inopportune. It reflected neither the reality of Algeria’s security situation, its counterterrorism efforts nor our close bilateral cooperation.”

The Guardian has analyzed what these documents say about the evolution of US-Algerian relations from 2007 to the present, with Algeria’s role in American eyes going from “security joke to US ally.” Algeria has come to be the most important US partner in the regional counterterrorism effort.

The content of cables relating to Algeria and the Sahel will not necessarily surprise readers, but the cables do bring out the relationships in the region, especially the closeness of US-Algerian cooperation and the tensions between Algeria and Mali. Given existing tensions between Mauritania and Mali, that could mean that Mali is somewhat marginalized by its neighbors and even by the US. Now that a great deal of AQIM’s high-profile kidnappings and clashes with authorities take place in Mali, disagreements between Algeria and Mali could prove problematic for tightening regional cooperation and advancing the counterterrorism effort.

6 thoughts on “Wikileaks, the US, AQIM, and the Sahel

  1. It appears that U.S., Algeria, and Mauritania are trying to funnel blame towards Mali, and this was before the latest WikiLeaks. Officials in Mali have alleged on a number of occasions that Algerian forces drive AQIM operatives across its border, possibly with the dual objective of implicating Mali and expanding military control in the region. Algeria especially resents Mali for being used as a drug-smuggling corridor. Though regional states are increasing their security cooperation, the lack of political trust remains a potentially insurmountable hurdle.

    Washington doesn’t seem to fully understand what it’s stepping into. The battle against AQIM requires long-term nation-building like any other AQ refuge, not mere counter-terrorism.

    • Thanks for these details about Mali. It’s starting to seem to me that Mali is somewhat isolated by the neighboring countries. I’d like to know how other countries in the region figure in these relationships – Niger especially.

  2. “The battle against AQIM requires long-term nation-building like any other AQ refuge, not mere counter-terrorism.”

    Grandiose aims indeed. “Mere” counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency are among the most difficult foreign policy and military tasks imaginable. As for long-term nation building in those areas used as AQ refuge (the number of which seem to increase monthly)–it is not serious to speak of this as a remotely realistic possibility.

  3. Interesting post, Alex.

    The cables don’t really reveal much we didn’t know already re: US-Algerian relations. Most of the accusations leveled against the Malians has been in the Algerian papers or on blogs for a while now as well. Too much of the talk about US-Algerian relations completely ignores the US-Morocco and Algeria-Morocco problem which remains manifest and determinative in terms of what kind of cooperation happens. The Morocco factor is key and I think it’s strange we don’t hear more analysts looking at the Morocco cables in relation to the Algeria ones, or US-Algerian relations in the context of US-Morocco relations. You really don’t uncover anything if you put it all into its proper context.

    As far as ‘nation-building” is concerned, I think that’s ill-advised in the extreme. AQIM is weakening and currently levels of western involvement are quite enough. Yes the region needs infrastructure, yes its militaries need professionalization but that can be done more easily through quiet and cost effective measures. I agree a lot of people don’t know what they’re getting into re: AQIM. But it’s easy to exaggerate the overall strategic threat it poses to the region and in the process severely damage and exacerbate other dangerous trends totally un-related to it. And the region barely an “AQ refuge”. This isn’t Yemen or Af-Pak you’re talking about, the human and physical geography is utterly different. The governments complain that they can’t hold territory but you’d hear smugglers and AQIM make the same complaint because of the weather and distance decay problems.

    • Well put Kal. It definitely seems that Morocco is the elephant in the room. And with the cables in general, I think their value is often not that they surprise or shock but rather that they throw what people already knew/suspected into sharper relief.

      In fairness to James, who’s now gotten pushback from two other commenters, he may not have meant “US-led military-driven nation-building” a la Afghanistan, but rather sustained programs of political unification and development led by Sahelian governments themselves. Or something in between. But he can respond for himself of course.

  4. Pingback: Wikileaks Roundup for Africa « Sahel Blog

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