75,000 Troops to Fight AQIM?


Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Algeria will set up, within 18 months, a joint force of up to 75,000 soldiers to secure their shared Sahara-Sahel desert zone, Mali’s foreign minister said on Friday.

The four nations are struggling to control the zone, where al Qaeda’s North African wing has stepped up attacks and is operating alongside smugglers, rebels and local criminals.

A joint command centre has been established in Tamanrasset, in southern Algeria, but regional rivalries and the lack of trust between the countries have long stymied a coordinated regional approach European nations and the U.S. have called for.

According to Wikipedia, Algeria has over 124,000 troops, Mauritania around 15,000, Mali around 7,500, and Niger around 12,000. All of those numbers are for total active duty military personnel, so they don’t count reservists (of whom, for example, Algeria may have some 150,000). These numbers are also inexact estimates. But one thing that seems likely is that the joint force would be Algerian-dominated, and that it will be, in a regional context, huge – five times the largest of the three non-Algerian armies, to put it in perspective.

The creation of such a force raises many logistical questions. Who will train, equip, and lead the soldiers? What will it mean to secure the Sahara? Will they undertake offensive operations against AQIM, or against smuggling networks?

What do you think – is putting this force together a good idea? Do you think it is likely to happen?


31 thoughts on “75,000 Troops to Fight AQIM?

  1. I would wonder who’s going to foot the bill? I would assume a combination of the US & EU somehow, maybe through TSCTI, and on the surface it would make sense to attach some aid to this – it would allow for, say, the Nigerien government to hire some more soldiers, helping a bit with unemployment & increasing remittances. But that is pretty simplistic speculation, & the reuters piece didn’t mention it at all. This could well be a reason for the Nigerien foreign minister’s remark about needing “tangible economic development” – they know that the West has an interest in seeing this force become active, & they might try to leverage that for more aid.

    Intelligence is another issue that will be important, and it seems to me that the Tuareg & other formal rebel groups that have ties to AQIM and criminal groups could be well-placed to provide that. That would require of course real agreement with those groups and more opportunity for their members. I think this is part of the answer to “what will it mean to secure the Sahara” – and is perhaps another reason for the minister’s remark.

    • The U.S and E.U might offer some help but I suspect the member nations involved would be doing a large part of it themselves (albeit with some aid money from developed nations helping).

  2. Algerian dominance should be taken for granted, if this gets off the ground. Of the states involved, Algeria is the only one with the capacity to run this, and they wouldn’t cede command to anyone else even if there were alternatives. Reason 1: Algeria has very clearly been trying to extend its influence south for some time now, both to kill off AQIM and for reasons of long-term strategical dominance in the region. Reason 2: They don’t trust anyone else. Reason 3: No one else trusts them.

    75,000 sounds *vastly* overblown, even as a long-term project, and you don’t need those numbers either — just a joint command, a good network of border guards, plus a few rapid-response units ready and able to give chase. This is not conventional warfare, it’s not even an insurgency, just small-gangs of terrorists embedded in a larger environment of tribes and smugglers. There’s no need to prepare for the eventuality of running into a 30,000 strong AQIM panzer army in Kidal…

    Anyway, I assume they’re going to want to recruit a lot of local Touareg & Berabiche as auxiliaries, or simply pay them not to cause trouble. That could pad out the numbers a bit.

    • I agree with Alle’s analysis here. My thought would be that some of the money would come from the EU/US, the Algerians and possibly other sources. I wonder where the 75,000 men will come from and in what combination and how rotations will be done; this sounds enormous and perhaps infeasible.

      I do wonder what arrangements will be made to leverage and incorporate the tribal dynamic in Niger and Mali both; [again] who will provide the money? The answer seems obvious but what form will these efforts take?

  3. Fully agree with Alle’s analysis. The troup is 85,000 and not 75,000, but there us no difference. These fellas said the same things a year ago (April or May 2010), but they did not move. 18 months more, this for me is they are trying to build A fabricated AQMI to justify the militarization of the area. With of course the complicity of the “coalition”. Why? No real idea. Algeria will run this stuff, while Gadhafi is being fixed. This mess is going on since 2004 and “they” don’t want to do anything about it. The $10 million bonus from Algeria to fight terrorism? It will go iIn the pocket of the top brass between the 4 countries. Just look at the $$ from US taxpayers into Flintlock. No result because that was not the intent. Sorry.

  4. A portion of the funds has to come from the U.S. and E.U., as Washington runs its North African policy (joint command-bases) through Algeria. This remains a less-than-ideal chain of command. I also agree that 75,000+ is too unwieldy to combat AQIM, and may sink from its own weight. AQIM must be fought mobile to mobile. While saturation is necessary to increase contact with the populations and restore governance, local garrisons, mobile units (rapid response), and border guards may prove more effective.

    Density appears to be making up for a deficiency in air power, a vital advantage in desert counterinsurgency. U.S. drones may see increasing action to counterbalance this force.

    I’m also aware with reports of a fabricated AQIM, however I would argue that AQIM does represent an insurgency more than a band of thieves. Not every insurgency needs a political goal or thousands of troops; pure economic motives aren’t uncommon and the religious factor remains an active component. But a sledgehammer isn’t the tool to crush AQIM’s operational ring.

  5. AQIM is not a fabricated problem. It is probably infiltrated to some extent, and the terrorist threat has certainly been played up and manipulated by states that want to attract military aid etc, and it absolutely thrives on divisions between the states in the Sahel area, and there’s bound to be all sorts of corrupt local government collusion and shady backroom deals through tribal mediators and so on. No actor in this region is an innocent humanitarian. But the idea that an entire AQ wing is run by remote control on behalf of some world-wide cabal is nonsense, pure and simple.

    Air power — Yes, I imagine that would be key: transport, helicopters, recon, perhaps the odd missile drone, along with joint command/control and mechanisms in place to ensure that border & sovereignty issues don’t get in the way, and local informants/allies for human intelligence and to “drain the sea”. All those things are absolutely doable even for these weak states, esp. under Algerian leadership and with US/French assistance (hi-tech, money, satellite surveillance, etc), if they can just keep together, which is a bigger if. Gaddafi being out of the picture should make it a little easier. But a 75/85,000 army is neither necessary nor possible.

  6. OTOH, Gaddafi being out of the picture has also lead to arms stockpiles being plundered in all of eastern Libya. I imagine a fair amount of those guns & missiles will be showing up in the Sahelian conflict zones pretty soon. That could make things a lot worse…

  7. Thanks for all the thoughtful comments everyone. Nathan and James raise good points about the funding, and I agree with Alle about the numbers – I had to stare at the 75,000 figure for a moment just to make sure I wasn’t misreading it.

    Kal and others make great points about what are essentially political questions, ie how such a force would interact with existing political structures in the Sahara.

    The idea of this force raises many more questions than it answers, it seems.

  8. I’m sceptical about the core beliefs of AQIM and question why, if jihad is the driving motivation, we aren’t seeing regular bombings and suicide attacks, as in Pakistan.

    AQIM seems much more to serve the interests of military players in the region and abroad, with every country in West Africa discovering it has an “AQIM”-linked problem meshed with the ordinary smuggling and banditry which generally wouldn’t give them a spot on the world stage.

    Advisors in Guinea-Bissau have just declared the same: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-05-25/west-africa-s-cocaine-trade-has-doubled-in-five-years-un-agency-estimates.html

    Can we not stand back and get some perspective?

    • Not all affiliated groups use the same tactics, indeed suicide bombings are not that common even among the groups famous for its use.

  9. AQ always serves military interests at a regional and international level, this is unavoidable in Western and African capitals. As for why AQIM is waging a different type of insurgency, suicide attacks aren’t very effective anyway. These targeted, pin-prick raids and kidnappings comply with AQIM’s environment.

    Drug smuggling is a critical point too. The UN has established proof of an international drug ring between the South American cartels and West African drug smugglers, including AQIM. These operations have been underestimated for years and, in many cases, employ corrupt government and military officials. A regular military force is irrelevant in combating this relationship.

  10. James, why would AQIM not find suicide attacks effective in the Sahel, when AQ uses them so much in Pakistan? Although the region is lightly populated and vehicles relatively easy to keep tabs on, the exposure of civilians and the remoteness of governement facilities would make them extremely vulnerable to genuinely fanatical, paradise-bound terrorists. AQIM have ample opportunities to carry attacks out (and incidentally ample opportunities to engage in kidnappings on a very much larger scale), but because of their limited numbers and extreme caution, they choose not to.

    Is it not conceivable that AQIM personnel in West Africa are actually motivated by commercial rather than jihadist interests? Nothing AQIM has achieved since the early 2000s indicates to a critical observer that they pose a major threat to global interests. A handful of drawn-out kidnappings and the deaths of a tiny number of westerners puts them on a very low threat level compared with AQ-proper.

    As for the well-established drug-smuggling links, they merely amplify this argument. It’s not a clash of world views, it’s all about the money.

  11. It will mean a difference if Algeria will let their soldiers cross the border.

    Algeria mentioned last year they were setting up a 75,000 strong force on their own to defend the desert so this is not new. Keenan like Alle suggested that is way more than what is needed, but the Algerian territory is huge and the border is long. Algies are going to explore new regions in the south for oil, gas and minerals and need to have those areas under control. Question is what they intend to do in Mali and Niger.

  12. Pingback: Al-Qaeda has sleeper cells across west Africa: experts « Don’t Tread On Me

  13. Guys, I hear from a pretty good source that part of the Tamanrasset agreement was that soldiers would be allowed to cross borders in hot pursuit up to 200 kms into the neighbouring countries. But in spite of that, the algies have still declined to do so!!!
    Anyone else heard this?

    • This is a good news priffe, if the algies can cross and help, instead of the usual empty talk. If they do this seriously, I am willing to back off from conspiracy theories. But that 18 months plan to establish 75 to 85,000 troups is not believable. As they will do nothing, conspiracy theorists like me will talk and talk and talk. Watever le generals in Algiers say is just talk.

  14. Richard, I only mean that primarily attacking civilian targets is a low form of insurgency. Government installations, foreign kidnappings and drug smuggling offer a more sustainable base for AQIM. Jihad doesn’t appear to be the driving force either – the group has filled the Sahel’s natural vacuum and thrives on profit. As you also say, low numbers make suicide attacks less attractive, unlike the TTP’s thousands of fighters and hundred of bombers.

    Doubt the threats against France as well; seems like a recruitment ploy or Algerian propaganda.

  15. James, right, I agree with you. So in no sense are we talking about a real “franchise” of Al-Qaeda. The “AQIM” acronym is a commercially motivated criminal network with some warped-Islamic preaching from some members (at most) and simply a scary description for whoever is doing bad stuff in the Sahel (at least).

    Powers that want to deal with this problem (and media who want to analyse it) for the good of the region, and the furtherance of international cooperation and sustainable development, would do well to stop calling miscreants in the Sahara terrorists and desist from linking them with Al Qaeda.

    Thankfully, we don’t appear to have a full-blown problem with jihadi terrorism in the Sahara. Unfortunately there *does* appear to be an eagerness to identify such a problem, where none exists, on the part of putative enemies of it. We’ve been here before, and observers are increasingly wise to such self-serving fabrications.

  16. While Aqim in the Sahara is primarily a criminal organization using calls to jihad for recruiting members, their north Algerian wing is closer to being a true AQ franchise.
    There has been activities in Europe and a few members arrested, and I believe that the outfit who chose to call themselves Aqim would be very interested in setting up a network for financing and planning terrorist attacks here (if they haven’t already).

    The different personalities, internal strife and background of Droukdal, Abou Zeid and Mohktar Belmohktar should also be taken into account.

    Now how do we explain Algeria’s attitude – without giving in to conspiracy theories?

  17. This is perhaps relevant to give some credit to conspiracy theorists. There is currently a build-up of AQIM in Northern Mali and no one among the anti-terror crusaders is lifting finger. Visit Maliweb and click on “nord-mali” tab and you will see for yourself that tje AQIM franchises are let to grow and build-up. If they are not fabricated, then people and countries in the Sahara-Sahel zone will in trouble soon. Letting these bedfellow bloom like we see now will definitively lead to the waziristanization of the area, with war and other collateral damages. Hope you will enjoy reading these 2 pages from the US Geological Services. In my opinion offshore energy sources fit the conspiracy theory that you mess up onshore so that you have all offshore for yourself …

    I may be wrong. Great post, Alex.


  18. On the build-up in north Mali http://www.maliweb.net/category.php?NID=76149&intr=
    Aqim is setting up a new camp near Nara, just 400 kms north of Bamako, and I haven’t seen any Malian response http://bit.ly/jgGW8j http://www.letempsdz.com/content/view/57846/1/
    The word “fabricated” should be banned from all discussions; it is very tiresome to hear for all the people who are exposed to the very real threat.
    Read also the discussions at http://www.kidal.info

  19. priffe, could we have an evidence-based debate?

    I’ll agree not to use the f word again (though I object to your calling for a ban. . .) if you provide a source for your Nara camp story – other than the unsubstantiated secondary reports you’ve posted.

    The problem is any journalist or anonymous social media user can say that they have it on credible authority that a particular story is true.

    I come back to my original point in this thread. There are very real problems of poverty, political representation and violent criminality in the Sahara. Governments in the region need to find ways to deal with those issues if they want to stay in power and preserve credibility.

    But what we are not seeing is any evidence in the region of a coordinated, fundamentalist-inspired violent movement – no leaders, no declared aims, no actions – that would change the situation in such a way as to justify military responses on the level reported by Reuters.

    If you can produce some hard evidence priffe (not 2nd hand reports), I’ll be the first to accept it.

  20. “Evidence-based debate”, hmm. I would love to but I rarely see first-hand reports from the Sahel, as few if any journalists travel in the region, especially in Niger, eastern Mauretania and northern Mali. So can’t help you there, sorry.
    What first hand reports I get is from people living in Kidal, Timbuktu, Bamako, Nouakchott. They report what they see and hear. But even they can’t be taken at face value anymore than say articles in Algerian newspapers – they all have to be interpreted and analyzed and put in context.
    That said, I myself spent three weeks in Mauretania and western Mali this year. Used to be possible going over Nema – Nara, but not this year. Mauri gendarmes wouldn’t let us.
    The reports from Nara came from AFP citing a Malian intelligence source.
    http://bit.ly/jgGW8j Only one unnamed source. Are we to believe it? The writer Serge Daniel is a Benin/French journalist with AFP and RFI since fifteen years. http://www.evene.fr/celebre/biographie/serge-daniel-34856.php
    He has loads more experience from the region than most bloggers, so I would say yes, there probably is something going on near Nara. What he writes also makes sense and provides geopgraphical and chronological details.
    Will Mali cooperation with Burkina and Niger change the balance? http://bit.ly/lQDFLU
    Are there AQ sleeper cells in the Sahel? http://bit.ly/jTjfz4
    Understanding Aqim is like laying a jigsaw puzzle where you have 5% of the pieces.

    Of course poverty, corruption, instability, lack of development is the fundamental problem. Jihadism is not. But the perspective is that it could spread further from Senegal all the way across to Somalia.

  21. priffe, thanks for the feedback. So the **** story is largely based on hearsay and rumour (AFP’s “sleeper cell” piece is a particularly derisory example of a non-story – quoting anonymous sources talking about anonymous groups).

    For a bunch of crooks, the desert bandits have certainly got the region scared, just by calling themselves ****. It seems they’ve done more to get a net flow of funds/goods/arms/attention into the region than decades of NGO work and development, even if most of the funds/goods/arms/attention are doing nothing to alleviate widespread poverty.

    If, as you say, we only have 5% of the pieces, then we should hold back on making expensive, pre-emptive decisions that might lead to the very situations we wish to avoid.

    Again, just to emphasise, I don’t doubt the fear and even panic spread by these criminals, but I do doubt the motives widely ascribed to them and that some of them proclaim themselves. And I believe that makes all the difference in a world that is already full of big and serious problems including very genuine global jihadists.

    Once more, if anyone has any real evidence of **** as a movement, I’ll be the first to say I was wrong.

  22. So you believe there really is a troop movement? ;o)

    Frankly, we’re all sceptical, but there is something going on. Mali army trying to increase control north of the river from Timbuktu eastwards. One thing I have asked myself is where do the Aqim guys cross the river – take the ferry?
    But the army has been trashed by Aqim before.
    Foreign Affairs minister Maiga the other day aid some interesting things..
    Security, development, regional cooperation. His statement on Algeria:
    “With regard to Algeria, I had regular relations with that country under my previous role as director of intelligence and defense minister. I have had in recent times, the impression that we expected much more Algerians than they are willing to give. I think they are ready to act, including providing air support, but we ourselves are not in favor of a ground invasion from them on our territory.”
    That signals a new Malian approach – they used to say that this is an Algerian problem and that they regretted having to deal with it at all.
    As you probably know, Aqim started in Algeria and moved south into Sahel only after 2003.

  23. Noone’s reading this post anymore, but for the sake of completeness: Mali and Mauritania finished a meeting today where they set up a coming raid agaisnt Aqim in Wagadou forest near Nara. Mauritania is planning an offensive lasting for months.
    Meanwhile Malian forces are manning all posts in the desert at least near the river and as far north as Tombouctoo.
    They are preventing westerners from going north from Gao and generally north of the river. When they are taking control of Araouane and other villages west and north of T’too, then we know the game is changing.
    And their part of the 75,000 may not be a far away goal.
    I also have local sources for what is going on. As always, be sceptical but don’t close your eyes.

    • I read all the comments! Thanks for flagging this piece, I have seen news of the planned offensive too, but I hadn’t seen the part about forbidding travel north of Gao. This is definitely something to keep an eye on.

  24. Oh, there’s more. Lots of reporting on maliweb now, so keep a close eye on coming development in north Mali. How about this:
    Aqim has taken refuge to Timethrine and Tigarghar mountains
    As a prelude to a general offensive against AQIM: Large movements of military troops to Timbuktu
    “In response to the conspicuous presence of AQIM in the Timbuktu region between 18 and 25 May 2011, the Malian army has deployed large resources on the ground. AQIM has packed up and retreating into the mountains of Tigargar in the region of Kidal.

    Four planes, two reconnaissance aircraft (tetra) and two helicopter gunships equipped with missiles, a twenty four 4×4 (BG) all equipped with heavy weaponry on board well-armed soldiers. Among these soldiers, elements of the ETIA4 and 6 (Echelon Tactics Inter Armées), a detachment of paratroopers and commandos, the Air Force. This is the arsenal that was made visible by the Malian army to do battle with AQIM really become daring in recent times in the Timbuktu region.”

    If you’re into Aqim, this book should be a must read
    ‘AQIM’ by Atmane Tazaghart. He even goes into some detail on how Aqim was formed and who was involved. Especially for all conspirationists out there.
    “He came back convinced that the vast Saharan territory, which largely operates outside the central authorities, has all the characteristics to become a breeding ground for jihadists. To sharpen further the interests of Osama bin Laden, Binalshibh told him that during his stay in the Sahel, his fellow Yemeni had established contacts with jihadi leader (Ben Mokhtar Mokhtar) installed in the Great Sahara, who runs a large network linked to the Algerian armed Islamic groups. Binalshibh resumes from Kandahar with orders to send Abu Mohamed Al Yamani in the Sahel, as an envoy in charge of preparing the installation of a fireplace in the Great Sahara jihadists. (…) Learning Projects of the effluent from Al Qaeda, bin Mokhtar refer the matter to his superiors. Para el sees an unexpected chance to realize his dream to join the global jihad, he who has not had the privilege of participating in anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. He is quick to invite Al Yamani in his den Aures. So when attacks occur from September 11, 2001, Al Yamani was the host of El Para aurésien in the bush for three weeks. (…) A year later he was again sent to the Sahel, with the endorsement of Ayman Al Zawahiri formally authorizing an alliance with El Para, on behalf of Al Qaeda, to create a jihadist base in the Sahara . Al Yamani aurésien happens in the bush in July 2002. For two months he spent in the company of El Para, the detailed study of how the development of future jihadist front in the Sahel.”
    …..However, the Saudi services had managed to return one of the 19 jihadists invited to this meeting. Alerted by their informer, they encircle the cache Medjatti El. And after three days of fighting, the Moroccan was killed, as well as the new Emir Al Jahn. The Euro-Mediterranean emirate expanded “Grand Orient” and the Arabian Peninsula collapses, then. The death of El Medjatti is not the only reason. A posthumous operation he had planned and which will take place two months after his knockout, will greatly hasten the collapse. These are the London bombings of July 2005. By attacking the shrine London, El Medjatti opened Pandora’s box leading to the loss of his emirate. The “mullahs Londonistan” are taken out of harm’s way and cooperation will enable British anti-terrorism agencies of the countries concerned to dismantle many networks El Medjatti was introduced in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. In the Arabian Peninsula, those who manage to escape the blows of the police nets regroup in the tribal areas in Yemen, to found an umbrella organization called Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). In Europe and the Maghreb, the survivors network El Medjatti have no alternative but to join the Algerian GSPC. This allows this group, confined since its inception in 1998 the “local jihad” in Algeria, acquire, slowly, the regional dimension of his dreams. Thus was born the AQIM, which will, from January 2007 over the “third force bin Laden!

    Sorry if this was a bit long. Using Google translate.


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