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Crises in Algeria, Mali Reflect Regional Unrest

January 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Recent terrorist activity in Mali and Algeria reflect greater regional tumult and threat to international security. Ray Suarez talks to Mary Jane Deeb from the Library of Congress and Dirk Vandewalle from Dartmouth College about the various geopolitical factors at play.

RAY SUAREZ: We return now to North Africa, and what recent developments in Mali and Algeria tell us about the terrorist threat in that part of the world.

For that, I’m joined by Mary-Jane Deeb, chief of the African and Middle Eastern Division at the Library of Congress — the views she expresses here are her own — and Dirk Vandewalle, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College.

Mary-Jane Deeb, were you surprised that the Algerians moved as quickly to end this standoff at the gas plant as they did?

MARY-JANE DEEB, Library of Congress: Not really, because I think they realized that if they didn’t move quickly, the hostages could be taken to different parts, not only of Algeria, but outside Algeria as well. They had to act quickly.

They knew that they needed to have the hostages together and free them while they were in one place. It would have been much more difficult had they been spread out and taken by the terrorists.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, is this now a regional crisis?

DIRK VANDEWALLE, Dartmouth College: Well, in many ways, Jeff, this has been a regional crisis ever since the Libyan regime, the Gadhafi regime was replaced in Libya.

Remember that, after the civil war in Libya, we had kind of a power vacuum, and following that power vacuum, the fact that lots of the weapons that the Gadhafi regime had bought had been spread throughout the country and had been smuggled into neighboring countries.

And so in that kind of vacuum that existed came in a number of groups, including Islamist groups, that then took the opportunity to really stand up against particularly, as we now know, in Mali, but also targeted some of the neighboring regime, some of the neighboring countries.

And so, in a sense, it is not only a regional crisis; it’s really a crisis that involves very closely goals outside the region as well, meaning particularly the European Union and the United States and to some extent the African Union as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Why does this, Mary-Jane Deeb, immediately implicate E.U.?

MARY-JANE DEEB: Well, because once you attack the infrastructure which produces oil, gas and which links Africa to Europe, then you can create havoc in the distribution of oil.

And so it is important. I mean, the French understood the importance of the movement in Mali. They understood that, as Professor Dirk Vandewalle was saying, once you have a movement, once they take over power, it’s not simply, you know, exploding a car here or there, it is actually taking over power in Mali, then similar movements would be allowed to do the same in the region.

RAY SUAREZ: So you buy it that the Algerians under Mokhtar Belmokhtar are acting in sympathy with those in Mali who are trying to topple the government?

MARY-JANE DEEB: Absolutely. I have no doubt about it.

I have no doubt about that the radical Islamists in North Africa and those who are in neighboring countries, including in Nigeria, are in sympathy. So — and this is what the French want to stop, and the Algerian government as well, because Algeria itself is not that stable and could be further destabilized by the actions of al-Qaida …

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, are these forces some kind of network, or do they just simply want many of the same things?

DIRK VANDEWALLE: Well, in many ways, these are networks, but the interesting phenomenon is — and I want to add a little bit what Mary-Jane just said — is that some of these are Islamist movements, but some of these are also movements that simply paste upon their own label of being Islamists.

And some of these are, frankly, just bandits. And so we see a number of movements, both religious and non-religious, that have emerged that in many ways have opportunistically taken advantage of the power vacuum that exists within the region. Remember, this is not just in the Sahel, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. It also deals in large part with some of the insecurities that remain in North Africa.

And because of that power vacuum, they have been able to achieve, bolstered, I should say, by what has happened during the Arab spring in Tunisia, but particularly in Libya, and have moved their goals forward, so to speak.

RAY SUAREZ: But if there is a range of motivations, if some have a political program, and some are, as the professor suggests, simply bandits, does the reaction of other powers in the world change? Does the way the French react, does the way the Algerian government reacts change, depending on whether they are merely bandits or want to do something far more destabilizing?

MARY-JANE DEEB: I think what they are reacting to is really the ones who have an objective to overthrow a regime, to take over power.

The bandits just join the larger group. So the bandits are there. They will always be there, but the leaders have a clear goal to take over power, to create an Islamist state in Mali and then move further to Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Senegal, and the other countries. And certainly Algeria is also on their map.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, what are the challenges involved? We’re talking about a huge swathe of land sparsely populated. If you want to have a military response, if you want to respond to this kind of irregular action in the field, is this a daunting landscape on which to do it?

DIRK VANDEWALLE: It is a very daunting landscape, Ray.

And it will undoubtedly take many years before all of this is solved. The coordination between the different partners involved in this, the European Union, the United States, the African Union, to some extent peripherally the Arab League, will be difficult.

In addition to that, it also relies on the cooperation of the local states. Now, luckily, Libya in particular, the leadership in Libya has moved forward and has been trying to coordinate already all kinds of security arrangements in North Africa, but then North Africa needs to coordinate with the states in the Sahel, with the African Union, with the United States, with the European Union.

And there are lots of sensitivities here. Undoubtedly, the United States will want to play a larger role eventually. But that involves perhaps the Africa Command, which is now located in Stuttgart, out of sensitivity to some of the African concerns.

And the Europeans also have all kinds of reasons why they need to be sensitive, for example, in Algeria, because Algeria has this long history of relations, somewhat antagonistic relations, with the West, but particularly with France.

So, it will be very difficult to coordinate, but already we’re starting to see that some measures have been taken, and undoubtedly that cooperation will really nearly — and have to be established if, indeed, that part of the world doesn’t become highly destabilized and remain destabilized for a long period of time.

RAY SUAREZ: Dirk Vandewalle and Mary-Jane Deeb, thank you both.

MARY-JANE DEEB: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Online, you can view more of our reports on Algeria and Mali. Those are on our World page.