No wonder the Algerians stubbornly refused to help the French in their Mali adventure. No amount of French government pressure last year could persuade President Abdulaziz Bouteflika – which means the Algerian army – to march into the deserts of its southern neighbour and engage in battle once more with its al-Qa’ida opponents and their allies. But Algeria’s enemies – and, of course, France’s enemies – came to Algeria yesterday, turning the Algerian desert into another battleground. Foreigners, two of them reported dead, 41 held hostage on the In Amenas gas field, Algerian troops surrounding both the prisoners and their captors; it sounds like a replay of Algeria’s own 1990s civil war. And if precedent is anything to go by, don’t bet on a happy ending.
The problem is that Algeria’s vicious 1990-99 conflict of torture, massacre and quickly-pardoned atrocities – between the ‘ pouvoir’ and the Islamists, between the authorities and the jihadist and al-Qaeda-style groupouscules – never really ended. Their ferocious battles involved much slaughtering of western nationals, especially French men and women, but took place in the Algerian coastal cities and the ‘bled’, the plains to the south over which the French army itself fought vainly against Algerian nationalists between 1954 and 1962. Rarely if ever in the desert.
Didn’t the Algerians realise that their soft underbelly would be this vast, largely ungoverned desert? Repeatedly over the past 10 years, the Algerian government has claimed that victory was complete, that the Islamists – who were tortured and bribed into submission – had given up, that “al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb” was finished, at least as far as Algeria was concerned. Not so. Algiers suffered repeated bomb attacks and the vast deserts to the south were never safe.
For several years, US Special Forces troops were based outside Tamanrasset to fight the very same Algerian-Malian insurgents who have now reappeared inside Algeria, 600 miles north of Mali, it is true, but – and here’s the rub – scarcely 60 miles from the Libyan border. Towards the end of Gaddafi’s crazed rule, many were those who feared that the old dictator’s guns would leach over the country’s borders to other, unconquered tribes and militias. Never did anyone suggest that al-Qa’ida might use Libya – rather than Mali – as a crossing-point into Algeria. The Algerian regime, protecting some of Gaddafi’s closest relatives, was even suspected of sending weapons to help Gaddafi is his last grim months of power. Was this when the seeds were sewn.
The French, with an arrogance similar to that of the Americans and the Brits in their own hopeless wars against “terror”, simply didn’t think – when they sent their soldiers to fight in Mali last week – about Algeria as a vault to swallow up more French and other foreign nationals.
It’s easy to increase the guard at Charles de Gaulle Airport, far more difficult to remember history and the vulnerability of Arab regimes which play the role of ally but have still not won their own internal “Islamist” wars. The Malian rebels had already threatened westerners in Algeria – but no one, it seems, took them seriously. Even after French aircraft flew through Algerian airspace.
Colonial frontiers, as we all know, mean more to the colonisers than the indigenous population. Tribes cross our old borders because they do not believe in them. If you are a Berber or a Touareg, you can be both a Malian or an Algerian or – more to the point – a Maghrebian. And the Maghreb stretches from Morocco across Mauretania and Algeria to Tunisia and Libya and, to many inhabitants, all points south.
The Algerian army know this very well. They spent nine years fighting their own Islamist insurgents, constantly claiming that “foreigners” were involved in the war. And Algeria’s military legions dealt with their enemies cruelly and without quarter. The French still suspect that Algerian troops killed French hostage priests during a failed attempt to liberate them – and then beheaded the corpses to suggest that Islamists murdered them.
Precedent is an ominous thing. But if the Algerians really have surrounded both the hostages and their captors – as we were told last night – it would be unwise to expect to see all the captives alive.