How the Tuareg factor can cause the destabilization in Algeria

How the Tuareg factor can cause the destabilization in Algeria

Besides of Mali, Niger and Libya, a larger number of Tuaregs are settled in Algeria, although their influence on the relationship situation is not as strong as in other countries. Traditionally, the Tuaregs are settled in the Sahara regions of Libya, Mali, Niger, Algeria and northern Burkina Faso. The Tuareg began a continuous migration to southwest Africa in the seventh century after the Arab conquest of the Maghreb. Today, the largest number of Tuareg, about 1.4 million, live in Niger, mainly south and west of the Air plateau. About 200 000 Tuaregs live in Algeria.

Clusters of Tuaregs in Algeria

Among the Maghreb countries, most Tuaregs now live in Libya and Algeria. After African countries gained independence in the 1960s, Tuareg territory was artificially divided into modern states by French colonialists. Throughout history, the Tuaregs were unable to form their own statehood because they led a nomadic lifestyle. Their desire for independence and isolation from other peoples (they separate themselves from other Arab peoples, calling themselves “imoshag”, which means free people, also retained the ancient language Tamashek) did not allow them to become part of other state entities. Therefore, the Tuaregs do not consider themselves to be the people of Mali, Libya, Algeria or another country.

The hostility of the settled population towards the Tuareg was explained by the historical memory of how the population of the countries of the region was actively enslaved by the Tuareg nobility until the twentieth century. The exception was the relationship between the Tuaregs and Muammar Gaddafi. A supporter of the creation of the Great Islamic State in the Sahel, he provided the Tuaregs with political support and defended their trade interests. Gaddafi implemented educational, economic and social programs aimed at preserving the distinctive culture of the nomads, without trying to make them a “settled national minority.” Many of them received the opportunity to serve and receive military training in the Islamic Legion.

The 1970s and 1980s droughts sparked armed conflicts in Mali, Niger and Algeria. As a result of the failed uprisings, the emigration of Tuaregs to Libya intensified, and they again joined Gaddafi’s army. In 1994, Libya supported a group of Tuareg rebels who attacked the city of Gao in Mali. In those same years, the Tuaregs organized an armed uprising not only in Mali, but also in Niger. The situation was such that the governments of the countries where the Tuaregs migrated, for the most part, opposed them. The only exceptions were Libya and Algeria. In Mali and Niger, the Tuaregs could not find their new home and fled to Libya and Algeria, where they began to unite with militants, thereby forming rebel groups.

Since then, many of the Tuaregs plotting the 2012 coup in Mali were trained not only in Libya, but also in Algeria, where they had refuge. One of the founders of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, the creator of the group Ansar ad-Din (Followers of the Faith) and one of the members of Gaddafi’s Islamic Legion, a Tuareg Iyad Ag Ghaly, who fought against the Mali government in 2012, was associated with the Algerian Department of Government and Security (DRS) since 2003. In 2011, a few months before the uprising, there were also reports of an Algerian military presence in Azawad, where the Tuaregs fought for independence.

Relocation of Libyan Tuaregs to Algeria after the defeat of Gaddafi

At the end of the Libyan civil war, Algeria opened a nearby border post and began allowing Tuaregs to cross the border on August 30, 2011. Five hundred Tuaregs were reported to have crossed into Algeria while the border remained open. Some of the refugees promised to settle with their families in Algeria before returning to Ghadames with weapons to confront the rebels. On September 6, a large column of Gaddafi supporters, consisting of Tuaregs from the southern battalion of General Ali Kanna, crossed the border into Algeria.

Now Ali Kanna, who is of Tuareg origin, is the commander of the southern military zone in Libya. He was appointed to this position by Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord Fayez al-Sarraj. Kanna’s Tuareg forces control the Ghat region, bordering Algeria. Kanna allegedly has close ties to Algerian intelligence. Now the Libyan Tuaregs are concentrated mainly in the southwestern part of the country, in Fezzan, on the border with Algeria and Niger, where related Tuareg tribes also live and may have ties with their blood brothers in Libya.

Algerian actions during the Mali conflicts

During the conflict in Mali, Algeria tried to mediate a peaceful resolution to the conflict between the Tuaregs and Bamako. Algeria had already managed to mediate the first peace agreement in 1991, but it soon collapsed and rebels attacked Gao again in 1994. Algeria then also participated in the signing of the 2006 peace treaty, after former rebel Ibrahim Ag Bahanga attacked the garrisons in Kidal and Menaka under the auspices of the rebel movement, the Democratic Alliance for Change. In late January 2012, Algeria withdrew military advisers and suspended military aid to Mali to increase pressure on the government.

Algeria also played a key role in signing a 2015 peace deal between Mali and the rebels, which collapsed after both sides accused the other of not respecting it. In a new round of conflicts between Bamako’s new government, which came to power after a coup in 2021, and the Tuaregs, relations between Mali and Algeria are at an all-time low. Assimi Goïta criticized the Tebboune government for holding meetings with Tuareg separatists without the participation of Malian authorities. Both countries recalled their ambassadors at the end of December 2023.

However, according to Algerian authorities, the Tuaregs living in the country are in no way connected with the separatists in Mali. On the contrary, they fear that the radical sentiments of the Malian Tuaregs, who are preparing for a new war for the independence of Azawad, will spread to their large Tuareg community. This risk is now very high after the Goïta government in Mali abandoned the 2015 peace agreement brokered by the UN mission MINUSMA, France and Algeria. The Tuaregs and their Islamic allies are advancing, capturing towns and strategic border crossings in Azawad and northern Mali. In September 2023, separatists took control of Bourem after weeks of fighting against the national army. And at the end of the year they blocked roads in northern Mali, where the Tuareg still have the advantage. These roads lead to the northern borders with Algeria.

Tuaregs are a key force for destabilizing the Sahel

The Tuaregs have significant oil and gas reserves in southern Algeria, and their territories remain the least developed in the country. The field of activity of most of them is traditionally cattle breeding, cargo transportation (including caravan transportation) and small trade. Some Tuaregs also smuggle goods from neighboring countries, not considering this a crime, since they regard caravan cross-border trade as their natural “national” trade, which arose long before the emergence of the Algerian state. The range of smuggled goods increasingly includes drugs, human beings (including illegal migrants), as well as weapons and ammunition.

Representatives of the Algerian authorities suspect the Tuaregs of having links with separatist Tuareg groups in Mali and with terrorist Islamic organizations such as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara and Al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Also, there is a new Islamic group Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM), whose leader is Iyad Ag Ghaly. Algerian Tuaregs deny their ties to separatists and jihadists.

Today, Algeria is trying to act as a mediator, calling for peace and negotiations, especially when fighting takes place close to the country’s border, both from Mali and from Libya. But key Tuareg ideologists blame both France and countries such as Algeria, which are adamant in defending the region’s colonial legacy, 20th-century borders and the new government in Mali. The French and Americans take advantage of these sentiments to destabilize the region and restore their influence. Perhaps Paris is waiting for Algeria to turn to it for help due to the troubled situation on the border. Ostensibly concerned about maintaining peace in the Sahel, France is preparing the ground for a new intervention.

United World International

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June 2024