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Monthly Archives: April 2013

North African Militancy


North Africa will be an area of primary concern for U.S. national security over the next twelve months. Since late 2010, this region has experienced sweeping protest movements, collectively referred to as the Arab Spring, that have caused widespread instability and severe shocks to the dynamics of the region. These shocks include the deposing of dictatorial regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Most important to U.S. national security are stability issues caused by the ouster of Libyan president Muammar Qaddafi in August 2011. The legacy of this revolution has been chaos in Libya, massive weapon proliferation, and a power vacuum in the region that has allowed al-Qaeda and its affiliates to have greater freedom of movement in Libya and neighboring areas such as Mali. Although U.S. security interests in North Africa also include Egypt, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan, policy makers should make issues in Libya and Mali their primary focus.


Libya is a priority area of concern for U.S. national security. The establishment of safe havens for radical jihadist groups inside Libya, including al-Qaeda and its affiliates, should cause U.S. policy makers to increase stability in Libya. Current conditions in the country have led to the exporting of violence and instability in the region, most notably to Mali. The situation in Libya will likely improve in the next twelve months as the government consolidates disparate militias into a state security apparatus.

In order to understand the current instability in Libya, it is necessary to look at Libya’s geography. With the Gulf of Sidra and a sparsely populated desert separating them, Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya’s two largest cities, developed as competing political and cultural centers. Since Libya was created in 1934, those governing Libya, whether Italy, Britain, or the King of Libya, tried to balance power between the two cities. However, “Gadhafi’s regime, founded in 1969, represented the alternative way of ruling Libya’s vast and disparate desert territory: using a strong central government and authoritarian control to suppress Libya’s strong regional identities.”[1] By suppressing Benghazi economically and politically, Qaddafi set up the conditions for a civil war. The Arab Spring protest movement was essentially the catalyst needed for action. In February 2011 protests began in Benghazi, which was followed by a heavy-handed suppression campaign from Qaddafi. The situation escalated with protests occurring in all major urban centers, harsh government responses, and the formation of militias that both countered and supported the regime. Eventually, a NATO-led intervention tipped the balance of power towards the rebels and Qaddafi and his government was effectively destroyed by October 2011.

In place of Qaddafi’s rule, a provisional government was formed which eventually led to the General National Congress (GNC), a parliamentary system. The GNC is not strong enough to govern the country effectively, as it has to balance power not just between Tripoli and Benghazi, and it must bring the vast number of independent militias under its umbrella. If the GNC moves to consolidate control too quickly, it would likely experience significant resistance from the powerful militias that dominate the urban centers of the country. This would mean that Libya would dive into civil war.

Currently the government is bringing militias into its security apparatus, establishing the trend for the next year. By using Libya’s vast oil reserves, the GNC can,

Incentivize local militias, revolutionary councils, armed groups and even Islamist brigades against taking actions contrary to the government’s interests… Tripoli has also created umbrella organizations aimed at protecting energy infrastructure by giving militia groups a share of the oil revenue in exchange for organizing under the leadership of the Interior and Defense ministries.[2]

This is evidenced by Prime Minister Ali Zidan’s recent call for the country’s militias to unite under the government’s security apparatus[3].

The real problem for U.S. national security lies in the fact that the Libyan government is unable to exert control over so much of its territory. This has facilitated the expansion of al-Qaeda in Libya, both its under-construction clandestine network[4] and its new militia organization, Ansar al-Sharia. It was Ansar al-Sharia that conducted the attack against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012 that resulted in the death of U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three others[5].

The name Ansar al Sharia is used by multiple groups inside Libya. It is not just the name of individual battalions, but also may be al Qaeda’s new overall brand in Libya. Ansar al Sharia is being used by al Qaeda in Yemen, Tunisia and elsewhere to rebrand itself as an organization that represents true Islamic law.[6]

Members of the Ansar al-Sharia brigade, the militia that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens, were trained in Libya by Muhammad Jamal, an al-Qaeda cell leader arrested in Cairo in October 2012[7]. Jamal had extensive communications with al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, received operational support from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and was apparently tasked with transporting small arms and missiles from Libya into Egypt, particularly to his al-Qaeda cells operating in the Sinai region bordering Israel[8]. The next twelve months will see an increase in al-Qaeda capabilities inside Libya, resulting in proliferation of Libyan weapons and increased attacks on political targets in areas bordering the country. However, if the Libyan government can consolidate more militias into its security apparatus, thus expanding its reach, then it may be able to slow or dismantle the nascent al-Qaeda networks forming in the country.


The situation in Mali is also a priority concern for U.S. national security. Due to instability spreading from the fall of Qaddafi in Libya, Mali has significant potential to become an al-Qaeda safe haven. Although significant gains have been made to curb the jihadists’ hold on the region, it is still questionable whether the French-led intervention to restore order will accomplish its goals. The next twelve months will see a protracted, jihadist insurgency against pro-government forces.

There are several dynamics at play behind the current events in Mali. These include the Tuareg drive for independence, the Libyan revolution in 2011, and the Algerian civil war in the 1990’s. In order to understand these dynamics, a look at the country’s geopolitical landscape is necessary. As is the case in many African nations in the Sahel area, there is a significant North-South divide that splits nations along religious, tribal, or economic lines. The northern half of Mali is mostly desert and is the traditional home of the Tuaregs, a nomadic people who ran caravan trade in the Sahara Desert for centuries. They have become increasingly sidelined and have been pushed farther into the desert over the past century, resulting in several Tuareg uprisings in Mali and Niger to gain independence for their homeland, Azawad. As they were pushed out of Mali, many of the Tuareg migrated to Libya, where they were incorporated into “Moammar Gadhafi’s Islamic Legion, a special military regiment created in 1972 to help unify the region.” [9] Tuaregs remained in the military until Qaddafi’s defeat in 2011, which caused thousands of Tuareg fighters to move back into Mali. “The influx of this large number of well-armed and well-trained fighters… re-energized the long-simmering Tuareg insurgency against the Malian government.” [10] This incoming group formed The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and began a military campaign against the Malian government. The Malian army was not equipped to handle the rebels who brought advanced weaponry from Libyan caches and ultimately retreated to the southern half of the country. Additionally, out of the four Malian units fighting in the North, three were led by Tuaregs that defected “at the crucial moment.”[11] In March, disenfranchised junior military officers formed a junta and took control over the government in a coup. In this state of confusion and military collapse, the MNLA took over the three vital cities of Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu without much resistance, and declared their independence from Mali.

The next development in the Mali crisis, that of al-Qaeda and its affiliates hijacking the Tuareg rebellion, requires a brief look at the Algerian civil war in the 1990’s. Many Algerians had gone to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 80’s, becoming radicalized jihadists in the process. Upon returning, they entered domestic politics and had a large support base in the country. When the Algerian military called elections in 1991, they miscalculated the Islamist’s popular support. When it appeared that they would win, the army (with French and American help) cancelled the elections. This set off a civil war that would claim around 100,000 lives over a decade[12]. The Islamists split into several armed factions, and most were completely eliminated. However, one group that emerged, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), would later become al-Qaeda’s area franchise, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). By using its offshoot militia group, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and a jihadist Tuareg group, Ansar al-Dine, AQIM was able to wrest control of the northern territory from the secular MNLA.

Essentially, AQIM hijacked the Tuareg rebellion in order to wage global jihad. “Ansar Dine was to be the local face of the jihadist movement, while AQIM established training camps for external jihadist operations.” [13] This exhibits al-Qaeda’s newest tactic: hiding behind local or national politics in order to develop their capabilities and wage jihad on external targets. Had the conflict in Mali simply been a local issue, the jihadists would have stayed in the territory to the North. However, their push to conquer the Malian capital of Bamako in January 2013 indicates that this was not the case. The goal for AQIM is to create a safe haven in the region, similar to pre-9/11 Afghanistan. From here, the jihadists would be able to conduct terror operations against neighboring countries, Europe and the United States. Al-Qaeda has shown that this is its modus operandi, when, in 2009 al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) conducted a failed suicide mission against the U.S[14]. Disrupting al-Qaeda’s ability to maintain a safe haven is important to not only thwart terrorist plots, but to also deny jihadists the time required to effectively train, equip, and radicalize foreign recruits who will export the global jihad ideology to their home countries. As noted above, the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan was a watershed moment that exported global jihadist ideologies throughout the Islamic world. With the development of several theaters of war for jihadists to fight in, namely Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and now Mali, it is vitally important to isolate these potential al-Qaeda safe havens to mitigate future violence.

Fortunately, when the jihadists began their drive toward the Malian capital, the French intervened and prevented the full collapse of Mali. This intervention has the aim of completely retaking the northern areas of Mali, but is essentially a short lived operation that clears the major cities and expects a small African force to hold the vast Malian territory on their own. The legacy of this operation will be to take territory quickly, but experience a protracted insurgency that African forces will not be able to withstand. However, the operation does show signs of potential victory, despite the looming French pullout in July. Scores of jihadists have been killed in the Adrar des Ifoghas Mountains along the Algerian border, including AQIM leader Abu Zeid[15] and the al-Qaeda affiliate behind the In Amenas hostage situation, Mokhtar Belmokhtar[16]. This has been the result of the Chadian army doing much of the heavy fighting, as they should, since “they understand exactly what the mostly Tuareg Islamist rebels are doing tactically, because they have used the same tactics in more or less the same setting for approximately half of forever.” [17] Although al-Qaeda and affiliated groups tend to rebound quickly from leadership vacuums, the speed and intensity with which French and Chadian forces can eliminate jihadists will be a great determinate in dislodging AQIM, MUJAO, and Ansar al-Dine. Another positive sign of success in Mali is the aligning of the MNLA with the French forces[18]. Developing this relationship should be the top focus for France as this will leave in place a stable, secular political entity that can provide some order and governance after the French leave. A third indicator of potential success is covert U.S. involvement. U.S. drone capabilities in North Africa have been limited to areas around Libya, Djibouti, and Ethiopia, but a drone base in neighboring Niger is currently under construction[19]. This would give the U.S. some ability to target AQIM and its affiliates in Mali and Nigeria.

Even with these highlights in the fight against al-Qaeda in and around Mali, the next twelve months will see a difficult and protracted insurgency in northern Mali. This may also include suicide bombings in Mali and neighboring countries[20], and even terrorist attacks in the West, most notably France[21]. With French troops leaving in July, it is unlikely that African troops from neighboring countries will be able to maintain the current security measures in northern Mali. Additionally, it will continue to be difficult to aid Mali, as nations such as the U.S. and France are unable to provide aid to governments that came to power by a coup. It is unlikely that the security situation in Mali will experience significant positive developments in the next twelve months.

Although not as important to U.S. national security as the situations in Libya or Mali, developments in Egypt, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan will affect not only U.S. interests, but also the political realities of the Middle East and North Africa. Below are key issues in each of these countries to watch over the next year:


The stability of Egypt is in question. Egypt’s top general, Abdel Fatah al-Sissi has warned of the collapse of the state after a wave of violent protests in January[22]. This should not be viewed

…as a sign that the military would use the political crisis to unseat the Muslim Brotherhood. To the contrary, al-Sissi’s message was intended primarily for the country’s liberal opposition leaders, who were driving the protests… The military is trying to avoid a situation in which even its own forces would be unable to control the streets.[23]

Political stability is a must for the Egyptians as they are currently in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for a $4.8 billion loan. Without this loan, Egypt’s currency will devalue and will face even greater domestic instability as inflation hits. Increasing instability in Egypt translates into major lapses in security. The result would be increased proliferation of Libyan arms throughout the Middle East and increasing violence against Israel, Arab governments, and Western targets.

In the next year, the Egyptian government will continue to try to appease the disparate political groups and balance economic issues to avoid a total state collapse.


Militant groups in Nigeria are a growing problem for U.S. interests. There are two main jihadist groups operating in the country: Boko Haram, which has significant ideological and logistical ties with AQIM, and Ansaru, a militia that split off of Boko Haram. Both groups conduct regular attacks on government facilities and Christian churches, but recently Ansaru began a kidnapping campaign in Nigeria and neighboring countries[24]. An escalation of militant activities in Nigeria has severe economic and security consequences. “Because Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil producer and most populous state, instability there has significant global implications. In addition, Boko Haram’s increasing ability to expand its operations beyond its northeastern Nigeria base poses a potential threat across Africa.”[25] Despite the fact that the U.S. is less dependent on Nigerian oil exports[26], the security threat that Boko Haram and Ansaru pose to Nigerian stability are too significant for the U.S. to ignore.


The security situation in Somalia has improved over the past several years. African Union military campaigns in conjunction with U.S. covert operations have severely diminished the main al-Qaeda affiliate in the region, al-Shabaab[27]. The group has been deposed from its holdings in the south of the country and forced into hiding in the northern Puntland region[28]. Additionally, significant rifts are emerging within the group. Thus far the rifts have been personal issues “between foreign jihadists and local Shabaab forces,”[29] but this has not escalated into blood shedding. Developments in Somalia should be watched as success here will likely be viewed as a model campaign against militancy elsewhere.


There is a significant risk of a war between Sudan and South Sudan. Recently, the two sides have engaged in multiple skirmishes that revolve around several key issues. These include:

demarcation of the oil and mineral rich disputed border between the two countries, the price the South will pay the north to move southern oil through the northern pipeline to Port Sudan for shipment, surreptitious support by both governments of rebellious groups in each other’s territories, and final implementation of provisions of the two countries’ peace agreement to resolve peacefully the governance of Blue Nile Province, the Nuba Mountains, and the Abyei region.[30]

There is no apparent solution to the disputes and each country is attempting to avoid war while starving the other into submission. Significant potential exists for not just a war but a massive humanitarian crisis. The next twelve months could see a significant uptick in violence at the border and possibly a full-scale war.





















[21] HO ME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT&CTIME=2013-03-01-11-38-08