BRUSSELS – No one is safe: Iraq is hell even for Sunni Arab diplomats. On July 21, the head of the Algerian mission, Ali Belaroussi, who had been stationed in Iraq for two years, and diplomat Azzedine Belkadi were kidnapped in the Mansour neighborhood in Baghdad at gunpoint. This Wednesday, al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers claimed on an Islamic website that the captives had been executed because their government “is ruling in violation of God’s will”.
What does this really mean? In 2003, President Abdulaziz Bouteflika’s government forcefully condemned the United States’ “dirty war”. The Algerians were officially in favor of an end of the occupation and “the control by the Iraqi people of its natural resources”.
But this is not enough to spare Algeria from al-Qaeda’s terror. The reason: the US military presence in northern Africa, and its military aid to Algeria.
In June, for example, under the supervision of the American command in Europe (EUCOM), joint military exercises took place across five Saharan states, including Mauritania and Algeria. According to Middle East Online, the exercises – known as Operation Flintlock 2005 – included training in general marksmanship, orienteering and communications. More than 800 US troops took part. This was the first step in a broader five-year, US$500 million US plan to improve the capacities of African militaries in the context of Washington’s “war against terror”.
Subsequently, commanders from Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Algeria met with their US counterparts in the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott in mid-July for a strategic planning session, which news reports said could lead to a regional headquarters for the Saharan anti-terror fight.
In addition, the US has already secretly established a “huge military surveillance base” in the Algerian city of Tamanrassat, according to George al-Rassi, a retired Sorbonne professor and an expert in North African affairs, in an interview in June 2004 with the Lebanon-based Daily Star. Neither Algeria nor Washington acknowledges this base, although there were reports last year that discussions on its establishment were under way .
In January 2002, Algeria began hosting US naval ships and the two countries have conducted joint anti-submarine warfare maneuvers. In December of the same year, Washington announced it would abandon its 10-year-old arms embargo on Algeria.
Last year, then-US assistant secretary of state William Burns said the Bush administration had provided Algeria with $700,000 for the year for military equipment and training of security forces. The request for 2006 is $750,000 – an increase of more than 1,000% in four years.
According to the World Policy Institute, “All signs point towards more military aid in the future. As the State Department explains in its Congressional Presentation, Algeria ‘has demonstrated it is an important partner in the global war against terrorism; it remains in the US interest to help the Algerian military increase its professionalism, effectiveness and improve its interoperability with the US and other allied forces. The threat of terrorism from internal Algerian extremist groups and those with ties to international terrorist organizations continues to plague Algeria and threaten US interests in the region’.”
The institute added, however, that, “Despite this warming trend, Algerian access to US weaponry remains limited. All US weapons transfers are decided on a case-by-case basis. In recent years, only non-lethal systems, such as radios, global positioning systems, night vision equipment and sensors have been transferred.”
Rear Admiral Hamlin Tallent of EUCOM has warned that “creeping advances” by Algeria’s hardline Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat into neighboring countries poses the greatest security threat to northwest Africa.
Borders in northern Africa are extremely porous or non-existent, in the middle of the desert, and the US clearly fears the jihadi agenda may be seductive for the poor and downtrodden living in the impoverished, mostly Muslim countries, some ruled by corrupt elites, of the region. These countries include Algeria, Mauritania, Mali, Senegal, Chad, Niger and Nigeria.
As far as al-Qaeda is concerned, the meaning of “in violation of God’s will” is the fact that a Muslim country collaborates with the US military – not to mention the military aid delivered by Washington to Algeria.
EU counter-terrorism analysts, faced with the execution of the two diplomats in Iraq, are now adding Algeria to a long list that includes Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Emirates – regimes that the al-Qaeda nebula is set on destabilizing.