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Al-Qaida's Next Stronghold? What's At Stake In North Africa


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Over the weekend, Algerian troops stormed a gas facility in a remote area near the country's eastern border and ended a four-day standoff with Islamic militants who seized the production complex and dozens of hostages.

The number killed includes 37 foreign workers, three of them American, and 29 kidnappers. Five people are still unaccounted for. The group believed responsible for the bloody attack is one of several based in Mali, Algeria's neighbor, where the government lost control of a vast area in the northern part of the country almost a year ago.

Islamic extremists have imposed a harsh regime reminiscent of the Afghan Taliban. French and African forces rushed to intervene in central Mali this month, when Islamist forces appeared to threaten the capital, Bamako.

On Sunday, British Prime Minister David Cameron said the fight against terrorism in North Africa could go on for decades. If you have questions about what happened in Algeria and how it ties to al-Qaida and the unrest in Mali, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, we'll talk about death, life and hope in an infamous Boston neighborhood. But first Algeria, Mali and al-Qaida. We begin with Julian Barnes, Pentagon reporter for the Wall Street Journal, who joins us here in Studio 3A. Good to have you with us today.

JULIAN BARNES: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And we've heard the Algerian government's account of what happened, and we've heard from a few of the hostages that escaped. There just seems to be an awful lot we don't know.

BARNES: That's right. There was no on-the-ground presence, it seems, of U.S. or other allied forces. So we're very reliant on the Algerians. And U.S. officials all last week were expressing frustration at the lack of communication from the Algerian government on what was going on, leading to an incomplete picture.

But, you know, the rough outlines of what happened are emerging now.

CONAN: So it was an initial assault on a bus that was carrying a bunch of workers. The idea I guess was they would capture the bus, these Islamic militants, and drive it to Mali.

BARNES: That's right. I mean, it began with this attack on the bus, and then on Wednesday morning, in the pre-dawn hours, and then unfolded throughout Wednesday into a larger attack on the gas facility.

CONAN: Do we know what the intention of the attackers was?

BARNES: Well, the Algerian government says that by the end of the siege, they believe the attackers were going to blow up the entire facility. We also believe that although this was tied to the French intervention in Mali, experts have said this is clearly was - been planned for months. And so that it was probably a separate sort of attack that the organizers and masterminds of the plot sort of linked to the ongoing Mali intervention.

CONAN: So if we believe the Algerian government's version, this was a sort of suicide-type attack meant to kill as many hostages as possible, blow up the, blow up this natural gas facility, an important production complex in Algeria, I think it produces something like 12 percent of their natural gas. So that, though, is a little self-serving, and it describes the necessity to intervene quickly. Hostages who were getting killed were going to get killed anyway.

BARNES: You're correct. We've seen the British say publicly that they would have handled this differently, suggesting that they would have put more of an emphasis on negotiations. The U.S. has not been publicly critical of the Algerians, but privately officials have said similar things, that they would have handled it differently, that they - the U.S. was offering more support.

We know that they had an unmanned drone above, taking pictures, and they were feeding intelligence to the Algerians and that there is some belief among the West that they could have negotiated, drawn this out and then potentially been more surgical. Algerians say not so.

CONAN: Not so, that every action was needed to be taken just as it was. There has been a history of hostage-taking in this part of the world, in Algeria as well, where foreigners have been held for ransom; it has been paid, and everybody's been released, no harm done.

BARNES: That's right, in fact that is why al-Qaida in the Maghreb and some of these other group, militant groups that operate in the area, are currently probably among the richest al-Qaida affiliates because they've grown wealthy off kidnapping ransoms.

And so most of these scenarios have played out where negotiation was possible. Now, the scale of this attack was much different, taking over a whole gas field with lots of explosives. There is at least evidence that the Algerian account is correct, that they were going for a huge explosion, a suicide attack more so than an ordinary kidnapping.

CONAN: So that's what we believe happened. There were two separate incidents where the Algerian military intervened. As you said one on almost immediately when that bus was attempted to be hijacked, then there was an attempt after hostages were seized to drive them out of this gas complex, again presumably toward Mali.

BARNES: On Thursday there was another clash between the Algerian government forces, presumably their special forces, and then the militants. Now initially, it was described as a raid by the Algerian special forces, and people were critical of that. But some military officials I've talked to said, you know, this was - the Algerians thought that some of the militants were trying to escape with hostages, and that's why they intervened.

What it appears now is that that was the initial stages of the hostage takers moving the hostages.

CONAN: And using them also as human shields in the process.

BARNES: Absolutely.

CONAN: And some were killed, and then finally the final assault on Saturday.

BARNES: That's right, and that's - in that final assault, there were - seven hostages died. Now the Algerians say, you know, it could have been even worse and that some of these were executed. They had no choice because they were moving to blow up the facility.

CONAN: Now we've heard those killed included three Americans. Seven Americans did manage to escape. The country with the largest number killed was Japan. There were also people killed from the Philippines, from all over the world, and indeed we're told that the attacking group was multinational, as well.

BARNES: That's right. They're claiming that they had some people in the West, perhaps including a Canadian, where the Canadian government is checking that out. And so very much a - this is a global facility, and this is a terror group with global ties.

CONAN: We're talking with Julian Barnes, Pentagon reporter for the Wall Street Journal about the incident that happened in Algeria, and later we'll get onto its connections to al-Qaida and to the situation in Mali, 800-989-8255 if you have questions, email us, talk@npr.org. And we'll go to Todd, Todd's on the line with us from Florence, Kentucky.

TODD: Hi, how are you? I love your show, and I always listen.

CONAN: Thank you.

TODD: OK, your call screener said I need to be more precise because I have a lot of different points. But I guess I'll try to narrow it down to one, and it's kind of general. I guess I'm trying to understand why does it take the international community so long to respond to crises when the problems in North African have been going on for a long time.

Like, Somalia has had an interim government for 10 years because they can't control the majority of the country; only, you know, the capital Mogadishu. And like, you know, Syria, they destroyed all those, you know, ancient shrines, and they outlawed dancing and everything.

CONAN: That's in Mali you're thinking about, but...

TODD: Mali, I'm sorry, Mali, yeah.

CONAN: And Todd's point is this incident has roots that go back a long way and indeed a long way before Todd mentioned, it goes back to the Algerian civil war and indeed decades before that.

BARNES: That's right, and because of that long history, these are enormously complex situations. You have multiple groups involved, you have multiple agendas. Some of it is global terrorism. Some of it is civil war. And, you know, in the case of Algeria, you have a government that doesn't necessarily want Western involvement, Western meddling inside their country.

You saw that very much...

CONAN: They have a bitter record with colonialism.

BARNES: Absolutely, in that the sort of French colonialism in Algeria is, you know, exactly why they don't want to let French or U.K. or U.S. troops run around. And the Obama administration also has a reluctance to get involved. They want to make sure something is really the United States' fight before they send in troops or even drones.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the question, Todd.

TODD: Thank you.

CONAN: And even drones, the United States is establishing what's called AFRICACOM, that's the command structure for U.S. forces in Africa. Currently it's based in Stuttgart, Germany, reflecting I think local concerns about basing it anywhere on the continent of Africa. But nevertheless, there are more U.S. forces involved in Central and Western Africa.

BARNES: That's right. I mean, since the formation of Africa Command, there has been more of a focus. We've seen increased exercises between governments, African governments, their militaries and the United States military. Starting this year we're going to have an expanded partnership with units from an American brigade based in Fort Riley, Kansas, coming over to do training to, improve the ability of African nations to handle their own security.

CONAN: Now this area, this gas complex is in eastern Algeria, near the Libyan border. Yet this group is based in Mali. That's a long way away from there, about as far away from Mali as it is from the coastline and Algiers.

BARNES: These are huge distances that we're going, that were involved. And we - this is a huge area and very - I mean, this is the Saharan desert. It's very hard to move around. And we believe at this point that this attack was planned in Mali. But it's interesting to note that the arms that were used in this attack are, it seems, from Libya, raided from Gadhafi's stockpiles when his government fell in Libya.

CONAN: After a short break, retired Colonel Thomas Dempsey will join us to talk about the threat of terrorism more broadly in North Africa. If you have questions about what happened in Algeria, how it ties to al-Qaida and the unrest in Mali, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. We'll have more in a minute. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The four-day siege at the natural gas plant in Algeria left 37 foreign hostages dead, including three Americans. Monday, the State Department released their names. Victor Lovelady, who was 57, has been remembered as a family man who liked that his job allowed him 28 days off for every 28 days he worked. His daughter Erin told reporters he was excited about working in Algeria.

Frederick Buttaccio of Katy, Texas was 58 years old, a graduate of the University of Houston and a BP employee. His family has asked for privacy. And Gordon Lee Rowan was a petroleum engineer who spent about half the year living in the Middle East.

If you have questions about what happened in Algeria, how it ties to al-Qaeda and the unrest in Mali, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Julian Barnes, Pentagon reporter for the Wall Street Journal, is our guest. Joining us now to talk about security in North Africa more broadly is retired Colonel Thomas Dempsey, chair for security studies at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, former director of African studies at the U.S. Army War College. And Colonel Dempsey, good to have you with us.

THOMAS DEMPSEY: Thank you, it's good to be here.

CONAN: And as we look at this area, can we assume that these groups that carried out the assault in Algeria are connected with these other groups in Mali that we've been reading about?

DEMPSEY: Well, I certainly am familiar with that narrative, which primarily comes from the Algerians. I have to say I'm a bit skeptical of the connection between the attack in eastern Algeria and what's going on in Northern Mali. Perhaps there is a connection, but it's not clear to me, and I have a - kind of a healthy skepticism of that.

CONAN: Any number of groups there with any number of agendas, as we've been hearing.

DEMPSEY: Absolutely, and certainly I think the situation in Northern Mali is very different than the situation in eastern Algeria and in southern Libya. And - but I do think it's fair to say that the ungoverned space that incidents like the coup and the collapse of government in Bamako opened for extremist groups, which include AQIM, certainly appear to be rising.

And one of the things that we've learned is that if you don't address that issue, if you don't address, for example, the collapse of legitimate constitutional rule in Mali quickly, you create opportunities for groups like this to move into the vacuum created and set up operations.

CONAN: AQIM, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, one of the, I guess, franchises, like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, that we're also familiar with, too much. And the coup in - Bamako, of course, is the capital of Mali; that happened last year. And the elected government was overthrown by junior officers, and it appears to be a government in chaos at the moment.

DEMPSEY: Yeah, a month ago the transitional civilian government that was supposed to shepherd the country back to democratic rule was literally driven from power at the point of a gun by soldiers loyal to the junior officers leading the coup. And I think that failure of governance is contributing to opportunities for violent extremist groups to pursue their agendas.

CONAN: And describe Northern Mali for us. This is, as we've been hearing from Julian Barnes, the Sahel, the southern part of the Sahara, where desertification is growing.

DEMPSEY: You have an entire band across North Africa that's characterized by poverty, chronic underdevelopment, endemic violence, most of it locally rooted. And this is an area where these kind of problems abound. They're poorly governed, in ungoverned spaces where there's very little infrastructure, and AQIM is simply one of many groups that is active in this area.

And I think while I laud the French for their willingness to step up to the plate and get involved, and I think that that's a positive development, I think we need to be very, very careful about what it is we expect military action to accomplish in Northern Mali and what outcomes we're trying to realize.

It would be very easy in an area like the Sahel to actually make the violence worse if we're not careful about how we use military force.

CONAN: Email question from Keith in Tucson: Could the incidents in Algeria be related to the general conditions under which the population lives? Africans in general may be sick and tired of other marginalizing them, exploiting their natural resources, and corporations not sharing revenues with at least those in their countries. These groups are feeding off the people's discontent.

I'm not sure how many resources there are in Mali, but certainly there are a lot in Algeria.

DEMPSEY: Well, I think - this may be a little counterintuitive. One of the things we may be seeing, talking about the Algerian attack in particular, is the Arab Spring and the liberalization of political regimes in the North may be restricting the space that the violent extremists have to operate in and pushing them out, pushing them south towards ungoverned spaces in the Sahel, where they're beyond the reach of sort of the long arm of the law, and perhaps pushing them towards more autocratic regimes where the Arab Spring hasn't reached yet and where you have opposition groups that have to depend on violence because they really lack political space.

CONAN: We'll get to questions from callers in just a minute, but I wanted to ask you a logistical question. These are not huge numbers in these Islamic groups that are operating in Mali. Nevertheless, they need food, they need water, they need gasoline to drive around. Where's all that coming from?

DEMPSEY: They do, and one of the characteristics in Northern Mali is it an extraordinarily austere operating environment. The infrastructure is very poor. It's very difficult to project power there. And while the extremist groups that are operating there - and there are a lot of groups that are operating there besides AQIM - while they have the same requirements, they are used to operating in those kind of austere environments.

One of the things that I think is not adequately realized is the degree of difficulty that is going to confront any military force, whether French, African or international, that is going to attempt to move into Northern Mali and restore order and stabilize that region.

CONAN: Let's see if we get some callers in. This is Vince, and Vince on the line from Columbus.

VINCE: Yes, thanks, gentlemen, for an excellent program today. Two quick questions, then I'll get off the line. Are we seeing now the basis or grounds for an increased NATO involvement in the region? And second, what is the role, if any, of the international black market arms dealers, such as the likes of Victor Bout? Thanks very much.

CONAN: All right, I'm not sure how active he is anymore. But in any case, NATO, Julian Barnes, France is once again a full member of NATO and of course participated heavily in the Libyan operation a couple of years ago. NATO's prospects?

BARNES: This is very unlikely to become an official NATO operation like Libya was. We've seen contributions from Germany and the U.K. We have a very small, less than what the French wanted, contribution from the United States. But there's a reluctance for - as Afghanistan winds down - for NATO to start another conflict that could - that some nations fear could drag on as long as Afghanistan.

CONAN: And when you're talking about that support, it's aircraft that provide logistical capabilities rather than bomb dropping.

BARNES: That's right. We don't have any troops on the ground or any strike missions from other countries. We have cargo planes, and the French are asking for tankers as well.

CONAN: Colonel Dempsey, any activities by international arms dealers?

DEMPSEY: Well, I think - let me say that I agree with Julian. I think at this point it looks like NATO involvement, it's not likely. And I hasten to add, when I'm speaking, I'm speaking purely on my own behalf for my views. I'm not speaking for the U.S. government, obviously.

Regarding the black market, that real - raises a very, very real issue here. One of the characteristics of this area of Africa, the Sahel, is that it is home to illicit trafficking in everything imaginable, in arms, human trafficking, drug trafficking. And these illicit activities and the transnational threats they create are significant and growing.

They are another aspect of this problem set that we're confronting in Northern Mali and that I think is also an aspect of what you see in the Algerian attack. And particularly the shift of drug trafficking from South to North America, from South America to North America - now that has shifted to a real degree from South American to West Africa, moving north into Europe.

It is bringing volumes of money and illicit activity on a scale the West Africans have never seen before, and it's doing so in an environment where you have weak regimes that are ill-positioned to resist this kind of corrupting influence.

CONAN: Also in the midst of a terrible drought in many...


CONAN: Let's see if we get another caller in. This is Carl(ph), and Carl's on the line with us from Folsom, California.

CARL: Yes, good morning, gentlemen. Interesting program, thank you for having me on. I'm an electrical engineer and I've had the opportunity to work in many Islamic countries, including Indonesia, all through the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, and also spent one year at this compound in In Amenas.

I have had the opportunity over the years to talk with many Muslims and have found that a lot of their distrust and dislike are towards Westerners simply because of the imposition of regimes on their countries, the propping up of leaders that call themselves Muslims but are actually puppets of regimes, Algeria in particular. You know, they had a vote there many years, but I think it's been over 20 years ago. Over 90 percent of the population voted for an Islamic ruler.

The French I assume didn't like that. Then as a consequence, over 200,000 people died. Again, many of the folks that I talk with, Muslim folks that I talk with see that's kind of like a fourth or fifth crusade against their nation. So I'd like to know what you folks think of that. Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Well, Colonel Dempsey, can France be fairly blamed for the Algerian civil war?

DEMPSEY: Actually, well, we're not - we're talking about apples and oranges there. The incident the caller is referring to was not actually the French. It was the Algerian military that perpetrated a coup, and it does have relevance because AQIM is actually a derivative of the old Groupe Salafiste pour la Predication et le Combat, which is an Islamic extremist group that was spawned by that coup and resisted...

CONAN: And he's also right. There was an election, looked like...

DEMPSEY: There was indeed.

CONAN: ...(unintelligible)was going to win the election and...

DEMPSEY: The Islamic Salvation Front won the election. The military overturned that, and that generated a plethora of violent opposition groups that tried to overturn the military coup in turn by force of arms, one of which was this group that eventually evolved into the AQIM. But I think the caller touches an important point. There's an argument out there, which I confess having a lot of sympathy with, that the best way to deal with violent extremism of the sort that you see in al-Qaida is liberalization of political regimes, promotion of democracy and creation of environments where the people don't feel like they have to blow up buildings.

They can go to the ballot box and pursue their agendas. I think there's a very strong argument to be made that one of the reasons that terrorists are resorting to actions like we saw in eastern Algeria is because liberalization, for example, in Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power and offering a path through legitimate democracy, the Salafists is narrowing the space that does extremists have to operate in.

CONAN: Retired Colonel Thomas Dempsey, chair of security studies at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. He's here speaking for himself. And also with us, Julian Barnes, Pentagon reporter for The Wall Street Journal. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And this email question from Freid(ph) in Canton, Michigan: Who are the attackers? What's their endgame? Do they just seek to create crisis for Algeria, or do they have a revolutionary objective or other political aim? Julian Barnes, at least according to the Algerian government, this was a threat, direct threat against the state.

BARNES: That's right. That's what the Algerians say. I mean the gentleman Mokhtar Belmokhtar who's been accused of - who've claimed credit for masterminding this is a former member of AQIM who was born from - came to prominence out of the Algerian - the fighting in Algeria in the '90s and - but he broke with AQIM in the last year, and he's - but he has ties to other groups in Mali and is also, you know, has - before this has been known as much as a smuggler as a terrorist.

CONAN: Let's see - we go next to - this is Maggie(ph). Excuse me. If I can get this on, Maggie. Maggie with us from Milton, Massachusetts.

MAGGIE: Thank you very much for a wonderful show. I am calling because I'm really concerned about the situation in Mali turning into a situation very similar to what we have seen in Rwanda 10 years ago. We know that there is a French involvement. We also know that the - our nations becoming more and more connected. But each time when it comes to Africa, the responses are always extremely slow until there are thousands of dead, if not millions of dead. And I'm also concerned that there seems to be the deaf ear from many West African countries, such as Senegal, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, all those countries surrounding Mali are already alert, yet they do not have the capacity nor the means to go and help.

And in the meantime, we have France, the United States and all the more powerful countries are standing by and playing the slow game, playing the deaf ear while millions of Malians are actually panicking, panicking and panicking. It's time to intervene. I don't think...

CONAN: Maggie, I hear your point. I just wanted to give us a chance to respond, OK?

MAGGIE: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Thank you very much for the call. And, Colonel Dempsey, let me turn to you. Is this analogous - give us some idea of the ethnic makeup in Northern Mali where people are living under a regime that some have compared to the Taliban before 9/11.

DEMPSEY: I'm - well, I'm not sure that's accurate. I'm not sure the people in Northern Mali are living under any regime at all. I think the best way to describe the situation in Northern Mali right now is probably chaos, and you have a plethora of armed troops there. You have a mosaic of different ethnic groups. You have different political groupings. The Tuaregs, everybody talks about the Tuaregs, but they're not a minority even in the - they're not a major even in the north.

So you have this patchwork of different groups desperately trying to survive in a difficult environment with dwindling resources, rising tide of violence, a government that is gone. It is essentially decamped. It's either collapsed or fled. So this is a - and I have to say I have a certain sympathy for the listener's perspective. There is a real possibility here for the violence to spiral out of control. And I think if we're not careful, for example, encouraging groups to take up arms against each other in the north, I don't think would be useful, although it may be tempting in the short term if you're limited in the amount of military strength that you could put on the ground.

CONAN: And, Julian Barnes, briefly, ECOWAS, which is the regional grouping of West African nations, headed I guess the biggest brother is Nigeria, has sent about 1,000 men into Mali. They're said to be poorly trained. And if there's going to be an operation to push these various groups out of the north, it's going to be a very long-run thing.

BARNES: That's right. I mean what - from the French perspective, what they were trying to do is buy time for the ECOWAS forces. They're going to need training. They're going to need equipment. They weren't ready from day one to go and support the Mali government. And so what the French are trying to do is push back the militant groups in time for the Africans to be ready.

CONAN: And we'll keep track of those events as the situation unfolds in Central Mali and again in Northern Mali. Gentlemen, thank you very much for your time today.

BARNES: Thank you.

CONAN: Retired Colonel Thomas Dempsey and Julian Barnes of The Wall Street Journal. When we come back, we'll narrow focus from a continent to a neighborhood, with two Boston Globe reporters who embedded in that city's most dangerous neighborhood to tell us what they learned about violence, about community, after a short break. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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