France has commandos and reconnaissance forces (aircraft, intel specialists) in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, to help in the search for five Frenchmen kidnapped by al Qaeda last month in Niger. The captives are believed to be held in Mali, and France is trying to work out deals with local Tuareg tribesmen to locate and free the captives. This much French military force on Algeria's southern border is annoying to Algeria, but seen as politically essential to France, which must demonstrate that it can protect its citizens working in the region.
Algeria is proud of their victory over an Islamic rebellion, even though diehard extremists continue to operate. It's been five years since the peace and amnesty deal with terrorists went into effect in Algeria. Since then, over 7,500 Islamic terrorists accepted the amnesty and surrendered, and nearly 1,300 who continued to fight, were killed. The Islamic radical groups appeared to be on their way to extinction, when they were rescued by a shift in cocaine distribution networks (from the North Atlantic to West Africa and overland to the Mediterranean coast). The new route provided al Qaeda with a lucrative opportunity to earn cash guarding the drug shipments, and get close to smugglers in the region. This provided contacts and access to illegal weapons. West Africa has become a new playground for the Islamic terrorists, and that enables them to keep operations going further to the north in Algeria.
October 6, 2010: The president of Russia visited Algeria and signed six, largely minor, agreements. Algeria is buying more of its military gear from Russia, and allowing Russian firms to invest in developing Algerian oil and gas deposits.
October 2, 2010: East of the capital, Islamic terrorists used a roadside bomb to kill five soldiers and wound ten. Troops continue to scour the coastal mountains, extending several hundred kilometers east of the capital, for small groups of Islamic radicals.
September 30, 2010: Senior intelligence officials from Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Algeria met in Algeria and worked out a deal to set up a joint anti-terrorism intelligence center in Algeria. Here, intel on terrorists from all four nations would be pooled, analyzed and shared. Command of the center would rotate among the four nations. Last March, Algeria hosted counter-terrorism officials from Burkina Faso, Chad, Libya, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, but was only able to get vague promises that everyone would "coordinate."
The four nations running the new intel center would like more help from Western nations, particularly the United States. But because of the corruption in these African nations, you have to be careful what you give them, lest it end up on the intel black market. The susceptibility to bribes also means that the African intel agencies can be breached by al Qaeda itself. The African intel agencies don't like to discuss the corruption problem, and publicly deny that it exists. But it does. This corruption issue is at the heart of a struggle between France and Algeria for leadership of anti-terrorism efforts in the region. The French have better resources, but the Algerians are local. Then again, the Algerians have an ancient reputation for treating their southern (more African and less Arab) neighbors badly, and this still causes tension.
The four nations are also cutting deals with the tribes along the smuggling routes, and the smugglers themselves, to obtain information on the Islamic terrorists. This is a tricky business, because the smugglers, who have long moved cigarettes, drugs and other heavily taxed, but portable, items across borders, are now caught between local police and heavily armed al Qaeda. But the Islamic radicals are seen as just another gang, or bunch of gangs, by the tribesmen. Al Qaeda has already started to annoy the tribes with their religious righteousness and ruthless attitudes. The tribesmen make good money for helping to move the cocaine north, but the al Qaeda fanatics are making themselves unwelcome.
September 29, 2010: Al Qaeda released a video showing the five Frenchmen they had kidnapped in Niger last month. The Islamic terror group wants a large ransom, but if that is paid, the group can carry out even more attacks and kidnappings. Meanwhile, there is enormous media pressure in France to get the five men released any way possible.