Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s group Al Mulathameen (translated by the New York Times as “The Brigade of the Masked Ones”) kidnapped more than forty international workers from the Algerian natural gas field, ln Amenas, which lies along the middle of Algeria’s eastern border with Libya. The attack was ostensibly in retaliation for French intervention in Mali, and specifically, the Algerian government’s decision to allow French military planes through their air space en route to Mali. And that seems to be the assumption of much of the Western press commentary.
But we should be cautious about uncritically swallowing the claim that the kidnapping was politically motivated. Belmokhtar is “Mr. Marlboro,” the chieftain of a highly successful smuggling ring. We should consider that his motives included the criminal. Belmokhtar is legendary in Algeria for his ability to avoid arrest. He also had a falling out with AQIM some time ago.
Western response to the situation in Mali since last weekend highlights the dearth of information and understanding about the Sahel. Hence, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s September 2012, paper “Organized Crime and Conflict in the Sahel-Sahara Region” is a must-read. Wolfram Lacher, the author, is a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. Written before the present round of the crisis, it is extraordinarily prescient. Among many other things, he shows that Mali’s last “democratic” government’s “…complicity with organized crime was the main factor enabling AQIM growth and a driver of conflict in the north of the country.” The military coup of March 2012, did not end this: “actors involved in organized crime currently wield decisive political and military influence in northern Mali.” It becomes very hard to differentiate between “good guys” and “bad guys,” between terrorists, criminals, and elements of governance.
Indeed, on Mali, there is probably too much emphasis on Islam and “al-Qaeda-linked terrorism” (whatever that means) and not enough on organized crime.