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Meanwhile in Africa: A secret nuclear facility in Algeria and a looming jihadist threat in northern Mali

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The Army’s arrest and forced resignation of Malian Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra (announced in a 04.00 am televised broadcast from Bamako on Tuesday, Dec. 11) and the appointment by President Amadou Toumani Touré of a new Prime Minister — former Administrator of the Presidential Palace Django Sissoko — did nothing to allay fears that the Republic of Mali was slipping further into dysfunction, without addressing the growing consolidation of control by jihadist groups in the country’s north.

The El Salam nuclear reactor.

But regional actors are also inhibiting a resolution of the situation under the guidance of the United Nations or the African Union. The Algerian Government, in particular, was quietly — and seemingly successfully — pressuring the U.S. to avoid a significant military intervention into the dispute, ostensibly to avoid a costly war in the region. In any event, Washington sources confirmed that the U.S. and the European Union (EU) were keen to avoid a deployment of U.S. or European troops, largely because their forces were already over-committed because of the Afghanistan war and for budgetary reasons.

The primary reason for Algiers’ strenuous efforts to play down the crisis, however, according to very senior GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs sources in Algiers, was that the Government of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika wanted to avoid any prospect of foreign interest in Algeria’s secret nuclear weapons program, which is located near Algeria’s southern border with Mali. The facility is south of Tamanrasset where the French, in colonial times, had conducted nuclear tests. There are also, among other things, uranium deposits in the region. Tamanrasset is the capital of Tamanrasset Province in southern Algeria, in the Ahaggar Mountains, but, significantly, it is also the chief city of the Algerian Tuareg.

Indeed, the Algerian Government is seriously concerned that the conflict already underway in Mali could spur nascent claims by the nomadic Tuareg peoples for a separate homeland, possibly carved out of Algeria, Mali, Niger, and Mauritania, but it would specifically target the area of Algeria’s main nuclear weapons work. Tuareg peoples make up only some five percent of the Malian population, but are focused in the sparsely-populated north where disaffection against the Malian Central Government has, in recent years, enabled them to be courted by local and foreign Islamist/jihadist movements.

While the nuclear weapons research is conducted in an isolated region of Algeria’s south, the country’s el-Salam (“Peace”) 15 MW thermal heavy water moderated nuclear reactor (which began operation in 1993) is in Aïn Oussera, in Djelfa Province (lat. 35° 27′ 5N; long. 2° 54′ 21E), in the northern part of Algeria. It is a PRC-built reactor with military/weapons development capacity. Algeria is still storing there Iraqi nuclear equipment and radioactive materials, including Iraq’s military-grade uranium originally supplied by France.

With regard to the Tuareg issue, as far as Algeria is concerned, it was important to note that the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) recently resiled somewhat from its declaration of independence of the north of Mali.

Meanwhile, as the situation in the capital appeared to move further into stagnation (leaving northern unrest unaddressed), there were concerns that the one significant initiative to address the problems, the United Nations appointment on Oct. 6,  of former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi as the UN General Secretary’s Special Envoy for the Sahel, with particular emphasis on the Mali conflict. Sources in the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, and in the Abuja headquarters of ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States), however, have separately indicated concern that the Prodi mission had — two months into its work — failed to make real headway in meeting with African officials and understanding the dimensions of the Mali crisis.

At the same time, the domination of the Malian north by the jihadist movements — particularly Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Ansar al-Dine — as well as former Qadhafi Administration fighters and their weapons from Libya — has provided a meaningful safe haven for Boko Haram combatants from Nigeria.

Nigerian officials believe that containment of Boko Haram cannot be achieved solely by addressing the jihadist group’s activities inside Nigeria, but must see a containment of Boko Haram and its strategic partner, AQIM (in particular), in northern Mali. The continued functioning of Boko Haram in Nigeria has now reached a point where it seriously jeopardizes foreign investment in the country, and therefore is seriously destablizing Nigeria as a whole. Nigeria lacks the political will and the budget to take the lead, however, in organizing a regional force through ECOWAS or the African Union to contain the Malian crisis. President Goodluck Jonathan has apparently been ready to take the steps necessary to grasp the Boko Haram issue inside Nigeria and in Mali, but has been constrained strenuously by his close team of advisors from the President’s home state, Bayelsa.

Interestingly, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo recently put himself forward to lead an AU team to address the Malian problem, but was discreetly rebuffed because it was felt that he lacked the skills needed for the task, especially in light of the fact that another former head-of-government, Italian Prime Minister Prodi, had proven to have insufficient energy and vision for the task given to him by the UN Secretary-General.

In all of this, all the multi-national bodies who have expressed strenuous concern for the growing focus of Islamist global jihadism in Mali — as the base for global operations — have also indicated that they lack funds and manpower in the current economic/political climate to address the Mali crisis. This, in effect, has been giving AQIM and others a free pass to consolidate and grow without interference. Some senior African officials indicate that the onus is very much on the Western powers to help finance and provide logistical support for an African intervention force, given that AQIM and other jihadist movements have moved to Mali simply because they have been pushed out of Afghanistan and (to a degree) Somalia by Coalition operations in those countries.

At present, the UN is the only major body to have taken at least some action on Mali, with the appointment of the Prodi mission. Among African institutions — presently concerned but paralyzed by political and economic issues — there has been a growing sense of urgency that the AU, supported by ECOWAS, needed to take a coordinating role in the complex process. AU Chair Dr Thomas Yayo Boni, President of Benin, is highly conscious, too, of the need to move quickly on this challenge, particularly before the end of his one-year tenure in the AU leadership.

Given the size of northern Mali, it is estimated that a force of at least 4,000 troops — along with logistical support, a military hospital, and airpower (including helicopter gunships) — would be needed, even for a campaign geared to stabilizing the region rather than engaging in constant kinetic warfare.

The U.S., which still derives some 25 percent of its energy imports from the Gulf of Guinea (and is therefore exposed to the Boko Haram disruption of Nigeria), has become focussed on the Mali crisis, but has yet to find funding for any remedial action in Mali. In any event, U.S. Defense funding was, by late 2012, facing severe decline and political “war fatigue”. At the same time, the U.S. State Department was preparing for significant leadership change, with the imminent retirement of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Assistant Secretary of State at the Bureau of African Affairs Johnnie Carson. It was expected that Gail Smith, a former Clinton Administration deputy to current U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, would be nominated to replace Carson.

Assistant Sec. Carson on Dec. 5, testified before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Sub-Committee on African Affairs, on the Mali crisis. His testimony, given less than a week before the removal of the Malian Prime Minister by the Army, appears below. Significantly, and further compounding the problem for the Malian Army, was the fact that ousted Prime Minister Diarra, 60, now under house arrest, was a U.S.  astrophysicist with NASA, and he had participated in a number of space exploration missions including the Magellan probe to Venus and the Galileo spacecraft to Jupiter. The manner in which the Army of Mali — which has proven totally incapable of addressing the northern security situation — removed and humiliated Diarra could well shape how Washington responds to the situation.

Indeed, the incident could well drive the U.S. to support moves which are inimical to Mali, including strengthening the appeal by Algeria to oppose conflict resolution or peacekeeping activities which would involve a focus on the Malian north. Significantly, as well, this is an area in which U.S. Army Special Forces teams have considerable experience in counter-terrorism operations. U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) troops engaged in Mali, however, felt that their Malian counterparts were insufficiently focused on “who the enemy was” in the north.

The Malian Army’s actions against Prime Minister Diarra have done nothing to assist the process of enlisting U.S. support — either unilaterally or via the UN (where the possible next U.S. Secretary of State, Susan Rice, is Ambassador) — in financing or supporting a resolution of the jihadi problem in the north.

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