The Starbucks View of Al-Qaida 152

The United States has set up its first Sahelian drone base, in Niger, in order to carry on the war against “Al-Qaedah in the Islamic Maghreb”. The problem is that there is no such thing as “Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb”. The US seems to confuse Al-Qaeda with Starbucks. Al-Qaeda does not have branches everywhere, a highly organised supply chain, and transfer pricing.

It is true that long standing ethnic militias in the Maghreb have adopted the styles and terminology of radical Islam, and have tenuous and occasional links with other radical islamic leaderships. But their income and supplies come from unrelated activities – chiefly extortion and smuggling – which have been going on since before al-Qaeda existed. These groups are disparate. There is no connection between the group which took western oil workers hostage in Algeria, and the Tuareg based militias who contolled Timbuktu. Indeed the Mali islamists had a close and cooperative relationship with the Algerian security services, and in their desert wanderings before the disintegration of central authority in Mali, were frequently refuelled and resupplied inside Algeria from government depots.

As usual in Africa, the base of these problems is poverty and competition for scarce resources between competing groups, all complicated by the legacy of colonialism. Hatred of the United States has not been a strong motivator in the Maghreb. But now the United States is about to introduce the concept of weekly drone kills and collateral murders, it will be. The USA is going to create the kind of anti-American unity which does not exist at present, and yet it claims to be fighting. Which will, of course, please the politicians’ paymasters in the arms and security industries just fine.

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