North Africa Theater

Media confusion on passing of Polisario leader

The passing last week of Mohammed Abdelaziz, longtime leader of Western Sahara's Polisario Front, occasioned confusion in media coverage as to the difference between Arabs and Berbers—which is fast becoming a critical issue in the contest over the Moroccan-occupied territory. Most embarrassingly, the New York Times writes: "The Polisario Front was formed in the early 1970s by a group of Sahrawis, indigenous nomadic Berber tribesmen, in opposition to Spain's colonial presence in Western Sahara. When Spain withdrew from the region in 1975, the Sahrawis fought attempts by both Mauritania and Morocco to claim the territory." The Sahrawis are not Berbers. They are Bedouin Arabs who arrived from across the Sahara centuries ago. The Berbers are the actual indigenous people of North Africa, who had been there for many more centuries before that. Ironically, the Times goes on to state: "He was selected as secretary general [of Polisario] in 1976 after the death in combat of the front's military leader, Al Ouali Mustapha Erraqibi. Later that year, he was elected president of the self-declared Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic." 

What 'government' is West really backing in Libya?

At a summit in Vienna this week, world powers agreed to supply arms to Libya to fight ISIS, and to seek an exemption from the UN arms embargo on the country. But few media accounts are emphasizing that Libya now has three rival governments (not counting ISIS and various militia-controlled enclaves), and the "recognized" one is by far the weakest. Attending the summit was Fayez al-Sarraj, prime minister of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). An official statement said: "The GNA is the sole legitimate recipient of international security assistance and is charged with preserving and protecting Libya's resources for the benefit of all its people." (Anadolu Agency, EuroNews) A sobering analysis in the Times of Oman, "Libyan quagmire to inevitably continue," calls the GNA "a 'Potemkin Village' lie of epic proportions," noting that it consists of a handful of men ensconced in a naval base outside Tripoli, controlling no territory and commanding no troops. The closest thing to an army it has is "an assortment of militias of varying shades of extremist" that have announced a tenuous recognition of its authority, mostly in Tripoli and Misrata.

Algeria: protests commemorate 'Berber Spring'

Tizi Ouzou, principal city in Algeria's restive Kabylia region, saw two mass mobilizations April 20 to commemorate the 1980 "Berber Spring" uprising. One, organized by the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RDC), pressed demands for official recognition of the Amazigh language in Algeria's constitution. But the second, led by the Kabylia Self-Determination Movement (MAK), called for the region's actual independence from Algeria. Each drew thousands, and several arrests were reported. Amazigh was recognized as a "national language" in a 2002 constitutional reform, and second reform earlier this year upgraded it to "official" status, meaning it can be used in government functions. However, Berber activists say that even the new reform maintains Amazigh in a subsidiary position to Arabic.

Libya sees explosive growth of ISIS

ISIS forces in Libya have doubled over the past year, now reaching up to 6,000 fighters, Gen. David M. Rodriguez, head of US Africa Command, told a news briefing in Washington April 7. But he emphasized that local militias "are contesting the growth of ISIS in several areas across Libya." (Reuters, April 7) He did not mention that many of those militias fighting ISIS are themselves jihadist, and loyal to rival Qaeda-linked factions. Additionally, the rate of growth may be significantly low-balled, if we go by Gen. Rodriguez's own prior statements. Just over a year ago, he characterized the ISIS presence in Libya as "very small and nascent," with "around a couple hundred" militants.

ISIS attacks Tunisia in cross-border raid

In a surprise dawn raid March 7, ISIS attacked National Guard, army and police barracks in Ben Guerdane, the first Tunisian town west of the border with Libya. At least 53 people were killed in the figting, including several civilians. The dead included a 12-year-old girl. "Our country is at war against barbarism," said Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi. "This is an unprecedented attack, planned and organized. Its goal was probably to take control of this area and to announce a new emirate." The attack was repulsed, but a curfew has been imposed in Ben Gardane and the border with Libya is closed until further notice. (AP, Libya Observer, ANSA, Al Jazeera, March 7)

UN pressed on North Africa's colonized peoples

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, on a tour of North Africa, on March 5 visited the sprawling refugee camps at Tindouf in the Algerian desert, where nearly 200,000 Sahrawi Arabs displaced from Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara have for more then four decades been exiled. Ban called the Tindouf refugee camps "among the oldest in the world," and called on the parties involved in the Western Sahara conflict to end the "unacceptable" plight of the Sahrawi. Ban meet with refugees and their representatives at Smara Camp, and later with leaders of the Polisario Front, which seeks independence for Western Sahara, including the group's secretary general Mohamed Abdelaziz. Ban also visited the headquarters of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) in Laayoune, Western Sahara's capital. The UN-mandated referendum on the territory's status has been stalled for over 20 years, with Morocco and the Polisario Front unable to come to terms (Jurist, AFP, March 6)

Britain prepares Libya intervention

The UK will be sending troops to Tunisia to help prevent ISIS fighters from entering the country from Libya, British Defense Minister Michael Fallon said March 1. "A training team of some 20 troops from the 4th Infantry Brigade is now moving to Tunisia to help to counter illegal cross-border movement from Libya in support of the Tunisian authorities," Fallon told Parliament. Using the Arabic acronym for ISIS, he added: "I am extremely concerned about the proliferation of Daesh along the Libyan coastline, which is why we have been urgently assisting the formation of a new Libyan government." Implicitly invoking deployment of ground forces in Libya, he said: "Before taking any military action in Libya, we would seek an invitation from the new Libyan government." (MEM, March 2)

ICC hears first case on cultural crimes

The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague opened the confirmation of charges against Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi for destruction of religious and cultural heritage on March 1. The charges levied against al-Faqi, an alleged member of Islamic terrorist group, Ansar Dine (BBC backgrounder), and an important figure in the jihadist occupation of Timbuktu, signal what appears to be the first-ever war crimes trial addressing attacks against cultural heritage. Specifically, the charges (PDF) state that al-Faqi is criminally responsible, either himself or through his assistance, for "intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion and/or historical monuments in Timbuktu," including nine mausoleums and the Sidi Yahia Mosque

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