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Peter Lucier

AQIM - As little as possible

Peter Lucier

Jan 24 2016


What did you do in Chinatown? –


As little as possible.


Chinatown, 1974


Former cop turned private eye Jake Gettes, when asked what he did in during his time in Chinatown, responds, “as little as possible.” Gettes didn’t speak the language of the immigrants whose streets he patrolled. In 1930’s Los Angeles there were shifting alliances among immigrants, locals, gangs, businesses, and neighbors. It was a complex, layered world, and any action taken by an officer could have far reaching and unintended consequences.



As a veteran, I’m often asked by well-meaning persons about, “what it’s like over there” or what I think of “the situation” Often, too often, I duck and evade with platitudes and clichés. But if I’ve drank too much, or if my tongue is feeling loose, I like to tell this story, about Jake Gettes. There are too many layers, there is too much history, in those places of the world. Those who seek quick and cathartic answers will find them, on cable news networks and angrily written blogs. But, to even begin to understand “the situation” I think you have to start by putting on the shoes of Jakes Gettes. Only empty of pretension, and with an eye to narrative, lore, myth, history, ethnicity, tribalism, and nationalism, can I begin to try to peel back the layers of complexity, and understand. Even then, I can deceive myself, so I try to remember and believe, “as little as possible.”



Earlier this week, gunmen stormed a hotel in Burkina Faso, killing nearly thirty people, mostly foreigners. An al-Qaeda “franchise” claimed responsibility for the attack – al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM.) The brutal attacks were the first by AQIM inside the nation of Burkina Faso.



Details about the attack are still emerging. But AQIM making headlines is a good time to examine the group, in context, and the developing picture of terrorism in Africa.



AQIM has its origins in Algeria, which was under French rule until it won its independence in a brutal civil war lasting from 1954 until an accord with France granted independence in 1962. David Galula, a French officer, commanded a company in the war. Galula witnessed the Chinese Communist Revolution, even being taken prisoner by Chinese rebels. He was involved at the UN during the Greek Civil War. He studied the Indochina revolution while in the Philippines.



Galula’s company’s actions were considered successful in their area of operations in Algeria. He wrote two books of theory on counterinsurgency (COIN) after the war, based on his studies and experiences. Those works form much of the basis for, and are widely quoted in, the US COIN doctrine adopted in Iraq and Afghanistan. History reverberates, in even the most unexpected places.



The Algerian Revolution was sanguineous, and fratricidal. Millions were displaced. Many of European descent fled. Atrocities and massacres answered each other, from both sides. The government elected after the war was quickly challenged by a faction that fought in the revolution. In the quelling, the military also overthrew the president. From its beginning as an independent country, Algerian politics were marked by military action, separatist factions, and Islamism.



Military rule continued in Algeria until 1991, when elections were held. The party that had fought in the revolution, and been the front for the military government for decades, the National Liberation Front (FLN) was posed to be swept by the Islamic Salvation Front, (FIS) an Islamist populist party, promoting Sharia law, and liberal economic reforms. The ruling party intervened, canceled the elections, and banned the FIS. There are parallels to Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood today: a ruling, authoritarian party removed by popular demand, and an Islamist group voted in, and tumult following.



Three factions emerged in the civil war that broke out after the elections were negated. The FLN ruling party, the AIS – a faction loyal to the FIS, and the GIA, a more hard line Islamist group. All three battled each other. Like the civil war in the 50’s an 60’s, the fighting was “dirty.” There were horrific massacres of civilians in villages, blamed on both the GIA and the government. The GIA and the AIS fought each other.



In 1997, the AIS declared a unilateral truce with the government. Under the terms of negotiations, many fighters, from both the AIS and the GIA, were granted amnesty. The GIA found itself split. A faction condemned the massacres the GIA had committed against fellow Muslims, and broke off into the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC.)



The GIA and AIS were degraded by attrition from amnesty, or destroyed by government forces, but the GSPC continued to operate. Today we know the GSPC by a different name. In 2007 the pledged allegiance to a trans-national group, and changed their name to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. GSPC began as a group with nationalist aims, and as a group opposed to massacre of civilians. They used violence, but it was targeted political assassinations, or actions against government forces.



I end here. The attacks last week show that something has changed. My goal is not to build sympathy for the GSPC, or AQIM. I don’t believe that to understand all is to forgive all. But in geo-politics, just as in Chinatown, simple narrative will not do. It is necessary to ask, “how things came to be this way” a question that defies simple understandings.  And if you hear an argument, about what we ought to be doing, “over there” unless they are Colin Powell, or James Staavridis, remember Jake Gettes, and “as little as possible.”



©Brainbust Media Group, LLC 2016