Islamist rebel Abdel Hakim Belhadj
By James M. Dorsey
Diplomatic tensions between Algeria and Qatar over the Gulf state’s support for NATO-backed Libyan rebels are spilling onto the soccer field.
As part of a litany of alleged anti-Algerian moves by Qatar, Algerian media are accusing the Gulf state’s sovereign wealth fund, the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), of seeking to undermine Algeria’s soccer prospects by offering Algerian players in Europe large sums of money and Qatari citizenship if they move to its national team. The media have not identified specific instances and no Algerian player has recently packed up his bags and moved to Qatar.
Qatar, which will host the 2022 World Cup, was several years ago slapped on its fingers by world soccer body FIFA for trying to lure Latin American players with promises of money and citizenship. FIFA has since tightened the rules governing the acquisition of foreigners for national teams. The Algerian media charge that the approach to the country’s soccer players is part of a Qatari effort to damage the Algerian economy by buying strategic Algerian assets.
In response to the allegations, Qatar has reportedly stopped issuing visas to Algerians.
Algeria charges that Qatari financial and material support of the rebel Libyan Transition National Council (TNC), which has effectively replaced Colonel Moammar Qaddafi as the troubled country’s sole legal authority involves aiding Al Qaeda’s North African franchise, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Qatar is “funnelling hundreds of millions of dollars to fund and fuel the TNC and its various branches, including the army of Al Qaeda,” said an Algerian newspaper editorial.
Relations between Algeria and the Libyan rebels are fraught. Rebel officials have accused Algeria of backing Mr. Qaddafi in the country's civil war, an allegation Algeria has denied. Algerian officials, despite Arab League recognition of the TNC, say they will not recognize the Libyan rebels as the new leadership of its neighbour until they have received a strong commitment that the new government will fight AQIM.
Algeria is still emerging from a conflict with Islamist militants which killed an estimated 200,000 people at its peak in the 1990s. Its government is concerned that chaos in Libya could be exploited by al Qaeda. An AQIM suicide bomber killed 18 Algerian soldiers this weekend in an attack on a military facility.
Algeria asserts that it has evidence that Libyan militants it had handed over to Mr. Qaddafi's government are now at large in Libya and some have joined the insurgents.
"There is proof that Libyan Islamists who were delivered by Algeria to Tripoli have managed to flee and join the rebels. We even saw one of them on Al Jazeera television, speaking in the name of the TNC. We want to be certain that the new rulers in Libya are involved in the fight against al Qaeda in our region -- this is key for good relations," a government official told Reuters news agency.
Algeria has also asserted that AQIM has gained access to Libyan weapons arsenals.
The TNC has rejected assertions that it has been infiltrated by al Qaeda or other Islamist militants.
The Algerian assertions have gained currency with reports that a senior Islamist guerrilla with past ties to Al Qaeda and its late leader, Osama Bin Laden, has helped the rebels capture the Libyan capital of Tripoli. The Islamist, Abdel Hakim Belhadj,a leader of Libyan Islamic Movement for Change, was a leader of the now defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).
Founded in Afghanistan, the LIFG broke with Al Qaeda in the 1990s, opting to fight Mr. Qaddafi’s regime in Libya rather than wage global jihad. Many of its fighters were killed in battles with Mr. Qaddafi’s forces while many others landed in prison. LIFG fighters who were either released from jail before the anti-Qaddafi revolt or escaped during the uprising joined the TNC-led insurgency. Mr. Belhadj was among the Islamists released last year under a rehabilitation program headed by Mr. Qaddafi’s son, Saif al Islam.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.