U.S.–Algerian cooperation on the war on terror started shortly after September 11, 2001. Algeria was one of the first countries to condemn the 9/11 attacks on American soil. This quick reaction was not merely a diplomatic show of sympathy―it had deep roots. First, Algeria’s position was deeply felt, stemming from its decade-long experience with domestic terrorism, which claimed the lives of over 200,000 people and caused collateral damage exceeding $30 billion. Terrorist groups targeted both state and society—Algerian civilians, security personnel, academics, artists, journalists, politicians, Imams, Christian missionaries, foreigners, and even babies. Second, and as a result of its experience, Algeria had been calling for years for an effort to create international mechanisms to fight terrorism as a transnational threat that recognizes no political boundaries and respects no religious or cultural values.
Countering Terrorism: The American Dimension
Algeria’s warnings against terrorism and its calls for international cooperation fell on deaf ears for a long time. It was only after the 9/11 attacks that international sentiment changed and Algeria’s warnings that terrorism was a powerful international menace gained credence. Several countries became interested in the Algerian experience and the expertise the country had gained in counterterrorism operations. The United States was among the first states to acknowledge the need for international collaboration in what it dubbed the “war on terror.” The United Nations Security Council provided a legal framework for the effort with Security Council Resolution 1373 in September 2001.
Cooperation against terrorism offered Algeria and the United States an opportunity for a political rapprochement
Cooperation against terrorism offered Algeria and the United States an opportunity for a political rapprochement, although the two countries did not share the same conception of terrorism, notably regarding the right of the Palestinian people to resist Israeli occupation. Hamas is perceived differently by Washington and Algiers.
President Bouteflika visited the United States twice in 2001, in July and November, In the following years two U.S. secretaries of state (Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice), the secretary of defense (Donald Rumsfeld), two assistant secretaries of state (William Burns and David Welsh), as well as a number of senior security and military figures and members of Congress also visited Algeria.
Such visits signaled a change in American policy toward the Maghreb. Until that time, the policy had focused on Morocco, despite Algeria’s successful mediation in freeing American hostages in Iran in 1980. But 9/11 demonstrated the soundness of Algeria’s call for international coordinated efforts against terrorism. It also rendered Algerian expertise in counterterrorism an international resource to be shared in quelling this transnational threat.
U.S.–Algerian cooperation in counterterrorism is dynamic, multi-dimensional, and integrative in geo-security terms.
U.S.–Algerian cooperation in counterterrorism is dynamic, multi-dimensional, and integrative in geo-security terms. Algeria also participates in both bilateral and multilateral efforts. U.S.–Algeria bilateral efforts include:
- Intelligence sharing: Algeria has established a strong knowledge of Islamic terrorist networks worldwide and has shared the information with U.S. security and intelligence agencies. Algeria and the United States have also cooperated on the judicial front, notably with regard to the 26 Algerian nationals detained at Guantanamo Bay.
- Training and equipping of security forces: The United States is training Algerian personnel in different U.S. military academies and universities. There is less cooperation concerning equipment. For example, the United States is still reluctant to provide Algeria with the sophisticated weaponry necessary to fight terrorism (notably night sight equipment) despite recurrent Algerian requests. Nevertheless, U.S. military assistance increased from $121,000 in 2001 to $800,000 in 2008.
Algeria is also an active participant in multilateral efforts sponsored by the United States and the United Nations. Multilateral initiatives include:
- U.S. technical support to the African Centre for Studies and Research on Terrorism (CAERT), which is hosted by Algeria. The support aims at developing a better operational African strategy against terrorism. Algeria is an active participant in the project.
- Operation Active Endeavor, organized under NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue Initiative and designed to fight terrorism in the region.
- The Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative (TSCTI), launched in March 2004 with the participation of Algeria and other countries from North Africa and the Sahel regions. As part of this initiative, Algeria participated in joint multilateral maneuvers in the Sahel with the United States (Operation Flintlock since 2005). Algerian army Chief of Staff Major General Gaid Salah participated in several coordination meetings of states taking part in this initiative in Senegal and Germany. Additional international and regional efforts to fight terrorism have been undertaken, including those carried out as part of the group’s similar convictions, tactics, and objectives.
- Algeria is actively involved in all international and regional efforts at fighting this phenomenon, including those pertaining to the UN Global Counterterrorism Strategy (2006), the effort to curb money laundering, and fighting organized crime.
These bilateral and multilateral efforts benefited both Algeria and the United States. For Algeria, they provided additional know-how for improving its counter-insurgency techniques. They also legitimized Algeria’s own war on terror that had weakened both state and society. For the United States, cooperation with Algeria helped improve the intelligence needed to fight terrorism worldwide.
Defeating terrorism in North Africa, the Sahel, and even Europe can only be achieved through the backing of local and regional efforts
Since al-Qaeda is a network, it can only be dismantled by weakening its different groups and discrediting their doctrinal basis. In fact, defeating terrorism in North Africa, the Sahel, and even Europe can only be achieved through the backing of local and regional efforts. No matter how they were formed, terrorist organizations become part of broader networks. For example, the Algerian Salafist Groups for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) in 2006 became al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which is now threatening countries of the Maghreb and the Sahel with campaigns of violence. Algeria has managed to contain this threat by targeting its leadership and destroying its operational capacities, as well as by seeking to discredit its ideology. Algeria’s success is helping consolidate international efforts to fight the AQIM. Algeria has also been successful in containing and at times eradicating different local networks recruiting young men to participate in terrorist attacks in Iraq. Algeria’s experience with the havoc created by returning Afghanistan veterans taught it the danger of such recruiting.
The Way Forward
While collaboration between Algeria and the United States so far has been quite successful, it is not enough. The two countries need to work toward a qualitative advancement of their relationship. The United States must be more forthcoming in its support for political and economic reforms in Algeria―the funds provided for Algeria under the Middle East Partnership Initiative are insufficient. It is illogical for the United States to continue building up its security cooperation with Algeria while continuing to marginalize the country in comparison to its neighbors in the Maghreb. Algeria is the sixth-largest supplier of oil and gas to the United States but remains a second-tier recipient of American direct investments in the region (less than $5 billion mostly in the oil industry, by 2008).
While collaboration between Algeria and the United States so far has been quite successful, it is not enough.
To strengthen cooperation with Algeria, the United States should develop more balanced relations with North African states. In particular, it should press Morocco to solve the Western Sahara issue by recognizing the right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination.
Beyond the problem of the Western Sahara, Washington must also take a more realistic view of Algeria’s importance to the region. Algeria is pivotal to U.S. strategies in North Africa and the Sahel for a number of reasons:
- Geostrategically, Algeria is centrally positioned in the Maghreb and has borders with Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Western Sahara, Morocco, Libya, and Tunisia.
- It is among the four major producers of natural gas in the world. It is also a major supplier of energy to the United States.
- It is a fast growing economy in the Maghreb. Even in the midst of the current international financial and economic crisis, Algerian GDP is expected to grow by 3.5 percent in 2009.
- It is implementing structural political reforms in order to construct a presidential system that institutionalizes democratic governance and political pluralism.
- Its policy of national reconciliation, coupled with a smart counterterrorism strategy has yielded positive results, transforming terrorism from an ever present threat to mere sporadic acts. These results strengthen the credibility of Algerian expertise as a leader in counterterrorism.
- Its diplomatic activism in creating an international consensus against terrorism and its call to differentiate between terrorism and resistance also deserve attention.
- It is also worth noting, here, that for the war on terror in North Africa and the Sahel to succeed, the United States must also consider the following: It should not overstate risks of terrorist contamination in the Sahel as this phenomenon is not as yet established. Nevertheless, it is important that U.S. authorities should assist Mali, Niger, Chad, and Mauritania in alleviating poverty and fighting organized crime and narcotics trafficking.
- It should back Algerian diplomatic efforts at stabilizing Niger and Mali, which are facing rebellion by the Touareg minorities.
- It should assist the African Union and its Council for Peace and Security in developing regional mechanisms of preventive diplomacy. Algeria has been at the forefront of preventive securitization by presiding over the CPS from the start (two senior Algerian diplomats, Said Djanit and now Ramtane Lamamra have held the presidency of the Council).
Mhand Berkouk is a professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Algiers and director of the Echaab Center for Strategic Studies.
 Mhand Berkouk, “Les Constructions Stratégiques en Méditérrannée à l’horizon 2020,” presentation at the Conference on the Mediterranean Dialogue jointly organized by NATO Defense College (Rome, Italy) and the Institute of Diplomacy and International Relations (IDRI, Algeria), Algiers, April 2005.
 International Crisis Group, “Islamist Terrorism in the Sahel: Fact or Fiction,” Africa Report, no. 62, March 2005.