Following the dismantling of the once-powerful Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS), Algeria’s government is making efforts to demonstrate its control of the military, as was on display as the military ramped up its counterterrorism operations in March. With these operations, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his allies are not only trying to demonstrate to elites linked to the former DRS that they do indeed have full control over the security forces, but also to rebuild popular confidence in the Algerian military’s ability to maintain public security. Furthermore, the Algerian government is sending a message to France, its neighbors in the Sahel, and other countries interested in regional security that Algeria is still the dominant player. However, reasonable doubts remain over whether the Algerian military is capable of managing regional security issues on its own.
Bouteflika’s allies disbanded the DRS in January by presidential decree, soon after removing General Mohamed “Toufik” Mediene as its head in September 2015. Toufik’s effort to investigate corruption in Sonatrach, the state hydrocarbon company—specifically its pro-Bouteflika former head, Chakib Khelil—had upset the president’s camp. More significantly, Toufik was blamed for failing to secure the Tiguentourine gas facility at In Amenas in 2013, when a militant group linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) took several hostages, dozens of whom were killed. In place of the DRS, the government has created a new intelligence service, the Security Services Department (DSS), under the direct authority of the presidency. However, although the pro-Bouteflika camp has since cast Algeria’s past security failures as the fault of the DRS while showing off their own skills, continuing attacks undermine this narrative.
On March 11, the Algerian army reported that it “neutralized” three Islamist radicals, among them AQIM brigade leader Feth el-Moubine, near the eastern city of El Oued. They also reportedly recovered a large number of heavy weapons, including six anti-aircraft missiles, three rocket grenade launchers, and more than 20 guns. Yet a week later, on March 18, al-Qaeda militants attacked In Salah’s Khrechba gas plant, joint operated by Algeria’s Sonatrach, Norway’s Statoil, and British Petroleum companies. Although this attack, which was carried out using rocket-propelled grenades, caused no damage or casualties, it directly challenged the Algerian authorities’ claim that they defeated terrorism. Taunting the Algerian authorities, AQIM’s official statement questioned how they would justify the security situation to their “Western masters.”
The army carried out several other counterterrorism operations throughout March, including seizures of arms or munitions. However, rather than highlighting the competence of the security forces, these operations may be creating more public anxiety by drawing attention to the growing number of well-armed threats to Algeria, which has faced relatively few in recent years. Though AQIM has been a threat for nearly a decade, Algerian security forces are now also facing increased threats from the Islamic State, which has been growing as a result of the political and security vacuum in Libya and whose affiliate Jund al-Khilafa killed French tourist Herve Gourdel on Algerian soil in September 2014. Two other small groups, Ansar al-Khilafa and Serriyat al-Ghuraba, operating in the Skikda and Constantine provinces respectively, have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State as well.
Since the 2013 attack on In Amenas that killed 40 oil workers, the Algerian army has moved to secure the oil and gas plants by improving military checkpoints near them and increasing video and air surveillance of these facilities. In response to the recent attack at In Salah, the Algerian army has deployed an additional 5000 troops to secure southern gas plants and announced plans to strengthen security along the borders with Libya, Mali, and Niger, as well as to increase the role of the air force in antiterrorist operations. The army is trying to show to the world that those attacks were the result of the DRS’s inefficient counterterrorism tactics, not only at In Amenas but going back decades. Amar Saidani, head of the National Liberation Front (FLN), has even cited the DRS for failing to prevent the assassination of President Mohamed Boudiaf in 1992 and the failed assassination attempt on President Bouteflika in Batna in 2007.
Domestically it is mainly Toufik’s allies and those linked to the DRS itself, including former officers and retired generals, who are worried that the Algerian army cannot fight terrorism without it. However, there is a general perception that all of Algeria’s old institutions—the DRS, but also other security services and the civilian government—are untrustworthy. This broader problem of credibility has been compounded by renewed allegations of corruption within the former DRS. In January, the U.S. Department of State released some of the personal emails of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. One of those emails, subsequently reprinted in Algerian press on March 17, revealed an alleged link between the DRS and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, leader of the AQIM-allied Mourabitoun Brigade. The new reporting alleges that Belmokhtar aided the DRS in a 2012 operation to rescue an Algerian consul taken hostage in Mali and followed its urging to “attack Moroccan interests in Western Sahara.” This information has put all Algerian institutions in a very embarrassing situation.
Algeria’s neighbors are even less certain Algeria’s security failures are over. Feeling that Algeria is unpredictable in fulfilling its security responsibilities, the G5 Sahel (Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad) decided to launch their own project to secure the region. As reported by Le Monde, the G5 Sahel intends to open a military training school in Nouakchott, create a rapid intervention force, and step up joint border patrols. This has been set up without the participation of Algeria, partly because the Joint Military Staff Committee (CEMOC)—a regional counterterrorism cooperation mechanism created by Algeria in 2010 and headquartered in Tamanrasset—was seen as ineffective. For example, Algeria did not respond to Malian requests for military assistance when jihadis advanced toward Bamako in January 2012. And in May 2013, Algeria did not help Niger stop terrorist attacks in Agadez and Arlit. These states furthermore believe that Algeria has backed most, if not all, of the terrorist groups in the Sahel.
Yet Algeria had never designed the Tamanrasset-based CEMOC initiative to actually work. It was instead a successful publicity stunt to convince the West it had regional threats under control and to dissuade Western states from intervening more directly in the Sahara and the Sahel. However, Algeria’s poor track record in coordinating regional responses to counterterrorism has a negative impact on its more recent plans to project the appearance of security and control. France, concerned that an extended military footprint in the Sahel makes it an even greater target for jihadis, is backing the G5 initiative as a means of reducing its own military presence and commitments in the Sahel.
Though Algeria has not asked to be part of the G5 Sahel project, it had expected to be included. And Algeria’s expertise and extensive knowledge of militant groups across the Sahel is invaluable to the success of any multilateral security mechanism. Rather than focusing on the public appearance of competence among security forces, Algerian authorities have the opportunity to launch a more effective security strategy if there are genuine moves toward greater regional coordination and information sharing. An international security conference organized by the Ministry of Defense and scheduled to take place at the University of Blida on May 4-5 is one step in this direction, and the specter of the Islamic State could play a key role in prompting further collaborative moves.
Abdallah Brahimi is an alumni fellow of the Maxwell School of Syracuse University and a freelance consultant for Algerian NGOs.