Libya itself has collapsed into violent chaos, while weapons flows out of Libya in 2011 and 2012 fuelled a Salafi jihadi insurgency in northern Mali that eventually resulted in Bamako losing control of the entire northern half of the country. And in Tunisia, a new Salafi jihadi threat has emerged on Algeria’s borders.
Although Algeria initially stuck fast to its long-standing principle of non-interference, its security posture gradually evolved and has since become more proactive. Two years after the fall of the Gadhafi regime in Tripoli, Algiers is more willing to work with its neighbors and international partners on security issues, but only so long as Algeria remains in the driver’s seat.
When NATO began its air campaign in Libya in support of disparate rebel groups fighting the Gadhafi regime, Algeria warned that the end result would destabilize the region. Throughout the NATO campaign and the ensuing destabilization of both Libya and northern Mali, Algeria hunkered down and adopted a fortress-like posture. Over the previous decade it had only just managed to restore peace and security within its own borders. It had no appetite for potentially risky foreign campaigns.
Ultimately, however, the collapse of northern Mali at the hands of Salafi jihadis, including al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), led to the first evolution of Algeria’s security posture. Despite privileging a political solution to the conflict in Mali over a military one, Algiers ultimately acquiesced to French military over-flight of Algerian airspace. In light of Algiers’ past policy position, this was a major concession.
Whether or not Algeria’s decision to grant France the use of its airspace was a catalyst for the January 2013 terrorist attack at the Tigantourine gas facility near the southeastern Algerian town of In Amenas, the attack contributed to the further evolution of Algeria’s security posture. The deadly hostage-taking caught Algerian security services by surprise—no one expected that terrorists would target a hydrocarbons facility in the Algerian desert, because doing so would be tantamount to a suicide mission. Algeria’s conventional response to terrorist attacks was well-known: Algeria does not negotiate with terrorists; its only position vis-a-vis terrorists is to kill them. The In Amenas attack, in which almost all of the terrorists were killed, plainly demonstrated this.
However, while Algiers’ response at In Amenas remained consistent with its past practices, the incident compelled Algiers to reconsider how it would counter terrorists before they struck. In particular, Algeria became increasingly concerned about Salafi jihadi activities in western Tunisia around Jabal al-Chaambi.
In the early spring of 2013, the Uqba ibn Nafi Brigade, a Salafi jihadi group allied with AQIM, carried out a series of attacks against Tunisian security personnel. Although AQIM’s leadership in Algeria had largely been pinned down in the Boumerdes Mountains and unable to sustain a meaningful level of operations, Algerian officials appeared to be concerned that AQIM in northern Algeria might try to build a bridge to the Uqba ibn Nafi Brigade, which could breathe new life into what had otherwise been a moribund organization.
Algeria is as concerned about its southern border as it is about Tunisian terrorist activity and the possible revival of terrorist activity in northern Algeria, albeit for different reasons. The human toll at In Amenas notwithstanding, the threats posed by terrorism to Algeria’s sparsely populated south, where most of the country’s oil and gas production take place, are primarily economic.
Algiers depends heavily on oil and gas export revenue to fund the state budget, including everything from health care to public sector wages and large-scale infrastructure projects. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is extremely fiscally conservative and will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid running a deficit; any disruption in oil and gas production threatens the budget and as a result can pose a threat to the quality of life of average Algerians.
Terrorist threats in more populated northern Algeria, however, directly impact Algeria’s citizenry and could potentially have significant political consequences. Safety and security have returned to Algeria under Bouteflika’s tenure. In fact, whether or not his policies were directly responsible for it, the restoration of public safety may be Bouteflika’s greatest legacy.
Over the course of 2013, Bouteflika has been preparing the ground for a 2014 presidential campaign in which he or one of his preferred successors will run. He would clearly like to run on his security sector successes himself, or ensure that his successor is able to do so. A major terrorist attack within Algeria would undermine all that he has worked for and complicate the 2014 presidential campaign.
Partially as a result of the devastating attack at Tigantourine and partially in order to prevent AQIM in northern Algeria from leveraging any potential contact with the Uqba ibn Nafi Brigade, Algeria deployed an additional 12,000 troops on the Tunisian border and has coordinated military operations with Tunisian security services. There have also been unsubstantiated reports that Algerian forces have crossed into Tunisia in order to directly confront Salafi jihadi groups.
But just because Algeria is now proactively engaging cross-border threats, this does not mean that security cooperation with its neighbors and international partners is limitless. In fact, Algeria remains willing to engage in multilateral counterterrorism efforts only to the extent that it is able to dictate the terms of cooperation itself. The biggest hurdle that Algeria’s potential partners must overcome is acknowledging that they do not control the battlefield. Instead, Algeria does, and it will never cede that control to outside influence.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
Photo-Credit: AFP-Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika