Kal Ben Khalid published a piece on June 29, 2015 in the CTC Sentinel, June 2015, Vol 8, Issue 6 (the research journal of the Combating Terrorism Center of West Point) about the “Evolving Approaches in Algerian Security Cooperation”.
In a nutshell, the author argues that for the better part of a quarter century, Algeria had generally focused its security policy inward in an attempt to secure domestic stability. However, since 2013 and the In Amenas attack, Algeria’s strategic discourse and posture shifted dramatically. Indeed, after the 1990s where Algeria was isolated, counterterrorism became “a key piece of Algeria’s efforts at reengaging with the outside world”, especially after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, as “Algeria presented itself as an authority on fighting Islamist terrorism”. This changed from the shifted operated in the 1980s where the Algerian state became “more inwardly focused as the economic problems of the 1980s took hold”. This domestic focus of course intensified during the civil war. But this strategic posture was a change from the early years of independence as the Algerian government during the 1960s and 1970s took a high international profile.
In January 2013, the gas plant attack was both a strategic surprise and an embarrassment to the leaders of Algeria’s security institutions. And the response was marked by “a new willingness to engage with external partners” as well as a will to “secure the country’s long-standing national interest regarding external threats, maintain Algeria’s regional dominance, and secure domestic stability”. Algeria is now considered a responsible global partners and is active in regional security cooperation, hosting and coordinating a number of regional counterterrorism cooperation frameworks at the diplomatic and military levels. According to the author, many of these arrangements however “failed, when tested by the upheavals of the Arab Spring in 2011 and the 2012 jihadist takeover of northern Mali, in part because of ongoing distrust between regional governments and a lack of capacity”.
For Kal Ben Khalid, changes in Algeria’s security posture were prompted by a number of important strategic surprises since 2011, exposing Algeria’s vulnerabilities. Notably, “cross-border attacks by jihadist groups operating in Mali during 2012, such as the Al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) splinter faction Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), were among the most notable incidents highlighting the vulnerability of Algeria borders”, as well as different attacks included suicide bombings targeting barracks and security installations in southern Algeria, at Tamanrasset, but also as far north as Ouargla.
Thus, regional cooperation was activated and the “Algerian-led multilateral security frameworks such as the Tamanrasset-based Comité d’Etat-major Opérationnel Conjoint (CEMOC) were meant to coordinate counterterrorism operations between Algeria, Mauritania, Mali, and Niger as concerns about jihadist activities in the region escalated in the late 2000s”. Unfortunately, they proved ineffective and were sidelined during the French intervention in northern Mali in 2012. Of course, Algeria’s approach also suffered “setbacks from political instability in Libya, which left Algerian and Tunisian institutions without viable security counterparts in Tripoli as they tried to coordinate border security efforts among the three countries”. In that context, the 2013 In Amenas gas plant hostage crisis was “a turning point and quickly led to shifts in emphasis in Algerian security policy. Algerian leaders focused on buttressing the country’s internal security regimen and cultivating bilateral security arrangements with countries such as Tunisia to stem the growth of cross border activity by extremist groups”.
Several initiatives followed: “at a policy level, the Algerian intelligence services were reorganized in late 2013 and early 2014: various organs of the powerful Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS), the Algerian military intelligence service, were moved to other sections of the military, and their leaders were dismissed, retired, or appointed as advisors to the Presidency. Certain sub-organizations were abolished or divided. The author also notes that those reorganizations could be seen as “efforts to improve intelligence coordination and assert the control of the Chief of Staff and Presidency over the DRS”. Indeed, “widespread speculation also described these moves as part of a long power struggle between allies of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and those of General Mohamed “Tewfik” Mediene, the DRS chief since its creation in 1990.”The result would then be that the military’s Chiefs of Staff has gained greater influence over the direction and focus of counterterrorism and counter-trafficking policy.
The change in policy had an effect in the intellectual production with new policy journals or shifts in the old reviews. For instance, starting in 2014 at the direction of the Chiefs of Staff, IMDEP began publishing a biannual strategic studies journal called Strategia, which is published in Arabic, French, and English. The shift was also seen in the subject material at National Gendarmerie (NG) conferences. The official journal of the Chiefs of Staff’s El Djeich and government-backed think tanks and research institutes (such as the Institut Militaire de Documentation, d’Evaluation et de Prospective (IMDEP) and Institut National d’Études de Stratégie Globale – INESG) hosted conferences and symposia that explored “the evolving Algerian perspectives on crisis diplomacy, military cooperation and assistance, humanitarian operations, strategic communications, command and control doctrine, counterterrorism, border security, electronic warfare, and surveillance technology”.
From that corpus, the author notes that the Algerians “see a region fraught with risk and crisis. Algeria’s leaders regard Morocco as passively hostile, and Mauritania and Niger as reliable if fragile. Tunisia is regarded as a serious concern, however. That country’s security apparatus has suffered a number of setbacks in the last four years and has struggled to adapt to the challenges posed by an underground jihadist militancy. Algeria fears that a jihadist safe haven could develop along its mountainous frontier with the Tunisian provinces of Kasserine, El Kef, and Jendouba. Mali and Libya meanwhile lack credible border security, institutions or capabilities, and are in the throes of ethno-sectarian, institutional, and ideological conflicts.”
Practically, this evolution has seen “Algeria’s increasing security cooperation with Tunisia on counterterrorism, border security, and customs since 2013”. Kal Ben Khalid underlines that for Algiers, “Tunisia represents a buffer from instability in Libya. Tunisia’s proximity to Algeria’s demographic center of gravity—the northern coast and mountains—and its proximity to Libya make the emergence of AQIM-linked militants there more serious. The mountains and plains linking northwest Libya to Tunisia and eastern Algeria present a complex geography that poses problems for military activity. The threat from Libya, symbolized by the spectacular and humiliating attack at In Amenas, make the eastern frontier a new frontline for Algerian efforts to resist regional instability”.
Nevertheless, Algeria continues to closely guard its role in the region and remains wary of too much Western involvement. Thus, Algeria’s leaders likely also see close collaboration with Tunisia as “a way to avoid potential Western intervention in either Tunisia or Libya, after widespread criticism of the light touch they used in the Mali crisis, which ended with French military intervention”. The Algerian military continues to stress in its messaging that the Algerian state remains committed to “the peaceful resolution of conflicts” without foreign, especially Western, intervention.
These shifts in Algerian policy reflect “responses to strategic surprises and setbacks for Algerian and international security policy over the last four years”. As a matter of fact, the “ key response from the Algerian state has been an attempt to cope with an unraveling security environment by beefing up its internal and border defense posture and bilateral security arrangements with key neighboring countries, such as Tunisia. The ruling elite in Algiers hopes that enhanced border security measures and deeper military-to-military cooperation with neighboring countries will narrow gaps that lead to the kind of strategic surprises that emerged from the upheavals of 2011 through 2013. It also appears to believe that closer ties with countries like Tunisia will help compensate for the lack of a coherent security sector in Libya. As the region becomes increasingly unstable, Algeria’s leaders appear more prepared to pursue their security targets and promote regime sustainability through collaboration with regional militaries that share their goals”.