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For the better part of a quarter century, Algeria had generally focused its security policy inward in an attempt to secure domestic stability. While the National Liberation Front (FLN)-led government took a relatively high international profile in the 1960s and 1970s, the state became more inwardly focused as the economic problems of the 1980s took hold. This domestic focus intensified during Algeria’s bitter civil war during the 1990s. As Algerian leaders sought to consolidate their rule after crushing the decade-long Islamist insurgency, counterterrorism became a key piece of Algeria’s efforts at reengaging with the outside world. This was especially the case after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, as Algeria presented itself as an authority on fighting Islamist terrorism.

Algeria’s leaders moved to assert themselves as responsible global partners and took an active role in regional security cooperation, hosting and coordinating a number of regional counterterrorism cooperation frameworks at the diplomatic and military levels. Many of these arrangements failed, however, 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.

Following the In Amenas attack in January 2013 (which resulted in the deaths of more than 35 hostages and 29 jihadists), Algeria’s strategic discourse and posture shifted more dramatically. The gas plant crisis was a strategic surprise that shocked and embarrassed the leaders of Algeria’s security institutions. The response was marked by a new willingness to engage with external partners, but this article will argue that the underlying motivation has remained the current crop of leaders’ understanding of how to secure the country’s long-standing national interest regarding external threats, maintain Algeria’s regional dominance, and secure domestic stability.

The Roots of Change

Changes in Algeria’s security posture were prompted by a number of important strategic surprises since 2011. 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. Attacks included suicide bombings targeting barracks and security installations in southern Algeria, at Tamanrasset, but also as far north as Ouargla.

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. But they proved ineffective and were sidelined during the French intervention in northern Mali. 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. 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.

Reorganizations and Rethinking

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. Like many Arab intelligence services, Algeria’s intelligence community is highly compartmentalized and politicized, and public narratives around these reorganizations attributed them to efforts to improve intelligence coordination and assert the control of the Chief of Staff and Presidency over the DRS, which is widely seen as a fiefdom. 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.

According to some reports, the result has been that the military’s Chiefs of Staff have gained greater influence over the direction and focus of counterterrorism and counter-trafficking policy.

Policy Journals Track Shift

The Algerian defense policy apparatus has several intellectual and ideological outlets. These include official journals such as the Chiefs of Staff’s El Djeich. They also include 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). These organizations have hosted conferences and symposia that explore 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.

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. From the start, the subjects highlighted a more outward focus for Algerian security policy. Articles in the inaugural issue of spring 2014 included topics such as the adaptation of the national state in the face of globalization and recent international crises, the role of social media in public safety, and evaluation of the Algerian approach to security in the Sahel. Important areas of investigation in Algerian strategic studies and military journals in recent years have included innovations in Command and Control, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C2ISR), especially as related to the country’s southern frontiers, drone technology and remote sensing, and formulating Algerian responses to the emergence of humanitarian interventionism.

The shift was also seen in the subject material at National Gendarmerie (NG) conferences. The NG is responsible for border policing, customs, and rural law and order, and material at symposia highlighted new strategies for the coordination of customs operations with bordering countries, especially Tunisia. This speaks to two trends: a reevaluation of elements of Algeria’s defense policy at a high level and an effort to promote and socialize these analyses and policies among key audiences internally and internationally.

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.

Climbing the Learning Curve

The perception of risk and Algeria’s own history of internal fragmentation have made the country’s leaders reluctant to engage in deep or expeditionary military operations. There are echoes too of the state’s approach to the bitter civil war of the 1990s. As in its internal war, Algeria has struggled to cope with crises since 2012. According to critics, it projected power timidly. Algeria learned lessons from its decade-long struggle with an Islamist insurgency in the 1990s. This led to changes in how it dealt with internal dissent, protests, special operations, communications, and other matters. Its policy shifts in recent years indicate that military security doctrine continues to evolve in a changing threat environment. In 2013, Algeria started to close its borders or place them under military control and ramped up efforts against smuggling and other illicit activities, in an effort to address mounting instability resulting from the disruption of Tunisian border security and intelligence operations. This also involved a new focus on direct military-to-military collaboration with officials in Tunis. The internal organization of certain military regions also has been revised to concentrate on counterterrorism or smuggling.

Tunisia: A Case Study

A focal point of this evolution has been Algeria’s increasing security cooperation with Tunisia on counterterrorism, border security, and customs since 2013. 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. In 2013, the Algerians deployed 12,000 troops to its border with Tunisia. They also sent similar numbers of soldiers and paramilitary forces to the Libyan, Nigerien, and Malian borders with the objective of interdicting and deterring cross-border attacks by jihadist militants.

Algiers Helps Itself by Helping the Region

Algerian security assistance appears intended to both boost efforts to engage with its neighbors and attract the sponsorship of Western and other countries anxious over instability in Libya and elsewhere. The Tunisians have also received support from Western militaries, with the United States for example tripling its security assistance to Tunisia in 2015 and planning to give the country major non-Nato ally status. Yet true to form, Algeria continues to closely guard its role in the region and remains wary of too much Western involvement. 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.

A Security Vacuum Encourages Cooperation

This regional security cooperation extends to other issues such as organized crime and smuggling. The Algerians and Tunisians both regard low-level smuggling as something that must be tolerated to some degree in order to short circuit popular discontent, but which can aid their enemies. As a result, the military attempts to limit the growth and operations of organized criminal groups, but will not root it out entirely. After the 2011 revolution, Tunisia’s demoralized internal security services melted away from the frontier and its intelligence networks along the border collapsed, contributing to an explosion in illicit trade. The boom allowed new trabendistes (smugglers) to emerge, in both Tunisia and Algeria.

Unsurprisingly, some of AQIM’s surrogates took advantage of the security vacuum and boom in smuggling to move into western Tunisia from eastern Algeria. Applying a strategy honed in Algeria, AQIM surrogates have so far targeted only military and security targets, especially those that originate outside of their main area of operations. Groups such as the Uqba Ibn Nafa’a Brigade, which reportedly has links to both AQIM and Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia, are controlled by AQIM’s commanders in Algeria and draw Tunisian recruits and support.[21] This process heightened Algerian concerns over the development of a new safe haven in western Tunisian that could enable militant operations inside Algeria.

At the same time, the return of Tunisian jihadists from Syria and Libya has boosted the country’s threat profile. In the summer of 2014, the Tunisian Army suffered its largest number of casualties ever, when AQIM militants ambushed and killed 15 soldiers and wounded 20 more in a raid on checkpoints near Jebel Chaambi. Militants continue to target Tunisian National Guards, police, and soldiers in Kasserine, El Kef, Jendouba, and other Tunisian provinces bordering Algeria.

The Changing Threat Environment

A common regional perception of threat emerged during 2013 and 2014. Crises in Mali, Syria, and Libya have also changed Tunisian perspectives (even among moderate Islamists), particularly as youth from Tunisia flocked to participate in jihadist movements in Syria, Mali, and Libya with some returning with deadlier skills and deeper ties to regional terror groups. Political assassinations, suicide bombings, and killings of soldiers and police in western and northern Tunisia by AQIM-linked militants have increased support for wider counterterrorism cooperation and a more assertive security service.

The Tunisian government’s crackdown on supposedly non-violent jihadist groups like Ansar al-Shariah in Tunisia since 2013 has driven the country’s youth-driven militant subculture further underground or into Libya and spurred an increasingly violent low-level insurgency in the area along the country’s western border. Hard-line jihadists have divided themselves among camps loyal to AQIM and those that back the Islamic State. Some AQIM units operating in Algeria and Tunisia have reportedly shifted their allegiance to the Islamic State following that group’s initial claims for incidents such as the kidnapping of a French mountaineer east of Algiers in 2014 and its expansion in Libya. However, the extent to which such units have benefited in terms of capacity and recruitment remains unclear.

Regional Efforts

Political crises and the deteriorating security environment in Tunisia prompted Algeria’s leaders to intervene and boost security cooperation as much as they could. They helped mediate between the Ennahdah government and its opponents in 2013. At the end of 2012, the two countries signed a border security agreement, facilitating joint patrols and operations. And in January 2013, Algerian, Tunisian, and Libyan representatives met at Ghadames in northwestern Libya to coordinate border security, though Libya’s contributions were hampered by political crises and Tripoli’s weak control of militias operating on its frontiers.

Algerian cooperation with Tunisia has focused on targeting AQIM-linked militants in Jebel Chaambi and cracking down on smuggling networks. Much of Algiers’s engagement with Tunis has focused on drawing attention to militant activity on their common frontier, which Tunisian security forces have tended to see as a secondary threat compared to the southeastern border with Libya.

“There are reports of the Algerians providing training to Tunisia’s elite troops, with Tunisian leaders seeking out Algeria’s expertise in dealing with jihadist groups. Both sides have exchanged multiple high-level defense delegations in the last two years. In 2013, the two governments established a joint intelligence unit and in 2014 they reached an agreement on border security coordination. Meanwhile, Algerian press reports hint that operational coordination may have led to Algerian military participation in joint operations inside Tunisia, despite official denials.This cooperation is best symbolized by the Algerian-Tunisian Joint Commission, whose military component has been especially active in recent years.

Many in the Tunisian military and security services see assistance and training from the Algerians as essential. Tunisia’s security services are overextended, demoralized (especially law enforcement), and ill-prepared for the low-intensity violence brought on by jihadist youth movements and AQIM elements that have emerged since 2011. The Tunisians must adapt tactically and structurally to address the threats posed by the jihadist groups operating in their country. As part of that process, Tunisian Army, Air Force, and intelligence delegations have made repeated visits to Algiers recently. Tunisian National Guard and special operations leaders have, for example, studied the training and tactics of the Algerian Gendarmerie’s elite Rapid Intervention Detachments, as well as Algerian criminology and forensics labs.

There are problems, however, despite the push to cooperate. Algiers has reportedly been the driving force for the intensified relations, reportedly causing some anxiety in Tunis. There is also significant distrust. While long-term relationships between Algerian and the Tunisian intelligence services remained relatively intact after 2011, some military collaboration suffered in the wake of the revolution, given that the Tunisian Army had to compensate for the weakness of the Interior Ministry during those events.[37] At the same time, communication between the Algerian and Tunisian security forces has generally been hierarchical and slow, despite efforts to formalize lower-level border security and customs collaboration.

Algerian institutions and leaders also distrusted Tunisia’s transitional government, led by the moderate Islamist party Ennahdah. Ennahdah’s leadership was just as suspicious of their Algerian counterparts. These concerns were usually attributed to Ennahdah cadres’ view of Algeria as a meat grinder for Islamists, based on the treatment of Islamists by the Algerian military during the 1990s, experiences which were communicated to Ennahda leaders in Europe at the time through a well developed Islamist grapevine.

At the same time, some Algerian elites feared that Tunisia’s democratic transition might inspire Algerian groups to emulate their overthrow of a long-standing regime. Many press reports and rumors since 2011 depicted Tunisia as a kind of overflowing cauldron of fanaticism, bearded, stone-throwing youth, and general crisis. On the other hand, some in Tunisia fear that Algeria might come to dominate Tunisia, due to its significantly larger size and reports that Algerian leaders have requested Tunisian authoritites notify them ahead of any defense-related agreements with other countries.

Press reports have mentioned concerns among unnamed high level officers in Tunisia42 that Algeria may exert influence over armed groups operating in Tunisia using the penetration and manipulation tactics for which the DRS is well known. Whatever the case, Tunisia-Algeria military-to-military and intelligence cooperation appears be a fact of life as a result of escalating tension within Tunisia itself, the fragmentation of Libya’s political and security institutions, and the largely unbridled expansion of the jihadist presence in Libya.

Conclusion

These shifts in Algerian policy reflect responses to strategic surprises and setbacks for Algerian and international security policy over the last four years. 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.

Author: Kal Ben Khalid

Tag(s) : #Defence

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