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As Algeria ups its defensive capabilities, North Africa braces for an influx of new insurgents

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The North Africa Journal – September 7, 2017: Over the past 20 years, the Algerian defense system has been largely built based on countering terrorism and militant groups.  While the country’s defense forces also looked at conventional external threats, including the potential for a showdown with the Moroccan military, their primary focus has been on finding and defeating small groups of militants who have generally found shelter in the northern mountains.  With the escalating conflicts in Libya and Mali, the Algerian defense forces have increased their capabilities to secure the southern and southeastern boarders, and their oil facilities, with the political feud with Morocco becoming a lesser threat.

A continuous tracking of incidents by MEA Risk’s Critical Incidents Tracker indicates that the Algerian security forces have had the upper hand on securing the national territory, although militant groups remain active and continue to inflict pain. There have been the occasional attacks that were recorded now and then. Some were high profile, such as the attack on the In Amenas gas site in 2013. But most tend to be low-intensity incidents with marginal impact on the Algeria risk outlook.

In Algeria’s current threat profile, the Islamic State appears to be the most dangerous entity. On 31 August 2017, a suicide bomber killed two officers outside a police station in central Tiaret, southwest to the capital. The attacker was armed, and a shootout occurred before one of the policemen threw himself on the insurgent to prevent him from entering the station, causing the detonation. The second police officer died of his injuries at the local hospital. The attacker was identified as Islamic insurgent Ben Aissa Boucetta, aka “Abu Jihad”, according to security sources.

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack, with a statement released through its media outlet “Amaq”. The Ministry of Interior has announced measures to stymie potential attacks in the future, including an increased monitoring of social media sites.

While the Islamic State has been keen on showing that it is still active in Algeria, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has been losing ground there. Its leader, Abdelmalek Droukdel, has made a long statement published by an AQIM outlet acknowledging that while his organization has become stronger in Libya, Tunisia and the Sahel, pro-AQIM groups in Algeria have been losing momentum due to a “long conflict with the military” and a “lack of support in and outside the country”, in light of a countrywide aggressive security campaign targeting support networks. The leader of AQIM also stated that in spite of this, the remaining groups will not surrender. “Jihad continues despite the support of the United States and European countries to the local apostate regimes.”

The AQIM leader did not hide his opposition to the IS. Abdelmalek Droukdel said that IS “has chosen the wrong path in Jihad by making the same mistakes that the former Islamist Armed Groups (GIA) of Algeria made” during the civil war (of the 1990s); the killing of ordinary civilians and the implementation of a “purge” among Jihadists. He described the doctrine of the Islamic State as a “perversion”, signaling that IS remains an enemy of al-Qaeda.

Indeed, Droukdel is correct in his assessment of the Algerian military effective counter-insurgency response. Last week, MEA Risk’s Critical Incidents Tracker recorded an increase in counter-insurgency enforcement and defense-related activities within Algeria. An Islamic insurgent was killed in the province of Ain Defla, and three others were captured in the Deep South. Two of those militants are believed to have been involved in terrorist attacks during the nineties in Algeria, as well as in Mali. In Tipasa, Bejaia, Ain Defla and Tizi Ouzou, all along the Mediterranean coast, various shelters containing homemade bombs were discovered in vast sweeping operations. In Sidi Bel-Abbes, a soldier was killed in the explosion of a bomb during such a sweeping operation.

In the southern provinces of Tamanrasset and Adrar, three weapons caches were found last week. One of them was discovered near the Malian border, raising more questions about the porosity of the Algerian-Malian border, and the military’s ability to stymie all efforts to infiltrate the Algerian desert from the south and the southeast.  These discoveries are not new. They happen on the weekly basis.

Outlook:

Even though al-Qaeda and Islamic State offshoots in northern Algeria have been isolated and unable to undermine the stability in the country, the anticipated return of thousands of AQIM and IS fighters from the Middle East may affect the country, and indeed the whole region, in many ways. Intelligence and military sources say that more than 15,000 insurgents are returning to Morocco, Tunisia, and most importantly Libya and Mali in the next few months. This influx of Islamic militants is likely to allow groups based in Algeria to benefit from the military and financial support needed to achieve their objectives across the country, as ties between different groups based in those countries have been established time and again in the past.

As the Algerian security and defense authorities are aware of this threat, border control procedures will be beefed up in the near future to prevent insurgent infiltration, and sweeping operations will be reinforced, especially in the north, the oil-rich areas, and the Deep South.

Just this week, the Algerian authorities have deployed additional reinforcements of more than 3,000 troops to the Libyan border area, in an effort to prevent insurgent infiltration plans from Libya. Insider sources revealed that Ahmed Gaid-Salah, the Chief-of-Staff of the army, devised a plan to prevent terrorist plots targeting oil and gas facilities in the south. The military is now closely monitoring the border region, as offshoots of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have been regrouping in the Libyan cities of Sardalas and Ghat.

Counter-terrorism intelligence efforts will be expanded as well, in light of the recovery of a large quantity of military-grade weapons and explosives.

Arezki Daoud is The North Africa Journal Editor and MEA Risk LLC’s Chief Executive and Lead Analyst. At the North Africa Journal Arezki oversees content development and sets the editorial policies and guidelines. Arezki is an expert on African affairs, with primary focus on the Maghreb, Sahel and Egypt. His coverage of the region spans from security and defense to industrial and economic issues. His expertise includes the energy sector and doing business in the region. At MEA Risk, Arezki overseas all aspects of the company’s development, from the research agenda to growth strategy and day-to-day business activity. Arezki brings a wealth of skills. After college, he worked for oil company Sonatrach, then held research, forecasting and consulting positions for the likes of Harvard University, IDG and IDC. Arezki can be reached at daoud@north-africa.com, at US+508-981-6937 or via Skype at arezki.daoud