Algeria: A Bulwark Against ISIS
With the Islamic State (ISIS) facing imminent defeat in its Libyan stronghold of Sirte, questions have arisen over where the group might seek refuge next. As the fight to push ISIS out of Libya intensifies, one country where ISIS has failed to gain a foothold is neighboring Algeria due to a firm stance by the Algerian military against jihadist cells in the country and a relatively strong central government.
“There is no ISIS in Algeria,” said Madjid Bougerra, Algeria’s Ambassador to the United States. “They have tried, but we have succeeded in countering all their efforts. Our security forces have, for the last two or three years, mobilized to secure our borders – be it on the east with Libya or in the southern part of the Sahel region. And believe me, ISIS does not exist in Algeria,” he continued.
“ISIS’ stagnation in Algeria can be attributed to the country’s high level of security, its competition with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the trauma of the black decade in the 1990s that remains fresh in the memory of the Algerian people,” writes Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck, Cipher Brief expert and Non-resident Fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center.
The first ISIS sighting in Algeria occurred in August 2014 when Jund al-Khilafa, a jihadi group formerly linked to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), released a video in which it beheaded a French hostage and pledged allegiance to ISIS. Two months later, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi officially recognized Jund al-Khilafa as ISIS’ province in Algeria (Wilayat el Djazair).
Since then, however, ISIS’ ability to recruit, carry out attacks, or build bases in Algeria has been repeatedly thwarted by the Algerian military, and only an estimated 200 Algerian citizens have managed to travel to Iraq and Syria to fight alongside ISIS.
Algerian troops swept through the country’s northern, mountainous Kabilye region and have ousted Jund al-Khilafa from cities such as Bouira, Boumerdes and Tizi Ouzou, killing many of the group’s leaders and dismantling its operational structure. According to statistics released by the Algerian Defense Ministry last week, Algerian forces killed 157 militants in 2015, while 99 were killed and 50 arrested in the first half of 2016.
These efforts have forced the surviving militants southward toward Algeria’s more porous borders with Tunisia, Mali, and Niger. The U.S. State Department has identified extremists as being located “along the Algeria/Tunisia border in the Chaambi mountains area, south of Souk Ahras, and Algerian and Tunisian security forces are conducting ongoing security operations there.”
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has served in that capacity since 1999, vowed to exterminate armed radicals throughout the country and remains devoted to ensuring that terrorist cells do not find refuge in Algerian society. Although he is currently incapacitated due to illness, those who are governing in his place seem to be operating under the same guidelines.
But perhaps most critical to Algeria’s continued stability is its history combatting jihadi groups during the country’s civil war in the 1990s. “This is not Algeria’s first rodeo,” says Geoff Porter, Cipher Brief expert and President of North Africa Risk Consulting Inc. “It has been fighting jihadi groups for three decades, beginning with the Army of Islamic Salvation, then the Armed Islamic Groups, and then the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which ultimately became al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).”
Despite these efforts, however, Algeria’s security situation is not completely stable – the State Department continues to issue travel warnings to Algeria and specifically “recommends that U.S. citizens avoid overland travel to the areas east of Algiers (the Kabilye region) or in the Sahara (southern Algeria).” Still fresh in the memory of U.S. policymakers is the January 2013 al Qaeda-linked attack on the In Amenas gas facility in eastern Algeria, and the ensuing hostage crisis, which left 39 dead.
Furthermore, militant groups in Algeria have marked foreigners as kidnapping targets with the intention of trading them for substantial ransoms. AQIM remains one of the most potent terrorist groups known for abducting foreigners, as it has collected over $90 million in ransom payments since 2008. In July 2015, AQIM seemed to reassert itself in Algeria after it ambushed a military convoy in Ain Defla, killing 11 soldiers – its deadliest attack in years.
Nonetheless, Algeria simply does not offer the same political conditions and governance vacuums that ISIS has exploited elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa.
Bennett Seftel is the Deputy Director of Editorial at The Cipher Brief.