Jihadism and Counterterrorism Policy in Algeria: New Responses to New Challenges
Algeria, a forerunner in the fight against Islamist terrorism due to its decades-long experience with Islamist extremists, is facing new challenges in terms of tactics and strategy. Beyond the spectacular January In Aménas attack, new trends in local terrorism were already in place. The recent attacks by jihadist groups on the Tunisian army and National Guard along the border with Algeria have had an impact on the security of Algeria itself. Facing the changes of Islamic terrorism in the area, Algeria’s Armée nationale populaire (ANP – People’s National Army) itself has embarked on a campaign aimed at combating jihadism with new tactics and operations.
The Algerian Army is one of the most advanced, both qualitatively and quantitatively, not only in North Africa but throughout the African continent. The active military force—about 150,000 soldiers—is second in size only to Egypt, while the Ministry of Defense budget is the largest in Africa. Moreover, defense spending has risen sharply as a result of the so-called Arab Spring, a symptom of the connection between the new regional scenario and the country’s security. Between 2010 and 2011, the defense budget grew by 44 percent (the highest rate in the Middle East/North African region), while in 2013 it increased by a further 14 percent to over $10 billion. 
Algeria continues to import a considerable number of weapons; according to the SIPRI Arms Transfer Database, Algeria ranked sixth in the world for arms imports between 2008-2012.  Algeria’s top supplier of defense arms is Russia, from which it buys items such as T-90 tanks, Su-30MK aircraft, anti-ship and anti-tank missiles, AS/ASW torpedoes and air search radar. In recent years, Algiers has diversified its import sources, buying A200 frigates produced in Germany by the Thyssen Krupp Marine Group and Augusta-Westland Super Lynx helicopters from Italy (al-Watan [Algiers], July 3; MedAfrica Times.com, August 10, 2012).
Assessing New Threats
Algerian experience in the field of counter-terrorism dates to its struggle with the jihadist Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC) in the 1990s and later with its successor, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). AQIM’s tactical retreat toward the Sahel region has confirmed the effectiveness of Algeria’s counter-terrorism’s efforts. However, AQIM has also transformed from a local movement to a regional network developed around Algerian borders—especially between Mali and Mauritania. AQIM’s reorientation has introduced new threats for the Algerian security forces; AQIM’s current reorganization aims at targeting Algeria again in future attacks. It is for this reason that compared to previous decades, Algeria’s response to the jihadist threat needs to be reconsidered.
Over the past two years, at least four factors have contributed to the emergence of new threats to Algerian security:
- The war in Libya and the resulting south-west movement of weapons and rebels
- The radicalization of Malian Islamist movements and the consequent conflict in Mali
- The creation of new organized crime networks in the Sahel region linked to jihadist activities
- The radicalization of Islamist movements in Tunisia and the instability on the border between Algeria and Tunisia
From the tactical point of view, there was a change in North African jihadism, which became more engaged in criminal activities than terrorist attacks. The mixture of jihadist ideology and criminal activities, a relatively new phenomenon, gave rise to new networks. The latter, though apparently devoted only to activities such as drug trafficking or kidnapping, are actually intended to lead jihad against regional state actors.  The latest operational zone of this network seems to be Tunisia, where arms trafficking, infiltration from Algeria and internal radicalization have contributed to the formation of new jihadi groups operating in the mountainous area of Jebel Chaambi (see Terrorism Monitor, September 6).
All these factors were actually present before the In Aménas attack. However, this episode brought with it some element of novelty with respect to the jihadist threat that Algeria has historically faced. The new trends of North African jihadism may be summarized as follows:
- A change of objectives from the security and institutional forces to financial and strategic targets
- A shift from posing a national threat to a transnational threat
- A change from an internal problem to security issues along borders
- A change in the direction of the main threat to Algerian security. Traditionally, Algeria has had security problems with Morocco to the west due to the Sahrawi issue—the focus has now shifted to Algeria’s south-eastern borders.
The In Aménas gas plant was a novel choice as a target for the jihadists as it aimed to hit Algeria’s economic interests. Algeria is still heavily dependent on revenues from hydrocarbons, thus affecting this industry directly would weaken the country’s economic system. Algeria’s counter-terrorism forces must make the sites of hydrocarbon production safer in order to ensure Algeria’s economic stability as well as the interests of foreign investors. Algeria must also rethink the deployment of its security forces. While the jihadist threat has traditionally been identified mainly in the northern regions of Kabylie and Tizi Ouzou, most of the gas and oil resources are concentrated in the south. However, terrorist incidents continue to be registered in areas such as the Kabylie and the Tizi Ouzou provinces (Algerie Focus, August 13; Algerie 1, September 1).
An Expanding Terrorist Threat
Another factor characterizing the “new” North African jihadism is represented by its internal divisions. These divisions are impacting Algerian security but lead us to a second consideration; North African jihadism is no longer just an Algerian affair, but has become a transnational phenomenon. Indeed, the new groups operating in the Sahel are made up not only of Algerian fighters, but also combatants coming from other Maghreb and West African countries.
The jihadist changes compel a rethinking of the Algerian counterterrorism strategy itself, which must now be focused on different objectives than the traditional ones and be conducted in a more cooperative way with other regional actors, as Algerian presidential advisor Kamel Rezzag-Bara has outlined (Radio Algérienne, May 15). The threats are no longer confined to within the borders of Algeria, but also concern border security and various types of criminal activities. In order to face this new type of jihadism, the Algerian counter-terrorist strategy must therefore operate on three new levels:
- Hitting the criminal networks throughout the Sahel region
- Using a growing number of human resources in border control
- Working in a more structured framework with the other countries affected by this threat
The war in Mali and the so-called “Sahelization” of the Algerian jihadists led to the creation of new criminal networks, mainly dedicated to drug trafficking and the smuggling of counterfeit goods. Algerian counter-terrorism strategy will therefore have to make the fight against these activities one of its priorities in order to eradicate the jihadist threat by removing their sources of supply. From the operational point of view, this is leading to the redeployment of Algerian security forces from the center to the periphery. Algeria has historically preferred to concentrate its efforts within Algeria rather than disperse its military forces. However, it is now evident that the greatest threat comes from the border territories, with new threats having been identified along the border with Mali and on the south-eastern borders with Libya and Tunisia. In this regard, the Algerian government has already put new measures in place: out of 190 terrorists killed during 2013, most have been killed on the borders with Mali, Libya and Tunisia. During the past few months, Algerian authorities have repeatedly denounced infiltration attempts by jihadists from Tunisia and Algerian security forces have carried out several operations against fighters who were trying to cross the border in both directions (Tunisie Numerique, August 5). The borders with Libya present the same problems and during recent months more than 40 terrorists have been arrested there (Echourouk [Algiers], August 7).
New Counter-terrorism Strategies
The current threat perception is so high that Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has met with ANP chief-of-staff General Ahmed Gaid Salah despite the illness that has kept him away from office for several months (Tsa-algerie.com, September 3). On this occasion, a new counter-terrorism strategy was developed, consisting of the deployment of 20,000 additional troops (including Special Forces and other elite units) on the south-eastern borders (al-Khabar [Algiers], September 11). The Algerian counter-terrorism strategy also seems to have broken a taboo that has been difficult to overcome until now—an unwillingness to interfere in the internal affairs of its neighbors. Bouteflika has now authorized operations to flush out the jihadists within Tunisian and Libyan territory while at the operational level the National Gendarmerie, in charge of border control, will soon be provided with its own air unit (Algerie Focus, September 9).
The new strategies represent an important evolution for Algerian counter-terrorism, but they go hand in hand with the development of common strategies with other regional and international actors. Immediately after the In Aménas attack, Algeria signed new security agreements with the United States and United Kingdom. The U.S. government has considered sharing its drone data with Algeria to target the jihadists and to provide Algeria with surveillance drones, though a final agreement has yet to be signed (Algeria-Watch.org, February 28). Prime Minister David Cameron is the first British leader to visit Algeria since its independence and defining the joint counter-terrorism agenda has been at the center of the bilateral dialogue (The Guardian, January 30).
At the regional level, Algeria has promoted the Comité d’état-major opérationnel conjoint (CEMOC), a joint counterterrorism committee in cooperation with Mali, Mauritania and Niger headquartered in the southern Algerian town of Tamanrasset. Last May important steps were taken in cooperation with Tunisia and Libya, in which Algeria has committed to patrol their common borders. In this context, Algeria has deployed more than 4,000 soldiers at the border with Tunisia, as well as exchanging intelligence information with the Tunis government as a result of the talks between their respective foreign ministries (All Africa, August 7). On the judicial level, the Algerian government has tightened up its counterterrorist measures by amending its Penal Code to include new types of crimes in the list of the terrorist activities. These crimes include the use of nuclear material, hostage-taking, damaging air, land and naval navigation facilities, the destruction of communication infrastructure and crimes related to the financing of terrorism (Jeune Afrique, October 7).
Thanks to its new counterterrorism strategies and despite the In Aménas incident, Algeria claims it is witnessing its quietest year in a decade in terms of terrorist activity on its territory (Echourouk [Algiers], August 7). Despite this claim, the weaknesses of Algerian counter-terrorism measures were exposed in the In Aménas attack, which demonstrated the relative inability of the Algerian government to successfully cope with new terrorist threats. The results of this attack suggest Algeria must adapt its current counter-terrorism doctrine in two ways:
- A new focus must be placed on border security, even if this means violating Algeria’s foreign policy taboo against extra-territorial military operations
- Algeria must continue to act in coordination with regional actors and international allies to cope with emerging terrorist trends. Although Algeria has taken steps in this regard in recent years, it was still unable to prevent the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) from mounting a car bomb attack against the CEMOC headquarters in Tamanrasset in March, 2012 (Echourouk [Algiers], March 3, 2012). The incident confirmed the need for more effective security coordination and intelligence-sharing in the Sahara/Sahel region.
Stefano Maria Torelli is a Research Fellow at the Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) and a member of the Italian Centre for the Study of Political Islam (CISIP).
1. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), The Military Balance 2012, Routledge, London, 2012; Journal Officiel de la Republique Algerienne, N. 72, December 30, 2012, http://www.mf.gov.dz/article_pdf/upl-37bf45efdf8412a00de028b8d7e5427c.pdf.
2. “Top 20 Arms Importers, 2008-2012,” SIPRI Arms Transfers Database, available at: http://www.sipri.org/googlemaps/2013_of_at_top_20_imp_map.html.
3. For a reconstruction of AQIM’s activities in the region, see Christopher S. Chivvis and Andrew Liepman, North Africa’s Menace, RAND Corporation, 2013.