Algeria: North Africa’s Reluctant Policeman
The inner workings of Algeria’s opaque state structures are a mystery for many foreign observers. Since the country gained independence in 1962, Algeria’s inward-looking regime has jealously guarded its ability to conduct state affairs without outside interference. In 2012, as Western powers contemplated military action against jihadi groups in Northern Mali, European and American diplomatic delegations heavily lobbied Algerian government officials for support with no success.
Algeria’s deployment capability and its intimate knowledge of jihadi militancy, gained during its decade-long civil war in the nineties, made it a prime candidate for the role of “regional policeman.” The country’s financial stability and its traditional influence over Sahelian neighbors were perceived as leverageable assets in this new front of the “War on Terror.”
Hillary Clinton, Laurent Fabius and a number of other senior Western envoys were dispatched to meet with President Bouteflika to convince him. But their requests were met with skepticism inside the regime and the president and his team deflected their proposals time and time again—in short, “thanks, but no thanks.”
Algeria’s leadership has always shown great reluctance in assuming an overly assertive leadership role in the country’s traditional “zones of influence.” This is particularly the case for security issues, where Algeria shied away from acting as a “policeman” in the Sahel in times of crisis. National sovereignty and noninterference in the internal affairs of other states are sacrosanct doctrines of Algerian foreign policy inherited from a staunchly anti-colonial and nonaligned legacy. Furthermore, the country’s historic rivalry with its neighbor Morocco and its own struggle with a violent, domestic jihadi insurgency heavily drained its military, pulling focus away from Sahelian matters.
The fall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011 marked the start of troubling times throughout North Africa. As Libya’s institutions collapsed, the country gradually become a safe-haven for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and affiliated militia groups, such as Ansar Al Sharia. In neighboring Mali and Tunisia, the presence of terror groups in mountainous border regions and the discovery of weapons caches raised alarms in Algerian security circles.
But it was undoubtedly the attack on the In Amenas oil and gas facility in early 2013, carried out by Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s terrorist group, the al-Mua'qi'oon Biddam Brigade, which jolted the Algerian Etat Major. Even at the height of the civil war, Algeria’s oil and gas facilities had remained unattainable fortresses for jihadi militants. The attack triggered an unprecedented debate over Algerian foreign policy within the regime. In the press and civil society, the country's traditional noninterventionism came under tremendous scrutiny. How could a handful of Islamist terrorists take hundreds of hostages at such a sensitive location? Why were no preemptive actions taken to prevent or predict such an attack?
Deep structural changes were carried out inside Algeria’s all-powerful intelligence agency, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS). A number of senior officers from the department were dismissed and several of the DRS’ units were reportedly placed under the Army chief of staff’s direct control. It was In Amenas and its consequences that pushed Algerian decision makers towards rethinking their doctrines and ultimately prompted a revival of the country’s diplomatic efforts.
Since those events, Algeria has taken to more proactive action. Algeria has begun to come out of its shell, and the country is weighing in on political and security developments in neighboring countries, such as Tunisia. Behind closed doors, some Tunisian officials have taken to referring to Algeria as a “big sister” on security matters. Over the past few months, security officials from both countries have been meeting very regularly to discuss joint operations against militants in the Chaambi Mountain border region. Tunisian special forces are learning from their more experienced Algerian partners, using valuable shared intelligence and counterterrorism techniques. This form of security cooperation is the first of its kind in a region where governments distrust one another.
In September 2013, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI visited Mali and attempted to reposition Morocco as a mediator in talks between the different actors in the conflict. The newly appointed foreign minister, Ramtane Lamamra, and his team toured the region and secured peace talks between protagonists in the Malian conflict.
Lamamra’s appointment as foreign minister was welcomed inside the diplomatic corps. Traditionally, Algerian foreign ministers were political appointees with little-to-no prior diplomatic experience. With over thirty years’ experience in the diplomatic corps and as a former African Union Commissioner for Peace and Security, Lamamra seemed a perfect fit to spearhead the regime’s efforts to revive Algerian regional diplomacy. “Monsieur Afrique,” as he is often referred to, is slowly becoming the country’s most proactive foreign minister in decades.