The United States is deeply involved with a key Muslim partner in the struggle against jihadist terrorism. Although the relationship between the countries is superficially robust, encompassing years of military and intelligence cooperation and bolstered by American financial support, the inner workings of the relationship are seldom transparent to Washington. This is thanks to the dominant position of the country’s powerful military intelligence service, which is the backbone of the regime. This service often works at cross purposes to stated policy, sometimes actively opposing Western goals. At times, the service seems to be beyond the control of the civilian government and even the military chain of command. For the United States, it is a frustrating situation which seems beyond remedy.
That description encompasses the trying “frenemy” relationship that the United States has long enjoyed with Pakistan, thanks to that country’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the spy service known to the Taliban as “the black snake.” Certainly the ISI has done much clandestinely to frustrate U.S. and NATO efforts in Afghanistan, as well as supported terrorism against India. Its reputation as a regional mayhem-maker, as well as the real power in Pakistan, is hard earned.
But the description also holds true for Algeria, a country whose prominent position in the global fight against Al-Qaeda is in the news again thanks to the rising war in neighboring Mali and the disastrous effort by Algeria’s military to rescue Western hostages, who had reportedly been seized by local jihadists.
Algeria, like Pakistan, has a military intelligence service, the Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS), whose remit far surpasses any Western security agency. The DRS is rightly seen as the regime’s backbone, with a powerbase beyond even the military. In a real sense, as in Pakistan, the military’s spies control much of the political system, functioning as a law unto themselves, committing human rights abuses and providing clandestine support for terrorist groups to further the service’s interests.
Although average Algerians are well aware of the might and unsavory habits of the DRS, which they know to be the base of the unpopular regime they call le pouvoir (“the power”), most foreigners seem remarkably unaware of how the country actually functions, to include many U.S. military and intelligence officers who partner with Algeria against terrorism. Unfortunately the debate about the DRS’s real role in the Maghreb is polemical, indeed Manichean, with émigré opponents of le pouvoir seeing its hidden hand behind nearly everything that happens north of the Sahara, while most Western experts seem content to avoid any real discussion of the DRS, viewing it as a sort of myth or “conspiracy theory” which need not be considered. That the former group is closer to the truth has not helped their credibility in the West, and only in France, the former colonial master, does the press offer reality-based coverage of Algerian affairs.
This is particularly important due to events unfolding in the Maghreb. Years of U.S. investment in the region, especially expensive efforts by the Pentagon’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) to build up Mali’s security forces, have failed dismally, and France has entered the fight to save a desperate situation. While concerns of a Jihadistan taking over much of the Sahel are overblown, Paris is right to worry about the impact of letting Al-Qaeda gain control of large tracts of West Africa. After years of warnings by AFRICOM that jihadists threaten the Sahel, the U.S. solution, predicated upon training local forces to do the hard work, has been found wanting—and the threat is now upon us.
Washington will be tempted to forge a closer partnership with Algiers to improve regional stability, to let the Algerian security forces do what we will not. Certainly the DRS has worked closely with U.S. intelligence since the 1990s, and its record in killing terrorists is second-to-none in the Maghreb. Yet how the DRS has done that is something which Washington seems reluctant to ask questions about. To be sure, its methods include tactics which the United Statesmust be careful about associating itself with, including sponsoring terrorist groups and committing human rights abuses on an industrial scale.
Given how often over the past twenty years Western hostage dramas have been exploited by the Algerian regime—meaning the DRS—for political effect, it’s time to start asking questions about what Algiers is really up to across the region. To what extent does the DRS continue to clandestinely support terrorism, as it did in the 1990s, as a weapon to discredit political Islam? It was a tactic that worked successfully but cost tens of thousands of civilian lives. There is ample evidence that the DRS maintains control of at least some of the jihadist bandit-groups operating under the rubric of Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) across the Sahel.
The Algerian regime recently celebrated fifty years of its rule after France granted the country independence, and le pouvoir shows no signs of joining the Arab Spring and allowing free and fair elections. So far, Algeria has missed the wave of democratization that has swept the region, but one wonders how much longer change can be held off, even by force. Fearing that the military, which has many conscripts, might not be willing to openly fight the Algerian people, the regime is more dependent than ever on the DRS to maintain control over the country and the region by any means necessary.
If anything, thanks to the KGB training of many of its senior officers, the DRS is even more adept at provocation, disinformation, and dirty tricks than Pakistan’s ISI, which is no slouch in such dark arts. As the United States and the West move to direct involvement in combating jihadists in North Africa, a dispassionate assessment is needed. Washington must know exactly what is going on before it can decide how closely it should ally itself with a regime and an intelligence service that have a great deal of blood on their hands.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the United States and NATO continue to be held hostage to the ISI’s agenda. It would be a grave mistake to repeat this strategic error and find ourselves held hostage in the Maghreb by the Algerian DRS and its surrogates.
John R. Schindler is professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College and chair of the Partnership for Peace’s Combating Terrorism Working Group, as well as a former counterintelligence officer with the National Security Agency. The views expressed here are entirely his own. He blogs at The XX Committee.