Despite not really being in the news, Algeria still appears in the Western media intermittently. As the Maghreb’s last dictatorship, the recent wave of regime change and democratization has passed this important country by, at least so far. Algeria is the key state in Northwest Africa—by virtue of its size, position, natural wealth and regional influence—yet has missed out on the trend that has overtaken so much of the Arab world for the past two years. It remains notable that Algeria’s bloody civil war, which began twenty years ago, never really ended. And now with the help of Al Qaeda, the conflict may be spreading across the Sahel region.
Events in Algeria have long been underreported in the U.S. and Western media (with the exception of France), and there is a general lack of understanding of what ails the country. Certainly the terrible fratricide there in the 1990s got little coverage in Western media, despite the fact that it probably claimed twice as many lives as the Bosnian conflict, which ran concurrently and received nonstop Western attention.
Algeria’s nightmare years of 1993–1997 were a focus of the international human-rights community, which correctly pointed out that the conduct of the government was hardly better than that of Islamist terrorists trying to take over the country. But since 9/11, the Algerian narrative has been subsumed into the West’s counterterrorism effort, to the extent it is reported at all. Enormous poverty, inequality, and the regime’s rapacious and brutal conduct get little attention from Western experts, who seem more interested in speculating about potential Al Qaeda attacks in the Maghreb.
The Real Story
The official story is straightforward. Two decades ago, the military-led junta, which had governed the country since independence from France in 1962, cancelled a democratic election that likely would have brought Islamists to power, and mujahidin took up arms against the secular regime. By 1993, the supremely violent Armed Islamic Group (GIA) emerged as the implacable foe of the regime and the local Al Qaeda affiliate. Although GIA was not the only Islamist resistance group in the country, it was unquestionably the bloodiest. It conducted brutal attacks not just in Algeria but in Europe as well, including a wave of bombings in Paris in the summer of 1995, remembered by terrorism gurus as Al Qaeda’s first attacks on the West. Failing to achieve victory, GIA fell into mass murder, slaughtering Algerian civilians by the hundreds, causing Al Qaeda to break ties with the group in early 1997. Largely killed off by the Algerian security forces, by 1998 the remnants of GIA had coalesced into the GSPC, a far smaller group which posed no serious threat to the regime and spent most of its time on kidnappings and robberies.
In 2006, after almost a decade hiatus, Al Qaeda reinitiated Algerian mujahidin into its ranks, renaming the local franchise Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). While AQIM has been more active in terrorism than the GSPC, it also seems more like an armed gang than a bona fide jihadist group. Over the last few years, AQIM’s reach has extended across the Maghreb and into the Sahel, leading some jihad-watchers to posit that it constitutes a threat to the region, a view shared by many in the U.S. government.
While this account is not entirely inaccurate, it leaves out so many important details as to be essentially false. Above all, it omits the role of the Algerian regime in counterterrorism, which has been effective at defeating the jihad even though its methods would make most Westerners shudder. The lead agency in the fight against the Algerian mujahidin has been the country’s military intelligence service, the feared DRS. With a reputation for ruthlessness and efficiency second to none in the Arab world, the DRS is arguably the world’s most effective intelligence service when it comes to fighting Al Qaeda; it is also probably the most cold-blooded. The DRS can be considered the backbone of the military-led junta. General Mohamed Mediene has headed the DRS since 1990, making him the longest-serving intelligence boss in world history—and few doubt that he is the most powerful man in the country.
Trained by the KGB and schooled in the hard fight for independence, Algerian spies have used tactics against homegrown extremists reminiscent of a sinister B-grade movie. Several high-ranking DRS officers have explained what they did to defeat the mujahidin, including violating human rights on an industrial scale, but hardly anyone outside France seems to have noticed.
Simply put, GIA was the creation of the DRS; using proven Soviet methods of penetration and provocation, the agency assembled it to discredit the extremists. Much of GIA’s leadership consisted of DRS agents, who drove the group into the dead end of mass murder, a ruthless tactic that thoroughly discredited GIA Islamists among nearly all Algerians. Most of its major operations were the handiwork of the DRS, including the 1995 wave of bombings in France. Some of the most notorious massacres of civilians were perpetrated by military special units masquerading as mujahidin, or by GIA squads under DRS control. Having driven GIA into the ground by the late 1990s, DRS has continued to infiltrate and influence Islamist groups in the country. To what extent the local Al Qaeda affiliate is secretly controlled by the military—as GIA and GSPC were—is an open question, but its recent record suggests that DRS influence over any Algerian extremist group is considerable.
U.S. Intel Failure?
These realities, understood by Algerians, are little known in the West, particularly in the United States. While French senior officials have hinted they have been wise to DRS games for many years, a similar understanding seems altogether lacking in the Pentagon or the U.S. intelligence community, which have partnered with Algeria in the fight against Al Qaeda since the 1990s. Whether they really are ignorant or simply do not want to know the sordid details is an open and important question.
To be fair to those inside the Beltway, outside “terrorism experts” are just as credulous about Algeria’s “official story,” and an entire subindustry has arisen in recent years that seeks to explain Algeria and its violent homegrown jihad without any reference to basic realities inside the country.
Yet Algeria’s neighbors, who fear the country’s outsized influence in Northwest Africa, are appropriately skeptical of the Algiers-created narrative that portrays AQIM as a major threat to regional stability. They reject the idea that extremists can be combated only by greater Algerian involvement in regional affairs that is implicitly supported by the United States. African officials are known to drop unsubtle hints that AQIM is not quite what it seems to be and ought to be viewed within the broader context of Algerian foreign policy. In one of the rare cases where such doubts were aired openly, Mali’s head of state security, who is charged with keeping Algerian mujahidin out of his country, told the press in June 2009 that “at the heart of AQIM is the DRS.” Shortly thereafter, he was shot dead at home by “unknown gunmen.”
U.S. interest in the Sahel has only grown in recent years, roughly in tandem with the alleged rise of AQIM in the region. It is no coincidence that the U.S. Army is aligning a combat brigade with U.S. Africa Command—which heretofore has had no combat units permanently assigned to it—and the Pentagon’s interest in the region is rising fast. “Terrorist elements around the world go to the areas they think has the least resistance,” explained army chief of staff General Ray Odierno, “and right now, you could argue that’s Africa.”
While Al Qaeda unquestionably has a great deal of interest in the Maghreb, and would surely like to see the Algerian junta fall and be replaced by a Salafi regime bent on rebuilding the imaginary caliphate, the chances of this outcome are virtually nil. DRS methods, plus the usual extremist tone-deafness, have successfully soured the vast majority of Algerians on the jihadist message. While most Algerians want an end to what they simply call le pouvoir (“the power”), the corrupt military elite that has run the country since France left in 1962, few pine for any sort of Islamist dictatorship.
Last weekend, Algeria celebrated fifty years of independence. But for most Algerians, buffeted by poverty, instability, corruption and war, there is little to celebrate. Mid-May parliamentary elections resulted in a surprising win for the junta, leading to accusations of fraud as well as despair for those hoping for change via the ballot box. It is clear that the military has no intention to bowing to any sort of peaceful regime change, but infighting among the elite may undo the system. When the junta falls, as someday it surely will, the change will rock those who have waged Algeria’s dirty war against terrorism. The effects on the junta’s foreign supporters, who have turned a blind eye to massive human-rights abuses in the name of counterterrorism, will be serious too.
It is time for the U.S. government to follow the lead of human-rights groups: Washington should start asking important questions about what Algiers has really been up to since 1992, and to what extent the junta and the DRS have been engaged in mass repression and state terrorism under the guise of fighting Al Qaeda—all possibly with U.S. assistance. The saga of Algeria over the last twenty years constitutes “one big murder mystery,” said one of the few writers in the Anglosphere to take notice. It’s time to get to the bottom of it.
John R. Schindler is professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College as well as chair of the Partnership for Peace’s Combating Terrorism Working Group. He is a former counterintelligence officer with the National Security Agency. The views expressed here are entirely his own.