Four months after militants linked to Al Qaeda attacked the In Amenas gas facility in eastern Algeria – triggering a four-day confrontation with the Algerian army and the deaths of nearly 40 hostages – the Algerian government has beefed up border security and pledged to deploy the army to protect energy sites.
Threatened with a potentially weakened oil and gas sector, which accounts for more than 95 percent of Algeria’s exports, Algerian authorities had every incentive to quickly shore up confidence. This is particularly true at In Amenas, which represented over 10 percent of Algeria’s natural gas production and nearly 18 percent of its gas exports prior to January’s attack. The concerns of foreign governments, energy companies, and other investors, however, should not be assuaged by Algeria’s security window-dressing or assertions that the country’s woes can simply be traced back to a resurgent Al Qaeda.
While Algeria's maneuvers promise to improve its defenses against external forces, they do nothing to address – and in fact are likely to see their efficacy degraded by – the underlying threat to the security and economic progress of the country: the fundamental dysfunction of the Algerian state. Destabilizing rivalries among the country’s leaders and a habit of nurturing extremist groups for political ends have shaped the security environment that allowed the In Amenas crisis to occur and are unlikely to fade away in the short term.
Rather than a story of youthful revolution, Algeria’s is one of ongoing struggle between two factions organized around septuagenarian autocrats clinging to power: President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Gen. Mohamed “Toufik” Mediène, who has served as head of the country’s powerful intelligence agency, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS), since 1990. President Bouteflika represents the public face of the Algerian government, while General Mediène, who is believed to have initially backed Bouteflika’s ascension to the presidency in 1999, maintains a less visible though equally influential presence within Algeria.
The two groups have lengthy records of directing resources against one another rather than against legitimate security threats, often damaging the Algerian economy in the process. In 2010, for instance, a DRS-led corruption investigation into Algeria’s national oil company Sonatrach forced the removal of then Minister of Energy and Mines Chakib Khelil, a close childhood friend and ally of Bouteflika. Leaked diplomatic cables from the time refer to the likelihood that “political infighting between civilian and military leadership” served as the motivation for the DRS investigation. The same cables report complaints from international oil company executives that Sonatrach’s senior executives were “looking over their shoulders and afraid to make decisions or sign anything,” effectively paralyzing Algeria’s oil sector. The latest round of Sonatrach investigations, launched in February 2013 and once more led by the DRS, may bring more of the same.
Galvanized by their internal rivalries, Algeria’s leaders have not only turned their sights on one another but have also tolerated and supported militant, separatist, and smuggling groups that vie for a foothold in the region’s most lucrative trades in arms, drugs, and the kidnapping of foreigners. While the threats posed by Al Qaeda and its North African manifestation, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), are real, they are difficult to disentangle from the Algerian state’s role in fostering a complex web of domestically and regionally active groups with destabilizing agendas – many of which appear to retain relationships at high levels within the Algerian state apparatus.
Indeed, many of the region’s militants are in equal measure jihadists and opportunists. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the alleged mastermind behind the In Amenas attack, and Iyad Ag Ghali, the Tuareg separatist whose Islamist movement Ansar Al Dine helped usher in the current wave of violence in northern Mali, are but two examples. Mr. Belmokhtar, dubbed Mr. Marlboro for his prominent cigarette smuggling operation that crisscrosses the Sahel region, is also believed to have formerly served as a DRS operative.
Ag Ghali, the latest incarnation of the Tuareg separatist movement that has plagued Algeria’s south, has long maintained open lines of communication with Algiers. While Belmokhtar is presumed dead, not for the first time, recent reports suggest that Algerian officials continue to hold secret meetings with Ag Ghali and Ansar Al Dine in an effort to move the group further into Algeria’s orbit, despite, or perhaps because of, In Amenas. So long as Algeria remains uncommitted to or disunited in efforts to neutralize these groups, they will remain potential sources of instability.
Deep divisions within the Algerian state also impede its ability to coordinate with neighbors and would-be allies, whose attempts to work with Algerian officials risk driving deeper the inter-factional wedge. Bouteflika’s decision to allow the French to use Algerian airspace in January appears to have been made at the last minute and without the prior approval of the DRS, further distancing the two parties. More generally, both Bouteflika and the DRS have eschewed security coordination with Algeria’s neighbors, despite the fact that the In Amenas attackers reportedly crossed the Libyan-Algerian border in order to stage their attack.
Against this backdrop, Algeria appears unlikely to meaningfully contribute to the kind of collective regional security strategy that could grow out of the establishment of a new US drone base in Niger or a new security partnership with the United Kingdom, announced by British Prime Minister David Cameron during a visit in late January, under which the UK will supply border-surveillance equipment.
As internal divisions forestall an Algerian commitment to regional cooperation, the country’s neighbors will be forced to resort to unilateral actions, such as Libya’s December 2012 move to close its border with Algeria, to little effect.
The war of attrition between Bouteflika and the DRS places foreign investors – particularly those seeking to ensure the security of their oil and gas sites from a repeat of the In Amenas incident – in a difficult position. British Petroleum and Statoil, joint venture partners with Algeria’s state-owned Sonatrach at the In Amenas facility have yet to return their workers to the natural gas complex, leaving it to operate at partial capacity rather than place their personnel at risk. Reinforcement of Algeria’s border controls and on-site security presence offer limited peace of mind without confidence that Algeria’s political leadership and security forces are truly committed to a common agenda compatible with these companies’ interests.
The looming 2014 presidential election threatens to further compromise the coherence of Algerian state action in the medium-term – particularly given the ongoing speculation regarding Bouteflika’s failing health – but could also open the way to progress. A consolidation of power under either Bouteflika or Mediène’s faction – or, less likely but more optimistically, the representative of a younger and more pragmatic political movement less burdened by the legacies of the Algerian war of independence – holds out the promise of an internal realignment favorable to foreign investors. Between now and then, their best line of defense may be the adoption of a wariness born of the knowledge that the Algerian state may be its own greatest security threat.
– Yuval Orr is an associate at Veracity Worldwide, a New York-based political risk and strategic advisory consultancy.