Algeria hates being in the news. Lying on the northern shores of the African continent, bordering post-revolutionary Tunisia and Libya, the largest country in Africa seems opaque to outsiders and almost paranoid in its behavior.
It may come as a surprise, but the first signs of an Arab Spring had been spotted in Algeria, some 25 years ago. In reaction to public unrest, the government of Algeria in 1988 instituted a multi-party system. However, when the elections of 1991 were heading towards a victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the Algerian army intervened and brought the democratic carousel to a screeching halt. The subsequent crackdown on the FIS and the ensuing civil war resulted in 200 000 deaths. At the end of this dark decade, the generals had regained control over Algeria. Abdelaziz Bouteflika was installed as president; a presidency managed by an entity commonly known by the French word “le pouvoir” – the power – a consortium of senior officials who meets behind closed doors.
Algeria's parliamentary elections in 2012 ended in disbelief, to quote a headline from the New York Times. An alliance of moderate Islamist parties did poorly in the voting, and so did the Socialist Forces Front, another opposition group. Analysts were stunned. Once again, the system had found ways to consolidate its power.
Clearly though, the “pouvoir” was nervous. Frightened by events in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, where public movements and – in the case of Libya – NATO bombs had swept away long standing strongmen, the Algerian government had started to distribute money to calm the masses. Money that was taken from the revenues of oil and gas sales, the lifeline of the Algerian economy.
On January 16, 2013, a terrorist attack on the gas facilities in In Amenas, a desert town in southeastern Algeria, close to the Libyan border, challenged the calm the generals in Algiers prefer. Jihadists coming from Mali had taken hundreds of facility workers hostage. The Algerian army decisively moved in, ending the siege in a blood bath. A big number of both hostage takers and hostages were left dead when the dust over In Amenas had cleared. Observers were reminded of similar large-scale hostage situations in Russia, most notably the attack on a school in Beslan in 2004 that ended with nearly 200 children killed after Russian security forces had intervened.
Algeria and Russia go back a long way. The Soviet Union was the first country to recognize the provisional Government of the Algerian Republic in 1960, two years before the country's independence from France. Later, Algerian intelligence officers were trained by the KGB and the army was equipped with military hardware made in Russia. Since 2006, Russia and Algeria have increased their military cooperation, with Algeria acquiring submarines, fighter jets and S-300 air defense systems from Russia. Over the years, Algeria has become Russia's top trade partner for arms in the Middle East, even outspending Syria.
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Russia has a very robust approach to counterterrorism. According to a 2009 analysis by Mariya Y. Omlicheva, assistant professor at the University of Kansas, the scope of Russia's counterterrorism measures has been traditionally confined to military operations and security service efforts. This follows from Russia's understanding of terrorism as an attack on the state rather than an assault on individual rights. The unrestricted expansion of the state's repressive powers for protection and preservation of state interests, Omlicheva notes, has rarely yielded good results. Instead of resolving security problems, the imperial tradition calls for their suppression. And, inevitably, they re-emerge.
Eradication, not negotiation, is the basic principle of Algeria's counterterrorism policy. Soft approaches have been tried as well, mostly focusing on stopping the spread of extremist forms of Islam, but hard approaches have proven to be more effective. During the 1990s, the Algerian security services fought Islamists with the utmost brutality. They would do “anything to wipe out the devil”, as Robert Fisk denounced the government's tactics in his excellent reporting on the Algerian civil war. It is widely believed that the GIA, the Islamists' combat organization, was actually a creation of the Algerian security services. Army officers and undercover agents who had infiltrated the ranks of the GIA committed atrocities on a horrendous scale, thus discrediting the GIA, and the Islamists in general, in the eyes of the Algerian people.
The DRS, the Algerian military intelligence service, is arguably the world's most effective intelligence service when it comes to fighting Al Qaeda, writes John R. Schindler, a former US counterintelligence officer with the National Security Agency. It is probably also the most cold-blooded intelligence service. The attack on In Amenas was executed by jihadists belonging to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). However, some people in the region refer to AQIM as AQIM/DRS. “At the heart of AQIM is the DRS”, Mali's head of state security told the media in 2009. Shortly thereafter, he was assassinated at his home by “unknown gunmen.”
The siege in In Amenas only lasted for four days before order was restored. From the outset, the Algerian army was determined to finish the job quickly, placing a swift end over the safety of the hostages. There were at least three reasons for this: to draw a strong line in the sand to deter terrorists from future attacks. To deal with the crisis on its own terms, while special forces from the UK, the US and France were already waiting in the wings. And, considering the importance of the natural resources sector for the Algerian economy and thus for the regime, to smother any possible bad press about the safety of Algerian oil and gas facilities before it could hit the commodities markets worldwide.
The events in the aftermath of the first round of Arab Spring have not particularly raised the appetite for revolution among the Algerian people. In Tunisia, the country is in shock after the murder of secular opposition politician Chokri Belaïd. In Libya, militias have emerged as the real centers of force in a multi-divided country. And in Egypt, President Mursi must resort to “Mubarak-style tactics” to keep him and the Muslim Brotherhood in power.
Political realists value order above freedom; for them the latter becomes important only after the former has been established. The Algerian regime doesn't waste any opportunity to hammer this point home. In 1992, and in the years that followed, the violence by the Islamists, often instigated by the regime itself, was used to a posteriori justify the abortion of the democratic process and the cancellation of the elections in 1991. In 2013, and following a logic of an AQIM deeply penetrated by the Algerian intelligence apparatus, the attack on In Amenas can serve to justify a non-response to Arab Spring ideas the Algerian people may have. Because this was the message of In Amenas: “le pouvoir” in Algiers is not for sale. Quod erat demonstrandum.