Truth and Algerian involvement in Libya

#LibyaCrisis

Is the Algerian regime denying claims that its army is active in Libya, assisting US and French special forces, as such actions would be viewed as treasonable by its people?

Jeremy Keenan's picture
Thursday 12 February 2015 16:30 UTC
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Reports that Algerian forces had entered Libya in strength first appeared in the Times on 30 May. That information was sourced to the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based neoconservative thinktank.

A similar article, written by Akram Kharief, appeared in Algeria’s El Watan newspaper on 6 June. Kharief said that a full regiment of 3,500 Algerian paratroopers and a logistical support group of 1,500 men crossed into Libya on 29 May.

A diplomatic source said the 5,000 ground troops would be supported by significant air power. In a follow-up probe by Le Monde (10 June), Kharief stood by his story, saying he “maintained the nature of the operation and the number of men”.

Kharief said the Algerian troops had occupied a zone in western Libya, taking control of water, other logistical points and cutting roads, carving out a security corridor along the Libyan side of the border.

Other reports, such as Algeria’s Echorouk news channel, said the goal of the operation was to clean up Western Libya as far as Sebha, the logistics node of Libya’s Saharan regions, and then all the way up to the towns of Nalut and Zintan. It also said US and French troops were conducting similar cleaning up operations in other sectors.

The Times article said the Algerian forces were operating alongside French special forces in southern Libya, while some 180 US marines were on standby to provide extra security for the American embassy in Tripoli.

It added they had been sent to Sigonella in Sicily but had yet to receive orders to fly to Tripoli. On 3 June, a Pentagon official said the US was deploying an amphibious assault vessel carrying 1,000 marines near the coast in case the US Embassy had to be evacuated.

With hindsight, these US manoeuvres may have been related to the capture of Ahmed Abu Khattala in Benghazi on 17 June. Both the Stuttgart-based US AFRICOM and a White House spokesperson denied the US was conducting strikes in southern Libya.

Algeria’s defence ministry responded to the El Watan report by telling Al Arabiya’s news channel that the Algerian army was not participating in any operation against extremists in western Libya, while Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal told Algeria’s senate that the “Algerian army will not conduct military operations outside our borders. It is a principle enshrined in the Algerian constitution,” he said.

“Algeria has always shown its willingness to assist [our] sister countries, but things are clear: the Algerian army will not undertake any operation outside Algerian territory.”

Algeria’s foreign minister, Ramtane Lamamra, and chief of staff and deputy defence minister, General Gaid Salah, have also added their voices to Algeria’s denials.

Such denials should be taken with a pinch of salt. Although Algeria’s constitution forbids its forces undertaking operations abroad, Algeria does occasionally deploy its forces beyond its borders. It did so in 1973 to help Egypt fight Israel in the Yom Kippur war. It did so again in 1976 when its army engaged Moroccan forces around Amgala in the Western Sahara. In the last two or three years, its special forces have crossed into Niger on at least three occasions, while in December 2012, some 200 Algerian special forces entered northern Mali.

Algerian ‘denials’

Assuming that the Times, El Watan, Le Monde are all correct, what is such a large Algerian force doing in Libya, and why?

It is very difficult to get accurate information on what is going on in Libya. However, what can be said for certain is that:

  • For several months, certainly since prior to Libya’s General Haftar’s re-emergence on the scene, western intelligence agencies have been aware that Libya, especially its south, has become a safe haven for “terrorist jihadist” groups driven out of northern Mali by France’s Operation Serval.
  • In the last few months, Nato intelligence has identified the Acacus Mountains in south-west Libya, the town and surrounds of Oubari, possibly also Sebha and parts of the Messak ranges, as terrorist “hideouts” and possible new bases. In addition, there has been a lot of “chatter” in intelligence circles that Algerian terrorist Mokhtar Belmokhtar has now established himself in Libya and is planning terrorist operations in Chad.
  • Analysts have also been talking about a pincer movement by Egyptian and Algerian forces on either side of Libya’s desert regions, with Chadian and French forces cutting off Libya’s southern frontiers thus entrapping “terrorist” groups within Libya’s Sahara.
  • Algeria’s El Khabar newspaper, which is close to Algeria’s military, said on 11 June that Algeria was coming under increasing pressure from western countries to intervene in Libya to destroy the “jihadist Salafist” groups. It added that Algeria had been advised by western states that if it was slow to intervene militarily, oil and gas deposits in southwest Libyan would pass into the control of Salafist jihadists.

The Algerian denials have to be understood in their context. This is that the strongly nationalistic Algerian public opinion would not tolerate the Algerian army fighting alongside France, the former colonial power, or the United States, “The great Satan”.

The reality is that if the Algerian public knew that the government had agreed for its army to fight alongside French and/or US forces, there would be widespread political unrest, threatening the very existence of the regime.

The majority of Algerians would almost certainly regard using the army in this way as treasonable. The job of senior government officials is therefore to convince public opinion that allegations of Algerian involvement in Libya are false.

Algerians were perhaps distracted by the national team’s progress in the World Cup. But they are unlikely not to have noticed the visit of Egypt’s President al-Sisi to Algiers on 25 June and reports in Middle East media that the Algerian and Egyptian regimes are not merely combining (with the Americans) in propping up Libya’s General Haftar, but that Sisi’s visit was intended to “activate joint defence agreements”, sharpen up the “counter-terrorism dossier” and draft a plan to confront “extremist groups”.

Fighting alongside Egyptians is one thing. For the Algerian regime to allow its armed forces to act in concert with French and/or US forces is a high-risk domestic political strategy.

Jeremy Keenan is a Professorial Research Associate at the School of Oriental and Africa Studies. He has written many book including The Dark Sahara (2009) and The Dying Sahara (2012). He acts as consultant on the Sahara and the Sahel to numerous international organisations, including the United Nations, the European Commission and many others. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

Photo credit: Egypt's president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, flanked by an official, reviews troops upon his arrival at Houari-Boumediene International Airport on June 25, 2014 in Algiers (AFP)