Libya, the Sahel and the ghosts of Algerian terrorism

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Many questions hang in the balance regarding Algeria’s DRS, its attempts at reinventing itself, its relationship with the West and its potential invasion of Libya.

Strange things are going on in Algeria’s murky world of counter-terrorism. Unfortunately for most of Algeria’s North African and Sahelian neighbours, they have ramifications far beyond Algeria’s geographical borders. Indeed, there is very little terrorism in North Africa and the Sahel that is not linked in one way or another to either terrorist groups that have had their genesis in Algeria or Algeria’s secret intelligence service, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS), or, as is usually the case, in both.

To understand the extraordinarily complex and almost incredible situation that has been developing across the North African – Sahelian region, a little background history is required.

Since the DRS (then called Securité Militaire) first helped the Soviet Union in the 1980s by infiltrating Afghanistan’s mujahedeen, it has become the past-master of infiltrating and manipulating terrorist groups. In Algeria’s own civil war (“Dirty War”) of the 1990s between the regime and so-called “Islamists,” the DRS succeeded as early as 1994 in having one of its own agents, Djamel Zitouni, appointed as leader of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). Since then, it has never looked back.

US and Algeria: Allies in the “war on terror?”

Since the start of America’s global war on terror (GWOT) after 9/11, in which the US and Algeria have been close allies, nearly all of Algeria’s best-known terrorists, namely Amari Saifi (“El Para”), Mokhtar ben Mokhtar (MBM), Abdelhamid Abou Zaïd, Yahia Djouadi, Iyad ag Ghali, Taleb Abdelkrim and Mohamed Lamine Bouchneb are now known to have been DRS agents or operatives.

The result of this is that much of the terrorism in Algeria and neighbouring countries has been fabricated, often in the form of “false flag” operations, by the DRS, and with the knowledge and complicity of Western intelligence services.

DRS’ “state terrorism”

Until 2012, detailed documentation of this extraordinary situation was largely confined to my two volumes on terrorism in the region, The Dark Sahara (2009) and The Dying Sahara (2013). Then, in 2012, my research was, to a large extent, corroborated by John Schindler, a former senior US intelligence officer specializing in Algeria and the North African region, a member of the US National Security Council and the current head of Security and Terrorism Studies at the US Naval War College. In an article entitled “The Ugly Truth about Algeria,” published in The National Interest (10 July, 2012), Schindler described how Algeria’s DRS, over a period of two decades, had created its own terrorists and used them for its own “state terrorism.”

In January 2013, after the terrorist attack on the Tiguentourine Gas Facility near In Amenas in the Algerian Sahara, which killed some 40 foreign nationals and which bore much evidence of DRS involvement, Schindler again went public. This time, he spoke of “Algeria’s hidden hand,”[i] drawing attention to the parallel between Algeria’s DRS and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the problems that the ISI’s relationship with the Taliban has caused for the US and the West in general.

The best-known terrorist incidents fabricated by the DRS since the start of the GWOT have been the hostage-taking of 32 European tourists in the Algerian Sahara in 2003; two attacks on traffickers in northern Mali in September and October 2006 and the attack on Djanet (south-east Algeria) airport in 2007. These were managed on behalf of the DRS by “El Para,” Iyad ag Ghali and Mohamed Lamine Bouchneb respectively. Since February 2008, a further 40 or so Westerners have been taken hostage in the region. In each incident, a DRS agent or associate, either Abou Zaïd, MBM, Taleb Abdelkrim, Iyad ag Ghali and/or Abdullah al-Furathi, was involved in the hostage-taking. As for the Tiguentourine attack, Algeria asserts it was organised by MBM and led by Bouchneb. In addition, the leaders of the three main Islamist “insurgency” movements in Mali during 2012 - AQIM, Ansar al-Din and MUJAO (Mouvement pour l'Unicité et le Jihad en Afrique de l'Ouest) - namely Abou Zaïd, Iyad ag Ghali and Sultan ould Badi, were all DRS operatives.

Dismantling the DRS

Over the last year or so, there have been two reasons for believing that this decade (2003-2013) of “state terrorism,” which has wracked North Africa and the Sahel, might be coming to an end. One was the French military intervention in Mali; the other has been Algeria’s dismantlement of its DRS.

France’s military intervention not only killed some 600 Islamist militants, according to French military reports, but also, and perhaps more importantly, killed some of the top, DRS-infiltrated terrorist leaders, notably Abou Zaïd.

The French military push through Mali also led to the majority of the jihadists fleeing Mali.  Many of the hard-core AQIM Algerians under Abou Zaid’s command appear to have melted back into Algeria, with the DRS-recruited Sahrawi contingent slinking back to the Polisario-run Tindouf refugee camps.  However, the majority dispersed throughout much of the rest of the Sahara-Sahel, notably Libya and Niger. According to local Tuareg, an estimated 2,000-2,500, possibly more, are now found scattered through southern Libya, northern Niger and Chad, with the largest concentration being in the Djado plateau region of north-east Niger.

The dismantling and restructuring of the DRS - which began in the summer of 2013, and consolidated after September 2013 with the dismissal or retirement of at least four of the department’s top generals - has been a more secretive process associated with Algeria’s interminable power struggle between the presidency, army and DRS. One outcome of this power struggle is that we can perhaps now talk of the “old,” as distinct from the “new,” DRS. A second, and perhaps more pertinent outcome is that the DRS may have lost much of its control over terrorist groups such as AQIM and MUJAO.

The last 18 months has thus seen the fragmentation of the “terrorist-jihadist” groups that in 2012 were concentrated in northern Mali and their dispersal across much of the Sahara-Sahel into a more dislocated network of smaller and perhaps ideologically and ethnically fragmented groups under new, emergent and, at this stage, lesser known local leaders. Whether this more inchoate situation is a greater or lesser security threat to Western interests is debatable.

Price of French support: invading Libya and the Sahel

Since the re-election of Algeria’s ailing, 77 year-old and increasingly unpopular President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April 2014 to an unprecedented fourth term, there have been further significant changes and developments, with the most significant being that Algeria is now having to pay the price for France’s support for Bouteflika’s re-election.

That price is being seen in Algeria’s grudging preparedness, against all its historical values and ideological inclinations, to support France and the US in their wider North African and Sahelian counterinsurgency and counterterrorism plans. 

In late May, Algeria deployed 5,000 troops into Libya as part of the preparatory Franco-Algerian-Egyptian pincer movement against the Islamist “revolutionaries” and other “terrorist”/extremist groups in Libya. Now, as Libya collapses into intensified fighting, with the Islamists apparently gaining the upper hand, speculation about an Algerian-Egyptian invasion is rife.

The first week of August has seen much talk in the Algerian media about such an invasion. State propaganda, much of it focused on the movement of some 5,000 IS fighters into Libya and the threat they pose to Algeria, is preparing the population for a possible Algerian military intervention.

Whether Algeria joins Egypt in a major invasion is still very uncertain. Both countries will be backed by the US and France, with the Arab League, African Union and possibly even the UN giving cover.

Invasion of Libya will unite Algerian regime

Such an invasion would have benefits for the Algerian regime. It would bring the regime together and put an end, at least for a while, to its infighting. The accompanying nationalist propaganda would also bring the people and regime closer together. It would also demonstrate to the West that Algeria is the region’s one super-power.

However, not all Algerians are supportive. Many believe this is not Algeria’s role. They also believe that Algeria does not have the means. In particular, they believe the Algerian army is not as strong as portrayed. Although large and well equipped, it is low on morale, as are most armies that are so corrupt at the top and which are used to killing their own people. Moreover, an invading Algerian force will be opposed by the Libyan people who hate Algeria for a number of reasons, not least for its covert support to Gaddafi during the 2011 rebellion. Blow-back from Libya also poses a significant risk to Algeria’s major oil and gas fields.

There is also increasing speculation about the extent to which Algeria will support France’s expanded militarization of the Sahel. On 10 May, France’s Defence Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian announced the deployment of 3,000 French troops across Niger and Chad, in addition to the 1,700 still retained in Mali. This new venture, “Operation Barkhan,” is now reportedly in place and ready to strike.

The return of Algeria’s ghosts

It is against this background of Libya’s imminent collapse into civil war; Algeria’s possible invasion of Libya; Western anxiety over the impact of IS on North African Islamists; the proliferation of “jihadist” terrorists, including Boko Haram, across the Sahel and France’s Operation Barkhan, that something very strange has been going on in Algeria.

Starting on 23 June, a series of stories involving most of the better-known Algerian “terrorists” of the last decade received prominent coverage in domestic media.

The first story to appear was that “El Para” was on a hunger strike in Algiers’ Sekadji prison in protest at the conditions of his imprisonment. The report made no sense, as almost everyone knows that El Para is a DRS agent and that his supposed life sentence is a fiction.

Two days later, the Algiers criminal court postponed the trial of 12 people charged? with terrorism offences until the autumn. They included at least six relatives of Abou Zaïd. A case against MBM was also postponed to the autumn.

During the same week, the government effectively pardoned and rehabilitated Abdessalam Tarmoune and his Mouvement des Enfants du Sud pour la Justice (MESJ). The MESJ is a civil society movement from Djanet that had been striving for social justice in the region since around 2004, but had been falsely branded by the government as a terrorist group affiliated to AQIM.

Other prominent “jihadists,” notably Iyad ag Ghali, who led the 2012 Islamist insurgency in Mali, his cousin Taleb Abdelkrim and Bouchneb also received mentions. 

All of these names are known by the peoples of the Sahara-Sahel as being DRS agents or closely associated with the DRS, while Tarmoune was falsely branded by the DRS as an AQIM-affiliated terrorist. The fact that they were mentioned, quite unrelatedly, within a few days of each other was very suspicious, suggesting that something was afoot.

It certainly was. On 6 July, El Watan journalist Salima Tlemçani, known to be extremely close to the DRS, reported that a presidential decree granting a general amnesty to the members of the MESJ and both MBM’s followers and Abou Zaïd’s AQIM, was foreseen. She also confirmed that the criminal case was postponed because of the amnesty discussions.

On 23 June, in what could be an extraordinary coincidence, John Schindler was exposed on Twitter and then in the press[ii] in what appears to be a “honey-pot” (sex) scandal. He has been placed on leave by the US Naval War College. Even if cleared, his name has been besmirched, effectively discrediting him and prohibiting him from writing any more exposés about Algeria’s state terrorism.

Wiping the slate clean

What has led to this anticipated presidential pardon? Although the government has not yet said a word on the subject, two interrelated reasons seem most likely.

One is that Algeria’s desert regions are in a state of serious political unrest. The MESJ warned the government that if it continued to deny the people of the extreme south (mostly Tuareg) their demands for social justice, they would have no choice but to take up arms. The shooting down of an Algerian army helicopter at Zarzaitine (near In Amenas) on 9 March provided the government with a timely warning.

Since then, serious unrest spread from the Djanet-Illizi region to the usually calmer Tamanrasset region, threatening to coalesce with the violent unrest in Ghardaia, The latter was threatening to spill over into the neighbouring northern desert towns of Laghouat and Ouargla that are dangerously close to Algeria’s oil and gas industry. The government’s agreement to meet the demands of the MESJ is a highly pragmatic move to try and calm anti-government unrest in the extreme south and so head off the development of a potentially very dangerous situation further north.

The second reason is more speculative, but potentially of far greater significance and consequence. It relates to the fact that many of the terrorist incidents in Algeria and the neighbouring Sahel since 2003 have been DRS-managed “false flag” operations.

Western intelligence agencies are now more aware of this situation. However, since January 2013 there have been two very significant developments.

One is that there is strong evidence to suggest that the In Amenas attack was another DRS-initiated “false flag” operation that went badly wrong. The second is that the outcomes of France’s military intervention in Mali combined with the fast-deteriorating situation in Libya, have presented the West with a far more dangerous situation that is leading it to embark on a new counterinsurgency and counter- terrorism strategy across much of the North African and Sahara-Sahel region.

This new strategy, manifest in France’s Operation Barkhan, is different in that it is militarily led, no longer relying on Algeria’s discredited DRS. Instead, it is attempting and possibly succeeding - in the case of the French - to develop better human intelligence, something that was almost entirely absent during the US-led operations from 2003 onwards. Most significant, however, is that this new intelligence base is predicated on the use of entirely new technologies, notably surveillance drones.

US needs Algeria

However, if the West’s new approach to counter-terrorism in the region is to be effective, it needs Algeria on board, but without all the DRS duplicity and “dirty tricks” that so discredited and derailed the US’s GWOT in this part of the continent. The West wants this shift in operational strategy to be unencumbered by the “old DRS” baggage. It wants to close the chapter on the DRS-backed terrorism activities of the last decade so that it can move into a new era of counter-terrorism in North Africa with a clean slate.

Removing much of the old DRS leadership is one thing; bringing it more directly under the control of the army and presidency is another. But, if this shake-up in Algeria’s security and intelligence structures is to have any credibility, the compromised “terrorist” groups on the ground also have to be rounded up, “killed off” and relegated to the past. Hence the idea of an amnesty, or at least something along those lines.

Algeria supports jihadists across southern borders

Is this achievable? As far as the amnesty is concerned, Algeria has a track record of sweeping things under the carpet in this way. As to whether the West, with its Algerian ally, can adopt a new counter-terrorism strategy in the region this looks most unlikely.

Libya, as many analysts are now warning, is on the brink of falling under the effective control of “revolutionaries” (Islamist extremists) and becoming a “failed state.”  An Algerian-Egyptian invasion threatens to bring even more chaos and devastation to a much wider region. Moreover, for reasons outlined above, both the Algerian and Egyptian armies could be humiliated.

But the real question lies with Operation Barkhan in the Sahel. What do France, the US and Algeria have in mind? Are the 2,000 or so “jihadists” currently congregated in Niger’s Djado region being lined up for a “turkey shoot”? Or are we looking at more Algerian duplicity?

The jihadists in Djado have been attracted there, along with some 10,000 civilians from across Niger and neighbouring countries, by a gold rush. Attacking the jihadists in such a location could result in a bloodbath of innocent civilians. Moreover, it is questionable whether France has any acceptable international authorisation for such an intervention. Operation Barkhan seems to be based on little more than a green light from Washington, questionable agreements with the countries concerned, and a sense of neo-colonial entitlement.

Unmonitored borders, easy movement of troops

As for Algeria, a detailed reconnaissance of its 1,000km border with Niger, from its intersection with Libya to that with Mali, has revealed that it is almost totally bereft of security. Algeria’s many statements over the last year or so that it has moved thousands of troops into these southern border areas and closed the borders is simply false.

On 5 July, an Algerian helicopter attack destroyed vehicles and killed an unknown number of jihadists on both sides of the border in the region of Tin Tabarakaten, northeast of Adrar Bous. However, local Tuareg described the incident as a “one-off,” designed to give Algeria’s allies the impression that “it is doing something.”

The reality is that the Algerian-Niger border is unprotected. Jihadists cross it willy-nilly, without any Algerian security presence, on a daily basis as they cross into Algeria to acquire supplies and then return to Niger. A similar situation was found in the Ti-n Amzi region 200km West of In Guezzam.

In short, the signs are that Algeria is supporting these jihadists in the same way as it did in Mali. But, is this to lure them into a sense of false security before Operation Barkhan strikes? And, if France and the US are ostensibly singing from the same hymn sheet, why is the US now criticising[iii] France’s response to terrorism in the Sahara-Sahel so vehemently?

The next month or two should enable us to answer some of these questions, most notably the intentions of France, the US and Algeria, in Libya and, perhaps more pertinently, in the Sahel.

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: 29 kidnappers and 37 foreign hostages were killed during the siege of a gas plant in Amenas, Algeria, during January 2013 (AFP)


[i] The National Interest, 22 January 2013.

[iii] Rukmini Callimachi, “Paying Ransoms, Europe Bankrolls Qaeda Terror.” New York Times, 29 July 2014. (access: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/30/world/africa/ransoming-citizens-europe...)