The Algerian connection: Will Turkey change its Syria policy?

Aron Lund writes: April 8, 2016, the Francophone Algiers daily El Watan quoted an Algerian diplomatic source as saying that for the preceding several weeks his country had been running a secret mediation mission between the governments in Ankara and Damascus, who “want to have an exchange regarding the Kurdish question and the desire of the Syrian Kurds to create an independent state.” According to El Watan, Algeria’s involvement began as an attempt to calm tensions between Turkey and Russia following the downing of a Russian Su-24 jet by the Turkish Air Force in November 2015, but a second Syrian–Turkish channel later opened up via the Algerian embassies in Ankara and Damascus.

Though El Watan is a respected newspaper in Algeria and has good sources in the government, these claims are impossible to confirm. However there has been an intense exchange of Syrian and Algerian delegations this spring. For the first time since the Syrian conflict started in 2011, the country’s foreign minister, Walid al-Mouallem, traveled to Algiers on March 28–29. Intriguingly, this coincided with a visit by French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault. Algeria responded by sending their minister of Maghreb, African Union, and Arab League affairs, Abdelkader Messahel to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on April 24–25.

Syria and Turkey have been at daggers’ drawn since late summer 2011 when Turkey ended its previous support for Assad’s government and joined the coalition of states seeking to overthrow him. Since then, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been one of the most hawkish proponents of military pressure on Assad and his government has worked with a broad array of Sunni rebel factions, including hardline Islamists, to that end. But with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces — a Syrian group linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, against which Turkey is waging a harsh counterinsurgency campaign — now rolling into the northern countryside of Aleppo, Erdogan’s priorities may be shifting. And that may in turn be part of a larger trend in Turkish foreign policy. [Continue reading…]


Firing of generals raises fear of return to Algerian strife

The Associated Press reports: Algeria is in the grips of political intrigue, as the president nears death and rumors of coup attempts swirl. Now, the unprecedented firing of three top generals is generating fear that a power struggle within the regime will break into the open — unleashing a new cycle of the bloodshed that plagued the country in the 1990s.

The stakes for the oil-rich nation — a key U.S. ally against terrorism — are especially high because of the dramatic fall of oil prices and the rising threat from extremist groups across the border in Mali, Libya and Tunisia. These developments have put the regime on weaker footing in a country still emerging from a traumatic civil war.

On July 16, the night the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan ended, troops flooded the area around the presidential residence of Zeralda amid talk of a possible attack. Rumors flew that it was an attempted coup or an attack by radical Islamists, while some newspapers cited anonymous officials that the whole thing was a hoax. [Continue reading…]


ISIS colonies expanding across North Africa

Der Spiegel reports: The caliphate has a beach. It is located on the Mediterranean Sea around 300 kilometers (186 miles) south of Crete in Darna. The eastern Libya city has a population of around 80,000, a beautiful old town and an 18th century mosque, from which the black flag of the Islamic State flies. The port city is equipped with Sharia courts and an “Islamic Police” force which patrols the streets in all-terrain vehicles. A wall has been built in the university to separate female students from their male counterparts and the disciplines of law, natural sciences and languages have all been abolished. Those who would question the city’s new societal order risk death.

Darna has become a colony of terror, and it is the first Islamic State enclave in North Africa. The conditions in Libya are perfect for the radical Islamists: a disintegrating state, a location that is strategically well situated and home to the largest oil reserves on the continent. Should Islamic State (IS) manage to establish control over a significant portion of Libya, it could trigger the destabilization of the entire Arab world.

The IS puts down roots wherever chaos reigns, where governments are weakest and where disillusionment over the Arab Spring is deepest. In recent weeks, terror groups that had thus far operated locally have quickly begun siding with the extremists from IS.

In September, it was the Algerian group Soldiers of the Caliphate that threw in its lot with Islamic State. As though following a script, the group immediately beheaded a French mountaineer and uploaded the video to the Internet. In October, the “caliphate” was proclaimed in Darna. And last week, the strongest Egyptian terrorist group likewise announced its affiliation with IS. [Continue reading…]


French hostage in Algeria is beheaded in new video

The New York Times reports: A French tourist captured in North Africa by a group aligned with the Islamic State is seen beheaded in a video circulated on Wednesday, according to SITE Intelligence, which tracks jihadist groups.

The Frenchman — Hervé Gourdel, a 55-year-old mountaineering guide from Nice — was abducted in Algeria on Sunday by the terrorist group, known as Jund al-Khilafah. Mr. Gourdel had arrived only a day before on a trip to go hiking in Algeria’s northern mountains.

The terrorist group issued a statement after his abduction, saying that it was following the guidance of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which has seized large parts of Syria and Iraq and has called on its sympathizers to strike Westerners — especially the French — wherever they can. [Continue reading…]


U.S. still believes terrorism is more dangerous than authoritarian rule

Reuters reports: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday Washington was looking to increase its security assistance to Algeria to help it tackle militancy in the vast Sahel region to its south, home to one of the world’s most active branches of al Qaeda.

Algeria, a major gas supplier to Europe, is already a key partner in Washington’s campaign against Islamist fighters who have tried to spread across the Maghreb after the French military drove them out of Mali last year.

Kerry was originally scheduled to visit Algeria late last year but arrived just weeks before President Abdelaziz Bouteflika runs for re-election in a vote in which he is widely expected to win a fourth term.

“We really want to work in a cooperative way, and we want to do this so that Algerian security services have the tools and the training needed in order to defeat al Qaeda and other terrorist groups,” Kerry told a news conference.

Algeria’s Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra said the United States should give the region more access to its intelligence.

“What the U.S. can do, because nobody else can do it, is for instance, share electronic intelligence with the armed forces and security agencies in the region. This is a qualitative edge that only the US can provide,” he said.

Neighbouring Libya is struggling to curb the turmoil that has continued unabated since the 2011 revolt against Muammar Gaddafi. Islamist fighters have exploited the chaos, taking shelter in Libya’s southern deserts but also in remote mountains in Tunisia.

Attacks in Algeria are rare since the country ended an 11-year conflict with Islamists in 2002, but the risks are still high. Last year, al Qaeda fighters raided a gas plant in the Algerian southern desert, killing 40 oil workers, all but one of whom were foreigners.

Kerry also said the United States would do more to build stronger commercial and investment ties between the countries. He said large-scale youth unemployment in Algeria was troubling and greater investment would help bolster job creation.

He was due to meet later on Thursday with Bouteflika, the 77-year-old independence veteran who has governed Algeria for 15 years since helping to end the North African state’s war which killed around 200,000 people.

Bouteflika is expected to easily win another five-year term after 15 years in power in the vote on April 17, despite concerns over his health since suffering a stroke last year.

Some in the Algerian opposition described the timing of Kerry’s visit as odd, saying it was an indirect statement of support to Bouteflika’s election bid.

“We look forward to elections that are transparent and in line with international standards, and the United States will work with the president that the people of Algeria choose,” Kerry said.

Human Rights Watch: On April 15, 2011, after popular protests ousted authoritarian rulers in Egypt and Tunisia and were challenging Libya’s, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika promised a package of political and legislative reforms. But the new law on associations, promulgated in January 2012, has in numerous ways proven more restrictive than the law it replaced, Human Rights Watch found.

The vacuity of Kerry’s pro forma endorsement of a democratic process becomes clear when you understand the powers of the Algerian presidency and the fact that Bouteflika has removed the obstacles to his holding such powers for the rest of his life.

Ahmad Shahine writes: The Algerian presidency has such importance because of the vast authority the constitution accords the post. The president of the republic is head of the executive branch, and he is assisted by the prime minister (head of government). The president also serves as the head of the judiciary, being the chief magistrate of the country. He appoints one-third of the members of parliament’s upper house, has the right to issue decrees between parliamentary sessions and can dissolve the parliament. These rights practically make him absolute ruler.


Head of Chadian army claims troops kill Belmoktar

The Associated Press reports: Chad’s military chief announced late Saturday that his troops deployed in northern Mali had killed Moktar Belmoktar, the terrorist who orchestrated the attack on a natural gas plant in Algeria that left 36 foreigners dead.

The French military, which is leading the offensive against al-Qaida-linked rebels in Mali, said they could not immediately confirm the information.

Local officials in Kidal, the northern town that is being used as the base for the military operation, cast doubt on the assertion, saying Chadian officials are attempting to score a PR victory to make up for the significant losses they have suffered in recent days.

Known as the “one-eyed,” Belmoktar’s profile soared after the mid-January attack and mass hostage-taking on a huge Algerian gas plant. His purported death comes a day after Chad’s president said his troops had killed Abou Zeid, the other main al-Qaida commander operating in northern Mali.

If both deaths are confirmed, it would mean that the international intervention in Mali had succeeded in decapitating two of the pillars of al-Qaida in the Sahara.


‘The god of Algiers’

Bruce Riedel writes: While [Algeria’s President Abdelaziz] Bouteflika is the public face of the government, real power still resides with the generals. They avoid the public limelight and are known in Algiers as “le pouvoir,” the power behind the scenes. In the shadowy world of “le pouvoir,” the most powerful man is probably the head of the secret police or mukhabarat. The head of Algerian intelligence, the DRS, Mohammad Mediene, has a long track record of eradicating terrorist groups using extreme methods. KGB-trained and rarely photographed, the 73-year-old Mediene has run Algerian intelligence since 1990 and is known for his professionalism and determination. He is also known by his nickname, ‘the god of Algiers,’ because his power is so pervasive and unaccountable. Born in 1939, he served in the French colonial army before defecting to the nationalist revolt when it began in the 1950s. Mediene is now the longest serving head of intelligence in the world. And probably the most ruthless.

His deputy, Bashir Tartag, commanded the actual assault on the terrorists in the desert facility. His nickname is “le bombardier” and he is also known for his support for the so called eradicationist school of counter-terrorism. But the DRS is also known for its tactic of infiltrating terrorist groups, creating “false flag” terrorists and trying to control them. Rumors have associated the DRS in the past with the Malian warlord Iyad Ag Ghali, head of Ansar al Dine AQIM’s ally in Mali, and even with Mukhtar Belmukhtar, the al-Qaeda terrorist who engineered the attack on the natural gas plant. The Algerians hope is that they can influence these groups to stay away from Algerian targets. The tactic originates with KGB and was developed by the DRS in the 1990s. It had success in dividing the jihadists then. This year is failed disastrously in Mali when the terrorists took events into their hands. [Continue reading…]


Video: Unpacking Algeria’s hostage crisis


Algerian hostage siege: ‘It could only have ended with a massive assault’

The Guardian reports: As the Algerian hostage siege continues and the death toll after an army assault remains uncertain, the military’s swift intervention with force appeared to be in keeping with its tough approach to insurgent operations in the wake of Algeria’s brutal civil war.

The military-dominated regime in Algiers – which remains in place despite the Arab spring that toppled leaderships elsewhere in north Africa – is the biggest defence powerhouse in the region, with a well-equipped and extensive army.

Algeria had 10 years of bloody internal conflict in the 1990s which saw up to 200,000 deaths, and the Algiers generals maintain their tradition of a no-negotiation, take-no-prisoners approach to insurgent assaults. The unprecedented gas field hostage-taking struck at the heart of Algeria’s economic power – its hydrocarbon sites – which meant high stakes for the regime.

Faced with the return of major terrorist operations on its home turf, Algiers seemed likely to want to send a stark message to its own population, that dramatic hostage-taking would be met with a dramatic response.

The Algerian communications minister, Mohamed Said Belaid, said during the siege: “This is an attack of multinational terrorists against the Algerian people and the Algerian state. The objective is clear: to destabilise Algeria.” He said that faced with hostage-takers who wanted “to destroy the national economy” and the state, “there would be no negotiations, or blackmail” and that Algeria would be “relentless in the fight against terrorists”.

It remains unclear which Algerian units led Thursday’s first military assault on the gas field where foreign and Algerian hostages were being held by Islamist groups and where scores are feared dead following the army’s operation. There was no confirmation whether the assault was led by ground troops, special forces or specialised counter-terrorism units who harked back to the days of Algeria’s now disbanded so-called Ninja units in the 1990s, which fought Islamists and were trained by the Soviet-era Russian military.

I knew it would end in a bloodbath,” Charles Pellegrini, former head of the anti-terrorist cell at the Elysée, told Le Parisien. “Trained in Russia in the Soviet era, the senior ranks of the Algerian army never negotiate with terrorists and always deal with these types of situations Russian-style.” [Continue reading…]

Ian Black writes: The slaughter in the Sahara has been a terrible shock for the foreign countries whose unfortunate nationals were involved. But no-one should have been surprised that the Algerian government adopted such an aggressive, take-no-prisoners approach to the deadly drama at In Amenas. As one macabre joke put it: “What’s worse then being kidnapped by al-Qaida? Answer: being rescued by the Algerian army.”

Algeria’s modern history is steeped in blood. In nationalist historiography the long struggle for independence against the French colonial power came at the price of a “million martyrs.” Even if that figure is exaggerated it added to the aura of mythical sacrifice led by the FLN. The Kiplingesque title of the best history of the liberation war in English – “A Savage War of Peace” (by Alistair Horne) – captured that brilliantly.

Thirty years after winning its independence from France Algeria was plunged into another terrible conflict. That began in 1991 when the army stepped in to cancel the second round of parliamentary elections which an Islamist party was poised to win. Victory for the FIS, went the famous warning at the time – and which was accepted by western governments – would have meant “one man, one vote – once.” The awful result was years of carnage that saw another 100,000 dead. Brutal massacres by terrorists were matched by brutal massacres by the Algerian security forces, sometimes disguised as the terrorists they were fighting. [Continue reading…]


Video: Is Algeria immune to the ‘Arab Spring’?


Algerian authorities on high alert in face of threat from unpopular protests

Al Arabya reports:

The Algerian interior ministry and security forces have been put on high alert in response to a call on Facebook for nationwide protests against President Abdul Aziz Boutefliqa and army generals seen as running the country behind the scenes on Saturday.

The government on Thursday held high-level meetings and ordered its security services to investigate the parties “inciting the youth” to protest against the regime, local media reported.

The interior minister, Dahou Ould Kablia, told the Ennahar daily newspaper on Thursday that “Zionist parties” were behind the Facebook call for an “Algerian revolution on Sept. 17, 2011.”

“Had it been people inside [the country], we would have exposed and arrested them, but the clues point us toward foreign parties in relation with the Zionist entity,” Ould Kablia said.

He said initial investigation showed that there was lack of popular support for the protest call, which he said was designed to “shake the domestic national order.”

“The choice of September 17 is no accident for the enemies of the Arab people,” Ould Kablia told the paper.

“The calls are failing to elicit any response and there won’t be any demonstrations or any trouble on this date,” he said.

But despite the government playing down the protest plans, National Police Director General Abdelghani Hamel has ordered all security services around the country be put on high alert, according the Moroccan online publication Hespress.


Algeria’s regime: out on a limb that looks set to fall

Brian Whitaker writes:

With three out of five countries now under new management along the north African coast, the spotlight is turning towards the remaining two: Algeria and Morocco.

In Morocco, where a new constitution was approved in July, the king’s promises of reform may succeed in staving off a mass revolt – at least for the time being. Morocco also recognised the national transitional council (NTC) in Libya with deft timing a week ago, declaring its support for “the legitimate aspirations of the brotherly Libyan people”.

That leaves Algeria out on a limb, increasingly identified with the forces of counter-revolution. Not only has it so far failed to recognise the Libyan NTC, but it is now openly providing refuge for members of the Gaddafi family.

Welcoming the Gaddafis, according to Algeria’s ambassador at the UN, was nothing more than a humanitarian gesture, in line with the traditions of desert hospitality – but we don’t have to look very far to see the politics behind it.

What happened to the Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan regimes could easily have been the fate of the Algerian regime, too. In January, as the Tunisian uprising gathered pace, Algeria also experienced widespread disturbances – and for very similar reasons. Regular protests were still continuing on a smaller scale at the end of March.