Algeria: Hunting For The Remnants

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May 20, 2016: Following several months of investigation the security forces identified the key members of a weapons smuggling gang bringing guns and ammo in from Libya. The gang was based at Wadi Souf, a town near the Tunisian border and moved the weapons to customers all along the coastal zone (where most of the population lives) and the capital. In the past week two Algerian members of the gang have been arrested while several more Algerians and Libyans are being sought. In addition large quantities of weapons and ammo have been seized. The gang sold to criminals, Islamic terrorists and individuals who just wanted a weapon for protection or, for those in rural areas, hunting.

Meanwhile the problem constantly bothering most Algerians is the sorry state of their economy and government. The 2011 Arab Spring uprising were partly in reaction to high levels of corruption and little has changed in Algeria since 2011. In fact corruption has become worse in Arab countries since 2011, especially in those that underwent a change of government. For example by 2016 62 percent of people in Arab countries thought the corruption had gotten worse. It varied quite a lot. For example in Lebanon 92 percent of the people thought it had gotten worse. In Yemen it was 84 percent, 75 percent in Jordan, 28 percent in Egypt and 26 percent in Algeria. Only one country, Tunisia, where the Arab Spring uprisings began, saw fewer people feeling that corruption got worse. Corruption is measured each year by an international survey. The results are presented using a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The two most corrupt nations have a rating of 8 (North Korea and Somalia) and the least corrupt is 91 (Denmark). A look at this index each year adds an element of reality to official government pronouncements. While there is less corruption in the developed countries, in many regions it is very bad. African nations are the most corrupt, followed by Middle Eastern ones. There Lebanon currently ranks 128th, Jordan ranks 45th, Egypt and Algeria are tied at 88th. Tunisia ranks 76, is getting better but not fast enough for most Tunisians.

Despite the continuing problems with corruption the economy has managed to adapt to the low oil prices. GDP grew 3.9 percent in 2015 and appears on track to go up 3.4 percent in 2016 and, if oil prices remain where they are, 2.9 percent in 2017. Because of the low oil prices the government was persuaded to allow enough economic freedom for new businesses to form and existing ones to expand. The desperate need for more efficiency (and less corruption) in the government controlled oil industry led to some formerly unthinkable events. For example in February a court sentenced six oil company managers to prison after they were convicted of corruption. It is widely known that corruption in the state oil company (Sonatrach) has hurt the economy. Oil and gas exports account for 30 percent of GDP, 95 percent of exports and provides enough income to cover 60 percent of the government budget. That was in 2013, before the price of oil fell over 70 percent. Oil and gas are still important, even more so because that income has been reduced by more than half and the government cannot make a lot of cuts because much government spending is to buy the loyalty of key segments of the population like government employees, especially those in the security forces and oil industry. Thus many people see the sudden eagerness to prosecute corrupt officials directed mainly at obtaining enough oil revenue to maintain the loyalty (to the corrupt government) of key groups.

What most Algerians want is less corruption and incompetent government officials getting in the way of starting and running new businesses. There is little enthusiasm for that among the ruling families, who prosper by using their government power to help other family members establish profitable monopolies. These inefficient monopolies would be destroyed if not for the corruption that hinders the creation and operation of competing firms.

In the start of 2016 the value of oil exports fell 24 percent to $1.8 billion. However the trade deficit ($1.8 billion a month) remained the same as it was in January 2015. At the end of 2015 foreign exchange reserves (needed to pay for imports, especially food) fell 22 percent to $143 billion. The government has been controlling the use of these reserves, which stood at about $200 billion before the oil prices began plunging in 2013. The foreign exchange reserves can be drawn on for another six years. After that severe cuts will have to be made and there will be much unrest.

Meanwhile the cash crises makes more of those in power (from the ruling clans) interested in some fundamental reforms that will curb the corruption permanently in order to sustain economic growth. This means the current ruling families will have to surrender a lot of power and income. As long as the low oil prices persist that is seen as the only way to survive the mess. Most government officials agree that the old ways will have to change if the economy is to make up for the lost oil income. At the same time the government has become less tolerant of dissent. Peaceful demonstrators are increasing subject to arrest (on false charges) and they makes people angrier. The ruling clans are not all in agreement that reform is the long-term solution to anything.

The campaign against the remaining Islamic terrorists continues to make progress. There have been no major attacks so far this year and few in the past few years. The army and police constantly search areas where any Islamic terrorist presence is indicated. Islamic terrorism is still quite unpopular throughout the country and many people will use their cell phones to call in tips that lead to arrests which often result in the discovery of where Islamic terrorist hideouts or equipment storage sites are. Because of this several of these hideouts or weapons caches are found each week.

May 18, 2016: In the east (Tizi Ouzou province, 140 kilometers from the capital) troops searching a rural areas killed two Islamic terrorists and captured three others. Three rural hideouts (usually bunkers built to be hard to spot from the air) were found and destroyed along with a locally made landmine.

May 17, 2016: In the southeast (Bouria province, 120 kilometers from the capital) troops found two Islamic terrorists, killing one and capturing the other. In nearby Tizi Ouzou province seven rural hideouts, four locally made bombs plus bomb components for building more.

May 16, 2016: In the east (Tizi Ouzou province, 104 kilometers from the capital) soldiers ambushed two Islamic terrorists, killing both of them and seizing two AK-47s, ammo and some documents.

May 13, 2016: Germany decided that Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia were safe enough to deport illegal migrants from those countries back to their homelands. Many European countries won’t deport illegal migrants to countries that are too dangerous (like Iraq or Syria). For the three countries involved here the decision will be a boost for tourism and foreign investment. Most of the illegal migrants leave for economic reasons although most will pretend to be political refugees. The illegal migrants use the services of criminal gangs that specialize in getting them into Europe. For the gangs this is big business, earning them over a billion dollars a year just in North Africa and the Middle East.

May 11, 2016: In the southeast (Bouria province, 120 kilometers from the capital) soldiers killed eleven Islamic terrorists and arrested four people who were providing support for Islamic terrorists.

May 10, 2016: In the southwest (Adrar Province, 1.500 kilometers from the capital) soldiers patrolling near the Mali border found a smuggler hideout where weapons were stored. Troops seized one 107mm rocket, two machine-guns, two AK-47s, nine 120mm mortar shells, six 76mm shells, 50 kg (110 pounds) of explosives and about three thousand rounds of ammunition. It’s unclear if these items were headed for Algeria or Mali.

May 3, 2016: In the east (Skikda province, 510 kilometers from the capital) troops searching the area have encountered and killed five Islamic terrorists in the last week. Two of the dead men were known to have been active since the 1990s and had long been sought.

May 2, 2016: The government reported that the military had removed 2,020 landmines in April. Some 740,000 landmines have been found and removed since 2004. Army personnel find and clear these mines along the eastern and western borders. Many of these mines date back to the 1950s and 1960s. The landmine search has been was more stressful than the terrorist sweeps and gets a lot less publicity. The number of mines cleared each month increased dramatically in 2007 when the French finally turned over the colonial era maps of the minefields. France planted over three million mines in the late 1950s. The 1,200 kilometers of mine fields were created to make it more difficult for Algerian rebels moving across the Tunisian and Moroccan borders. Most of those mine fields are in remote areas and have never been cleared. But each year those tending herds in the border areas are killed or injured by the mines as are their animals. The mines in more traveled areas were removed soon after Algeria became independent in the 1960s. But now with accurate maps of the mine fields, the mines in remote areas can be cleared. That has been expensive, as the mines are now covered with more sand, or have shifted position because of rain and wind. The mine field maps were never a major issue between the two countries and France never offered to provide them until 2007 when the French army saw an opportunity to improve its relationship with Algeria. Since the 1950s, the French army has been particularly hated by Algerians, because of the rough tactics used during the late 1950s and early 1960s, before France finally left. But over the decades, the anger has abated. Before 2007 over a hundred Algerians were killed or wounded by these old mines each year. These losses have been greatly reduced since 2007 because the French maps enabled the government to warn people living in remote border areas where (in general) the uncleared mines were and to keep themselves and their animals away. Currently mines are being cleared at the rate of over 25,000 a year.

 

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