Algeria: Escaping the Old School

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April 27, 2017: Parliamentary elections take place on May 4 th and the bad news is that most Algerians expect them to be rigged, as usual, and not lead to any change. Thus the greatest concern of the government is getting enough people to participate. The 2012 elections saw only 44 percent of voters turn out and voter participation appears set to decline still further. Meanwhile the number of young Algerians participating in anti-government protests continues to rise. The government has been pretending to reform the political system but that is widely seen as another sad failure. In 2016 parliament passed much needed changes to the constitution. But reformers were not impressed because as long as power is monopolized by a few families (which were prominent in the 1960s rebellion against France) new laws will not change anything and in this case they did not. That’s because some of the “new” reforms were implemented in the past but then cancelled when it suited the corrupt and dictatorial ruling families. Unless the government introduces and enforces honest voting and then obeys the law, there can be no real reform. This is a common pattern worldwide and especially in the Middle East. Everyone knows that corruption and bad government are the main cause of stagnant economies and general unrest but not enough of those in charge are willing to give up enough power to fix the problem. In part this is because of the well-founded (in history) fear that another group of corrupt officials will resume the practice of rigging elections.

The government, mindful of what happened in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when rising unemployment and falling oil prices led to widespread unrest and eventually an Islamic terrorist uprising, is making a major effort to cushion the population from the impact of the current (and apparently long-term) decline in oil prices. There is also talk of doing something about the corruption, but not much action. The problem, for most Algerians, is that the government says the right things but does not follow up. This delays an explosive popular reaction and reminds Algerians that they have been tolerating this corrupt and ruthless ruling class since the 1960s. Then again students of Algerian history note that this form of government was common in what is now Algeria for thousands of years and played a role in giving the French an excuse to take over in the 19th century and run Algeria as a colony for over a century before leaving (involuntarily) in the early 1960s. Despite all the talk about a “new beginning” the post-colonial Algerian leaders promptly went old school and there it remains. The main reason Europe pays attention is because the return to the old school governing methods also meant the return of North African based criminal groups that found new ways to prey on Europe. And so it came to pass the Algeria found it could resume extorting cash and other favors from European states. That sort of thing has not been seen since the 19th century (the Barbary Pirates and Saracen Corsairs) and before that flourished for nearly a thousand years. Old customs are difficult to change.

Terrified Terrorists Adapt

The few Islamic terrorists still operating in Algeria no longer terrorize like they used to. That’s why more people are coming forward with information on current or past Islamic terrorist activity. This has made it impossible for organized Islamic terrorist activity to develop. ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) has tried, and so far failed. The largest Islamic terror group in the region is still AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) but this organization tries to confine its Algerian activities to fund raising (via smuggling of drugs, people and anything else that pays well). The government knows this because the heavy counter-terrorism presence on the southern borders encounters smugglers far more often than Islamic terrorists and when the captured smugglers are questioned a lot of them turn out to have AQIM business, not terrorism, connections. AQIM still maintains a presence in Algeria so it can step in and try to play a leading role if there is another popular uprising against the corrupt and inefficient government. While many of the hundred or so Islamic terrorists killed in Algeria each year are with AQIM they seem to understand why they are there and why the risk is worth it. If an Islamic terrorists wants a safe hideout, Algeria is not the place to go.

Another indicator of AQIM strategy is that most of the bunkers and Islamic terrorist supporters now found in the countryside are the result of tips from locals who feel safe enough to mention what they know. Because of this the security forces are clearing out the remaining areas where the few Islamic terrorists are still active. This is mainly Boumerdes, Bouira, Tizi Ouzou and Jijel provinces east of the capital as well as the far south where border areas with Mali, Niger and Libya are very active with smugglers and a far smaller number of Islamic terrorists.

To the south the Islamic terror groups in Mali have responded to all this by forming JNIM (Jamâ’ah Nusrah al Islâm wal Muslimîn, or Group for the support of Islam and Moslems). In part this is a reaction to the growing threat from ISIL which is hostile to everyone who is not ISIL and will attack or recruit from the JNIM members AQIM, Ansar Dine, FLM (Macina Liberation Front), and al Mourabitoun. The major player in this new alliance is AQIM which was formed in 2007 from several of the 1990s era Algerian groups. AQIM now operates throughout northern and west-central Africa. Because AQIM leadership still contains a lot of Algerians the Algerian government has been helpful to African nations where AQIM is operating. AQIM now spends most of its time smuggling drugs, people and whatever else pays (like kidnapping Westerners). AQIM carries out or sponsors (with money, weapons and advice) smaller groups to carry out attacks and share the credit. AQIM likes to stay in the headlines but concentrates on staying solvent.

April 25, 2017: On May 8th Algeria will host another meeting of nations neighboring Libya. This is not just for the neighbors but also for the major factions inside Libya. Algeria is seen as the major reason why the main factions in Libya are still talking to each other. Algeria has not provided any material support to any faction and provides a convenient and safe place to hold the frequent meetings between faction officials and diplomats from the UN and neighboring countries. Algeria has provided similar assistance for Mali.

April 23, 2017: In the southwest (Adrar Province, 1.420 kilometers from the capital) soldiers found an arms cache with six AK-47s, three heavy machine-guns and over 2,30o rounds of rifle ammo.

April 19, 2017: In Constantine province (400 kilometers from the capital) police received information on two Islamic terrorists planning an attack in the city. The two were cornered and one of them died by detonating his suicide vest. The other suspect was captured and questioned. This area has been the center of ISIL efforts in Algeria since 2015 but the group has suffered heavy losses in that time and been unable to expand. Police have received a lot of tips from the public, which played a major role in detecting and dismantling an ISIL recruiting operation earlier this month. Another problem for ISIL is a lack of effective leadership. For example a month ago police here caught up with and killed Abu Hammam, the leaders of the Algerian branch of ISIL. Another ISIL member was with Hammam and also died in a brief gun battle. Hammam was believed directly responsible for planning or even carrying out the ISIL attacks in this area over the last two years. The pistol Hammam carried when he was killed was later identified as the same one used in the murder of a policeman in late 2016.

April 14, 2017: In the east (Skikda province 500 kilometers from the capital) army patrols found five bombs and four improvised mortars.

April 12, 2017: In the east (between Bordj Bou Arreridj province 200 kilometers east of the capital to Skikda province 300 kilometers further east) army patrols found 16 bunkers containing twelve bombs, seven crude landmines, food and equipment. The presence of explosives indicates these bunkers were for Islamic terrorists rather than smugglers.

April 3, 2017: Algeria and Tunisia both issued strong denials that they had supported Iranian foreign policy. Iran spread a false rumor to that effect, first inside Iran and then to nearby countries. Most Arab countries see Iran as a threat, not an ally.

 


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