Increased persecution of Algerian Christians, covert support of Moroccan rebels and criticism of air attacks against the Syrian chemical weapons facilities has defined Algerian foreign policy lately. To placate Islamic conservatives the government is closing Christian churches and persecuting Algerian converts to Christianity. The Algerian constitution guarantees religious freedom but the government has adhered to the constitution selectively depending on what it needs at the moment. The government says there are only 20,000 Christians but there are apparently more like 100,000 and more Algerian Moslems are quietly converting. Not quietly enough because for Islamic conservatives it is forbidden for a Moslem to convert. In some Moslem countries (like Saudi Arabia) conversion is a capital offense and those found guilty are executed. Yet the government feels a need to persecute Christians in order to keep the Islamic political parties weak. These Islamic parties need a hot issue to exploit and have not been able to find one. But the government ignoring the growth of Christianity in Algeria could be turned into headline news if only the government would cooperate.
The Polisario Paradox
Earlier this month Algeria had assured neighbor Morocco and the UN that it no longer had anything to do with Polisario, a group of Moroccan terrorists that Algeria helped create decades ago. Then on April 11th an Algerian Air Force transport crashed on takeoff and among the 257 dead were 26 Polisario members. The transport was taking off from a base near the Algerian capital carrying mainly military personnel. This was more than an embarrassment, it confirmed the accusations that Algeria could not be trusted when it came to Polisario, and perhaps other matters as well. For example, Algeria is one of the few Sunni majority Arab countries that supports the Assad government. Algeria is a major customer for Russian weapons and admirer of current Russian politics (the creation of a “president for life” in what is supposed to be a democracy), which is now very similar to what Algeria has had since the 1960s. Back (before 1991) when Russia was the Soviet Union the Russians backed Algerian efforts to support and encourage Polisario and thereby weaken neighbor Morocco (which was, and still is, a centuries old monarchy and a more efficient government than the democratic dictatorship in Algeria). Morocco has accused Algerian leaders of being lying hypocrites and now the UN and many other nearby nations are agreeing with that.
Polisario has always caused problems with neighboring Morocco and the problem got worse in 2013. The two countries recalled ambassadors and there was talk of escalation. This made cooperation in counter-terrorism efforts (or anything else) with Morocco impossible. Meanwhile, Polisario provided Islamic terrorists safe haven in Polisario refugee camps in Algeria (90,000 refugees) and Mauritania (24,000). This is all connected with the declining prospects of Polisario, which has been in bad shape since 1991. Back then, Morocco finally won its war with Polisario Front rebels, who were seeking independence for the Western Sahara (a region south of Morocco). Polisario remains powerful in Mauritania, where the rebel group has official recognition and maintains several refugee camps. At the beginning (the 1960s) Polisario was so well-subsidized by Algeria, back when Algeria was a radical state, that Polisario still has enough diehards out there to keep lots of people in Western Sahara unhappy. This situation has also provided recruits and sanctuary for al Qaeda and other Islamic radicals. Since the 1990s the UN has been trying to work out a final peace deal between Polisario and Morocco. During the 1990s Algeria said it cut off all support for Polisario. But that, and UN efforts to mediate the differences have just not worked. The contested area is largely desert with a current population of less than 600,000. Logic would have it that the area is better off as a part of Morocco. But there are still thousands of locals who would rather fight for independence than submit to Morocco. Some resistance is tribal and cultural, with the Moroccans seen as another bunch of alien invaders. The area was administered until 1976 as a Spanish colony. Most Western Saharans have made peace with Moroccan rule, especially since Morocco has been spending a billion dollars a year on infrastructure and other improvements and doing so for decades. Western Sahara is a much nicer place because of that. Polisario still has several thousand armed men based in the refugee camps and refuses to accept Moroccan rule of Western Sahara. Polisario has become an outlaw organization with no real purpose. If the fighting breaks out again Morocco could defeat Polisario, but Polisario still has a sanctuary in the Algerian refugee camps. There Polisario discourages any talk of peacefully returning to Western Sahara, even though a growing number of the camp inmates are quietly doing that. The refugee camps have become police states run by Polisario and tolerated by Algeria.
Increased security on Algeria’s southern border (especially the ones with Mali and Niger) catches more people illegally crossing the border but most of them are smugglers. While most of the smuggled goods are consumer items (easier to sell in Algeria) weapons and drugs were encountered. It was the drug shipments that had the heaviest security. This often meant crossing the border at night and then hiding the drugs or weapons at a hiding place known only to partners in Algeria, who had a legitimate reason for being down south. These weapons and drugs were then smuggled north to the coast and another gang of smugglers got the drugs on ships or airplanes headed for Europe. The weapons were for local markets (mostly criminals). Since moving drugs involved so many people, it is more expensive. But that’s the nature of drug smuggling and Islamic terror groups tend to supply most of the security and maintain that monopoly by killing any competitors. Drug shipments still get seized. This is usually when the hiding places on the Algerian side of the border are stumbled on by patrols or the transporters moving the drugs from the southern border to the coast have an accident or get exposed as smugglers for some other reason. The Algerian police estimate that over 90 percent of the drugs get through and the Islamic terrorists get paid more than enough to keep them in business. For this reason, small groups of Islamic terrorists survive in northern Mali, near the Algerian and Niger borders not because of Islamic radical locals but because of the cash. With that, you can buy all the hospitality and discretion you need.
April 18, 2018: Algeria and Saudi Arabia signed four agreements to improve economic and diplomatic relations. Algeria has condemned the Yemeni rebels using Iranian ballistic missiles to attack Saudi Arabia but tries to avoid criticizing Iran.
April 12, 2018: France announced that it would support Morocco using military force to deal with continued Polisario violence, especially in light of the recent revelation that Algeria continues to support Polisario.
April 11, 2018: Some 30 kilometers west of the capital an Algerian Air Force IL-76 transport crashed on takeoff from the Boufarik Airport. All 257 aboard died and the situation got worse when the victims were identified and 26 turned out to be members of Polisario.
April 9, 2018: In neighboring Morocco military reinforcements are being sent south to deal with increased Polisario violations of the buffer zones that a UN agreement established in 1991. The UN was assured by Algeria and Morocco that these two nations would cooperate to maintain the peace. Instead, Algeria has secretly continued to support Polisario and encourage violations of the ceasefire.
April 4, 2018: The UN openly criticized Algeria for continuing to support Polisario, an outlaw group that carries out attacks against Morocco largely because Polisario continues to obtain support from Algeria. Yet Algeria denies that it supports Polisario despite ample evidence to the contrary. UN officials have witnessed this cooperation with Polisario in refugee camps and heard from many refugees who complained of Polisario punishing anyone who openly opposed them and Algerian security forces backing Polisario up.
April 2, 2018: In the east (Skikda province, 500 kilometers from the capita) troops confronted a veteran Islamic terrorist and killed him when he would not surrender. The dead man was armed with an assault rifle.
Only four Islamic terrorists were killed in March and another seven suspects were arrested. Troops found 41 rural Islamic terrorist hideouts. Often these were just bunkers or caves where weapons and supplies were stored. That material was seized and included over 30 firearms and lots of ammo. Islamic terrorist activity in Algeria continues to decline and is no longer considered a major problem.
March 30, 2018: On the Libyan border security on the Libyan side has been improved because of the Misrata and Zintan militias agreeing to put aside their differences and unite their forces in an effort to improve public security in western Libya. Zintan is a largely Berber city 135 kilometers south of Tripoli while Misrata is a major coastal city east of Tripoli. At one time the Zintan militias controlled many neighborhoods in Tripoli but the Misrata militias drove them out in 2014 and it took over three years for the Misrata militias to repair that damage. Algeria and Tunisia support the UN backed GNA government in Tripoli and the new Misrata-Zintan alliance because it means better security for the western borders.
March 24, 2018: In neighboring Libya, an American UAV missile strike in Southwestern Libya killed Musa Abu Dawud, a veteran Algerian Islamic terrorist who had risen to high rank in al Qaeda but during the last few years had spent most of his time in Libya because it was safer.