An awkward alliance: US-Algeria security cooperation

An awkward alliance: US-Algeria security cooperation

US-Algerian relations have markedly improved in the last ten years, but when it comes to the question of security and intelligence-sharing, many challenges remain.

In late August, US Secretary of State John Kerry praised Algeria for its “constructive” and “beneficial” role in the fight against global terrorism. He went on to express the US´ readiness´ to work with Algeria in achieving this aim.

It is one of many statements that has emerged from the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon about Algeria’s position as an important bulwark against the rise of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its various off shoots.

The 9/11 attacks are widely acknowledged as being the lynchpin behind United States´ decision to work closer with Algeria in its War on Terror. It was also one of the first countries to condemn the attacks. As a result, in 2002, the US dropped a ten-year arms embargo imposed as a result of instability that unleashed after Algeria’s cancelled general election. Yet in order to avoid upsetting Morocco, a close ally of the US, support for Algeria has tended to take the form of non-lethal military assistance.

Since 2008, the US has spent approximately $1 million per annum with the aim of training Algerian military officers in advanced military education at institutions and academies in the US. In October 2012, both countries launched a Bilateral Strategic Dialogue, in order to tackle a wide range of issues, from counter terrorism and regional security to economic policy, education and civil society. Yet some observers note that “concrete outcomes of the dialogue remain to be seen”.

Awkward alliance

Algerian-US relations, unlike with other Maghreb states such as Tunisia and Morocco, are tinged with mistrust. This is in part due to Algeria’s decision in the years after independence, and in particular under the presidency of Houari Boumédiène, to lean towards the Soviet Union, as well as its active engagement with the Non-Aligned Movement.

In 1967, in the wake of the first Arab-Israeli war, Algeria broke off diplomatic relations with the US, but they were later renewed in 1974. In the early 1980s, it was Algeria who played an important role in negotiating the release of 52 US hostages who were being held at the US Embassy in Tehran. As the years progressed, the tone of relations between the two countries has softened.

In the fight against AQIM, however, tensions have risen of late over Algeria´s reluctance to allow the US to operate unmanned aerial vehicles over its airspace, as well as its refusal to permit western military bases in the south of the country.

Additionally, the perceived lack of transparency on the part of the Algerians has not helped foster a positive working relationship. For example, in early 2013, during the hostage crisis at the Tigantourine gas facility, the Algerians never informed the US or other Western nations about its decision to launch a raid, which led to the deaths of at least three American citizens. Wikileaks cables released a few years ago offer a crucial insight into the dynamic between the two sides, with US Embassy officials admitting that Algerian intelligence are a “prickly paranoid” group to work with.

Yet Algeria has pressed its demand that the US grant it greater access to intelligence. In April 2014, Algerian foreign minister Ramtane Lamamra urged the US “to share electronic intelligence with the armed forces and security intelligence agencies in the region”.

However Algeria’s unwillingness to allow the US to track militant activities with the aid of unmanned aerial vehicles in its airspace has led to the US’s refusal to support Algeria in its pursuit of drone technology. The US is currently looking to conduct drone flights from locations in the Maghreb region. Thus far, no country has agreed out of fear of reprisal.

Going forward

With instability showing no signs of abating in North Africa, the US has every intention of keeping a close eye on the region. For Algeria in particular, its doctrine of never intervening in the affairs of neighboring countries and its preference for taking unilateral decisions will invariably serve to hamper attempts to expand or deepen bilateral relations.

At the same time, Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, while serving as head of United States Africa Command (U.S. AFRICOM), noted that without the involvement and intelligence of the Algerians, “We do not have the same understanding of the various actors in the region.” Therefore, in the coming months Algeria will be left to grapple with the question of security versus sovereignty.


About Author

Emily Boulter

Emily Boulter is a Rotterdam-based writer, who is also the creator of the current affairs blog "From Brussels to Beirut". Previously, she worked as an assistant for the vice-chair of the foreign affairs committee in the European Parliament.