Algeria’s battle against terror

Algeria’s battle against terror

Since the 1990s, numerous Islamist groups have emerged in Algeria, but over the years their allegiances and identities have shifted according to geopolitical trends. The Islamic State is the latest group to gain a presence in the country, but it has faced a pushback as the Algerian authorities are no strangers to counterterrorism.

On June 1st, south of the capital Algiers, gunmen attacked a gendarmerie wounding four policemen. It was reported that the attack was orchestrated by individuals acting on behalf of the Islamic State. It was just the latest in a string of incidents which have occurred in Algeria this year. Other high profile attacks claimed by the group include a thwarted suicide attack by two men in the city of Constantine in April, and two months before this a jihadist tried to enter a police station in the centre of the city. On this occasion, a police man on duty succeeded to disarm the bomber’s suicide device by firing on it and the perpetrator was shot.

Algeria: A hotspot for radical Islamist groups

According to a 2015 report by the US Department of State, some of the most active Islamist groups operating within Algeria include: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); the Mali-based organisation Movement for United and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO); al-Murabitoun, which was responsible for the 2013 attack on the In Amenas gas facility in southern Algeria and Jund al-Khilafa (Soldiers of the Caliphate), which has declared its allegiance ISIS. However, it is estimated that there are many small groups scattered across Algeria´s southern and eastern borders, which each to varying degrees have declared their loyalty to ISIS.

In light of the Islamic State defeats in Iraq and Syria, many foreign fighters are seeking to return home. Unlike in Tunisia or Morocco, where hundreds of young men have been drawn to the fighting, Algerians have proven less susceptible. In fact less than 200 are said to have travelled to the region to fight under Islamic State´s banner. In Algeria, those who have chosen to align themselves with ISIS have often spent years in the field fighting. The group’s operations faced a setback last year after 332 people were arrested across the country for belonging to recruitment and support networks. Nevertheless dampening the desire for young Algerian men to take up radical causes can be difficult given the high rate of unemployment and social inequity that has beset the country for decades. One commentator has noted that Algeria’s only hope going forward is that there is a surge in the price of oil. Currently, the government is required to pay $30 billion USD in subsidies which cover everything from food to education.

Algerian counter-terrorist experience

However many contend that what is helping to undermine the threat of the Islamic State is that many Algerians carry the memory of the brutal civil war of the 1990s in which an estimated 200,000 people died. The might of the security force also plays a significant role, as the Algerian military consists of over half a million active service members and a national police force of 210,000. They have learnt to cope with the ‘residual’ terrorism that has continued despite efforts in the early 2000s to grant amnesty to Islamist fighters. The country´s Ministry of National Defense denies publicity to militants by purposely refusing to list group affiliations in communiques regarding arms seizures or anti-terror operations. More broadly, the Algerian government is working to support young Algerians by providing tuition, job placements and paid internships, which is part of a deradicalization program.

While the government continues to address the threat internally, the challenge for the Algerian security forces is controlling the country’s porous 4000 mile border and the mountainous terrain in the north east, which has proven ideal since the early 1990s for Islamist guerrillas. To counter this, Algeria actively participates in the US-backed Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP), which aims to strengthen counterterrorism capabilities among states in the Maghreb and the Pan Sahel region. While such programs are certainly designed to assess the changing nature of the threat across North Africa, for the government of Algeria, what remains certain for the foreseeable future is whether Algerian mujahideen choose to fight under the banner of the Islamic State or Al-Qaeda, the tactics and strategies they adopt remain the same.

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.