Gabriel ALgeria situation report April 19, 2013


April 19, 2013
Executive Summary
Political Trends

· With socio-economic protests still rampant in the south while DRS investigators continue to probe allegations of corruption at Sonatrach and elsewhere, the political climate remains unsettled.

· According to a high-level source, President Bouteflika has finally made his mind up to stand for a fourth term of office next year. There has been no public announcement yet, however.

· As the process of amending the constitution moves ahead, it would seem that there are plans to set up a new National Security Council to oversee the work of the police, the gendarmerie and perhaps part of the DRS.

· This may augur moves to break the DRS up into two or more distinct services, to avoid excessive concentration of power after the body’s present chief, ‘Tewfik’ Médiène, retires.

· Such circumstances inevitably generate speculation and rumours, including reports that Maj-Gen. Bachir Tartag, head of internal security at the DRS, is deliberately orchestrating the corruption investigations in order to destroy the entente between Bouteflika and Tewfik and prevent the President from being elected for a fourth term.
Foreign Relations

· With members of Algeria’s political class beginning, discreetly, to entertain the possibility of abandoning the shibboleth of Sahrawi independence and building a more united Maghreb once Bouteflika is out of the way, there is a natural temptation for Bouteflika’s circle to play up long-standing differences with Morocco in order to prevent such ideas gaining traction in the run-up to the 2014 presidential election.

· Meanwhile, Moroccan politicians, whipped into a frenzy by the surprise announcement that Washington backs inclusion of human rights monitoring in MINURSO’s remit, have begun lashing out angrily at Algeria and reviving dormant claims to Algerian territory.

· If MINURSO is given a human rights component, elements with the Moroccan security services may be tempted to use dirty tricks to ‘prove’ that there is a pay-off between human rights and efficient security.

· Algiers is quietly gloating at the Moroccans’ discomfiture, following Rabat’s angry cancellation of the joint Moroccan-American African Lion war games.

· Overall, reported levels of political violence have remained low, but with something of an uptick in the first half of April.

· Incidents of note in the north of the country include an attack by a former islamist guerilla fighter on a civilian in Algiers and an attempt to ambush the convoy of the regional governor of Medea.

· No incidents were reported in the oil and gas producing areas of the south, where the authorities claim to have boosted security significantly, but there has been a rash of incidents in the south-west of the country, all involving the interception of fighters arriving from Mali or Mauritania.

· In a rare admission of weakness, AQMI has spoken of its “pressing need for men and materiel” in an appeal to the youth of Tunisia to join its ranks rather than leave to fight in Syria.

· A separate communiqué from AQMI, expressing solidarity with the “intifada of the South” has been rejected out of hand by the leaders of the unemployed youth protests that have been shaking southern Algeria.

Political Trends

In our monthly reports since the beginning of this year, we have followed the Algerian political scene as it enters an increasingly turbulent phase. An unprecedented wave of unrest in the southern provinces, the resugence of half-buried corruption scandals and uncertainty about the 2014 presidential election have converged at a time when the duumvirate of President Bouteflika and DRS chief Mohamed ‘Tewfik’ Médiène that has dominated politics since 2004 appears to be giving way to a more complex, three-way game, in which the military chiefs are players alongside the head of state and his intelligence chief. Indirect echos of the mood at the top, we reported, seemed to indicate a growing sense of unease.

Speaking to us in mid-April, a source with access to both Bouteflika and Tewfik expressed, for the first time, a degree of relief with regard to some of these issues – while at the same time hinting at new changes yet to come that may yet turn out to be equally unsettling. As far as the situation in the south is concerned, the source argued that things are “beginning to calm down”. On the face of things, this claim seems somewhat over-optimistic. Militant yet peaceful and well organised demonstrations by the unemployed have continued throughout the month (in Tamanrasset on April 10 and Ghardaïa on April 13, with another scheduled for Djelfa on April 20), while the three-day strike called by public service unions across the south at the beginning of the second week of April was widely observed (with a participation rate of just over 69% according to the organisers) and may herald further action. It is possible, however, that the source’s optimism was inspired by a feeling that the authorities (and first and foremost the DRS) have begun to get to grips with the southern protest movement, and may now feel more confident of being able to manipulate and deflect it: the outbreak of rioting and wanton destruction of public property seen in the southern city of Ouargla on April 10 over allocations of social housing is, paradoxically, the kind of protest that the authorities appear relatively comfortable with – incidents such as this flare up regularly across the country and, insofar as the rioters’ outlook is essentially parochial and depoliticised, are generally left to burn themselves out. It may be no coincidence that some eyewitnesses claimed to have seen groups of agents provocateurs deliberately encouraging the violence and destruction in Ouargla.

Behind the scenes, meanwhile, the same high-level source claimed that the suspense is at last over as regards the 2014 presidential election. Although no official announcement has yet been made, President Bouteflika has, according to the source, finally made his mind up and decided to stand for a fourth successive term. Speaking very guardedly, the source had nothing to say about how the other key players stand in relation to this decision, but appeared to imply that it was not opposed by DRS chief Tewfik.

A decision has also been taken to move ahead, at long last, with the revision of the constitution. This much at least is out in the open, President Bouteflika having met with the speakers of both houses of parliament, the head of the Constitutional Council and (tellingly) Assistant Defence Minister Maj-Gen. Abdelmalek Guenaïzia on April 2 to set the ball rolling, before appointing a body of experts a few days later to draft the required amendments. There have also been leaks to the press concerning the likely content of the package they are working on, which according to Tout Sur Algérie (April 16) will include:

– changes to the status of the Prime Minister, who is to be answerable to parliament rather than to the President;

– the creation of a new position of Vice President (most likely appointed by the President rather than elected on a joint ticket);

– reintroduction of an upper limit on the number of successive terms of office a President may serve (although in all likelihood not a return to the two-term limit that existed prior to 2009[1]);

– the creation of a position of Minister of Defence, separate from the position of President of the Republic[2];

– undefined measures to “provide a new framework for the activities of the security forces”[3].

The final point in this list is the most intiguing. It appears to refer to a forthcoming initiative to which the high-level source quoted above also alluded, extremely cautiously, when we spoke in mid-April: the creation of a new ‘National Security Council’ to oversee the operations of the police, the Gendarmerie (currently part of the military and under the authority of the Defence Ministry) and, it would seem “part of” the DRS. The source gave nothing more away, other than to stress that the move was “not directed against Tewfik”. Vague though they may be, these hints bring to mind suggestions made earlier by separate sources that Tewfik – who, aged 74, cannot be expected to stay on in his present role indefinitely – has for some time been mulling plans to split the DRS into two or more separate institutions[4] before he retires, so that his successors will never again be able to concentrate the same degree of power in their hands as he has wielded since he took over the helm of the security and intelligence service back in 1990. Insofar as the DRS is, in many respects, the very core of the Algerian regime, such developments will be of the utmost importance over the coming period.

It is in this context that one of Tewfik’s potential successors, head of the Direction de la Sécurité Intérieure Maj-Gen. Bachir Tartag, has come under the spotlight. Tartag, who took over the crucial internal security position in late 2011, had already been named in the media as the operational commander of the security forces’ response to the In Amenas hostage crisis[5]. He has now been identified by the press as the man in charge of the ongoing anti-corruption probes. Over the past month, DRS investigators have, amongst other things, searched the residences in Algiers and Oran of former Energy Minister Chakib Khelil (who appears to have been ‘allowed’ to flee to Switzerland before answering a summons to appear before investigating magistrates) and have reportedly called in for questioning President Bouteflika’s private secretary, Mohamed Rougab, in connection with alleged irregularities at the national housing agency. This has prompted specialist newsletter Maghreb Confidentiel to allege that, as the “real orchestrator of the anti-corruption investigations”, Tartag is deliberately trying, by targetting invidivuals close to Bouteflika, to “smash the fragile peace between his boss Tewfik and the head of state, … cause the Bouteflika clan to implode and prevent the President from running for a fourth term in 2014.”

It is of course technically correct that Maj-Gen. Tartag is, in his capacity as head of the DSI, in charge of the DRS’ criminal investigations department, which is carrying out the corruption probe. And it is conceivable that, if there is an agreement between Bouteflika and Tewfik to break up the DRS to prevent any intelligence chief after Tewfik from monopolising power, Tartag may, as a potential successor to Tewfik, have a motive for seeking to scupper the understanding between them and do whatever he can to prevent Bouteflika from securing another five years in power. But it is worth stressing that we have no confirmation from other sources at this stage that this is indeed what Tartag is trying to do, or even that he would be able to operate independently of the wishes of Tewfik, his immediate boss, and Bouteflika, to whom the DRS is in principle answerable. Nevertheless, as Algeria inches towards what seems certain to be a highly controversial presidential election and with news of a possible reorganisation of the security services beginning to seep out, rumours such as this are very much worth monitoring and testing against the known facts, as possible indicators of the way in which the new and increasingly complex game of Algerian power politics may play itself out.

Foreign Relations

In his report to the Security Council last November, the UN Secretary General’s Personal Envoy Christopher Ross suggested, not uncontroversially, that progress towards a solution to the Western Sahara conflict depends on efforts to improve relations between Algeria and Morocco. Developments in Algeria, and a sudden and dramatic shift in relations between Morocco and the United States, suggest that no such improvement is to be expected in the short to medium term, at least.

As we have noted elsewhere[6], sources at the Algerian Presidency are adamant that Algeria’s long-held position of support for Sahrawi self-determination via a UN sponsored referendum will not change a jot as long as Bouteflika is President. Insofar as any real improvement in Moroccan-Algerian relations is, from Rabat’s point of view, predicated on a shift in Algiers’ stance on Western Sahara, this would seem to preclude any meaningful change in relations between the two neighbours while Bouteflika is in power – which may, it now seems, extend beyond 2014. Furthermore, the same sources report that there has been increasing chatter in Algiers political salons concerning the need for Algeria to adopt a new approach to relations with its neighbours, up to and including abandoning the cause of Sahrawi independence; this, it would seem, is seen in a very poor light by the President’s entourage, which views such mutterings as the beginnings of movement against a fourth term for Bouteflika. In the short term, therefore, the Bouteflika camp has every interest in amplifying traditional points of discord between Algeria and Morocco in order to prevent the question of inter-Maghreb relations and normalisation with Rabat gaining any traction. Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia has already set the tone, insisting when questioned by journalists and members of civil society bodies during a visit to Oran on April 12 that “the question of opening the border with Morocco is a highly political matter” that could not be settled quickly or easily.

Matters have been further complicated by Washington’s unexpected shift on the question of including a human rights component in the mandate of MINURSO, contained in a draft UN Security Council resolution that the American delegation to the UN has circulated to the so-called Group of Friends of Western Sahara[7]. Predictably enough, Rabat has reacted with knee-jerk outrage, apparently expecting France to provide the support to which it has become accustomed and use its veto to block the move. But it would appear that this will not be the case: France’s UN Ambassador Gérard Araud told reporters on April 18 that his country was « ready to vote for the American text if it is put on the table. » It cannot be ruled out that behind-the-scenes horse-trading might yet lead to the proposal being dropped before being put to the vote at the UNSC, but barring this the Security Council seems set to add human rights monitoring in MINURSO’s remit when it votes on April 25.

Infuriated as it may be at Washington’s diplomatic shift and Paris’ unexpected defection, there is clearly a limit beyond which Rabat – which can scarcely afford to break off relations with the US or France – cannot go, and having already cancelled at short notice this year’s African Lion war games with the US military in a histrionic fit of pique, it would seem that that limit is now fairly close. De-recognising and expelling MINURSO remains a theoretical option, but since this would amount to withdrawing from the UN ‘Settlement Plan’ which has served as a relatively effective cover for Morocco’s ‘facts on the ground’ for almost a quarter century it does not appear the most likely. If MINURSO is allowed to stay on, with human rights monitoring as part of its mandate, it is possible that elements within the Moroccan security apparatus may be tempted to provide ‘proof’ that, for intelligence and security agencies, there is a pay-off between respect for human rights and efficiency, by deliberately turning a blind eye to cross-border smuggling of drugs and weapons, AQMI recruitment[8], etc. The consequences for Algerian-Moroccan relations would clearly be anything but positive. Even without this, there is an obvious temptation for Moroccan politicians to lash out all the more strongly at Algeria (the real opposing party in the Western Sahara dispute according to the Moroccan doxa). Hamid Chabat, Secretary General of the Istiqlal Party, is already reported to have responded to the changes at the UN by reviving his party’s historic position of laying claim to a large slice of western Algeria.

Meanwhile, Algiers – able for once to bask in the contrast between Rabat’s sudden cancellation of the African Lion exercises and the signs of progress in its own military relationship with the US[9] – has been quietly gloating at Rabat’s discomfiture. As an unnamed Algerian diplomatic source, quoted by various Algerian electronic and print media[10], puts it:

The anger and disappointment that prevail on the other side of the border are in direct proportion to the bitter diplomatic failure [that Rabat has suffered]. […]

It has to be said that it is not so much the issue of monitoring of human rights that has provoked our neighbors’ ire as the essential political issue of the Security Council deciding to demolish the fiction of so-called Moroccan sovereignty […] by imposing third-party monitoring […].

This is therefore a major political shift, to which must be added another, equally important element: if the Security Council does allow MINURSO to report regularly on the violence to which the Sahrawis in the occupied territories are systematically exposed, they will no longer hold back in denouncing the abuses and unfair trials they suffer, asserting openly their right to freedom of assembly and expression, and stating clearly their demand for independence.

So there is a real tectonic shift, which may shake up the situation on the ground and shake things up on the international level. That is what Rabat is afraid of, and it explains the confused, angry and sometimes violent reactions against Algeria.

The inappropriate, irresponsible and unacceptable language […] is typical of this Pavlovian reflex that consists in putting Algeria automatically in the dock whenever the Saharawi cause makes any gains on the international scene.

And yet, with a little serenity and insight, it is easy to see that the conditions that used to prevail regionally and internationally have evolved in a number ways, and that […] a lasting solution can only be legitimate if it is based on a fair, multiple-choice referendum. After all, if you are going to shout yourself hoarse telling the world that the Sahrawis are « Moroccan subjects », why be so afraid of a referendum on self-determination?


Overall, there has not been no significant rise in political violence since our last report. Jihadist activity remained at low levels in March, with only seven jihadist operations reported nationwide in the whole month (around the same level observed since the beginning of the year, and about half the long term average), but picked up in early April, with five jihadist operations reported in the first half of the month; Kabylia in particular saw its worst week this year in early April, perhaps reflecting the end of the tough weather conditions that impede guerilla activities in this mountainous region during the winter. Activity by the security forces meanwhile was down sharply, with seven operations reported in March (against 15 in February), and two in the first half of April.

There was however a rare incident in Algiers on March 16, in which a TV technician was stabbed to death by a “repentant jihadist” in the Bouzareah district. Unions and the media treated it as a “terrorist attack”, but the assailant’s motive for is not clear and it is at least as likely that the incident was simply another one of many cases of unplanned, individual violence between former members of the armed islamist groups and their neighbours and colleagues, which have plagued society since the “national reconciliation” laws were brought into force.

One other notable incident in the north of the country occurred on April 3, when one policeman was killed and another wounded in a terrorist ambush on the RN-8 highway near Mezrana, wilaya of Médéa. The policemen were scouting out the road to be taken by the wali of Médéa on a visit to Tablat, in the north of the wilaya, when they came under heavy machine gun fire from jihadists hiding in the hills overlooking the road. The incident was reported by the official news agency APS and relayed by the press as “an attack against the governor’s escort”, while press accounts said the attack took place “just a few minutes before the governor’s car arrived at the spot”. The incident is significant not only because it occurred in an area that has been largely free of violence for a number of years but because it seems to represent a return to the tactic of targeted assassinations that is all the more surprising in that it requires a level of planning and intelligence gathering that might have been assumed to be beyond the capabilities of AQMI’s hard-pressed units in the north of the country.

No incidents were reported in oil and gas producing areas, where the authorities claim to have considerably enhanced security measures, sending sending 5,000 additional soldiers to the south to patrol the oil and gas fields (El-Watan 22/03) and tightening security around the town of Hassi Messaoud and nearby oil facilities around the beginning of April (El-Khabar 01/04). Several checkpoints have been established in various parts of the town, stopping and checking vehicles and verifying whether occupants are actual residents of the area. In the last week of March, security forces are reported raided several “black spots” in Hassi Messaoud known to be lairs of drug dealers and criminals. Further, security forces have intensified patrols around oil facilities, with security staff in uniform and civilian clothing watching over around the clock. “Strict orders have been given” that expatriate workers should not move about without security escort – although this appears to be no more than the belated application of rules that have existed on paper for several years (and which apply, in principle, to the north as well as the south of the country).

The southern borders in general appeared relatively calm this past month, although this may still be due more to underreporting than to a real fall in jihadist and smuggling activity around Algeria’s borders. There were some signs of the jihadist presence moving west, to the usually comparatively quiet areas between Algeria, Mali and Mauritania, instead of the eastern sector, which extends from the Libyan border to the town of Bordj Baji Mokhtar in the southeast of the wilaya of Adrar, where most border incidents are usually concentrated. Three incidents have been reported in the great south-west since January 2013, against just one in the whole of 2012. According to El-Khabar (01/04), security forces are understood to have clashed with and besieged a group of jihadists on March 25-26 north of Timimoun in the wilaya of Adrar; they are believed to have made their way there from Mauritania. The army command on March 31 launched a “major operation” to “comb through” the Grand Erg Occidental between the wilayas of Ouargla and Béchar all the way to Mauritanian border, to root out any jihadist presence in the area. The operation is supposed to be “completed before the summer,” according to security sources quoted by El Khabar. On April 1, according to L’Expression (04/04), the Algerian army, acting on intelligence, intercepted two offroaders in the area near the border between Algeria, Mali and Mauritania and killed “at least nine” jihadists of various nationalities (from Libya, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali) who are believed to have belonged to Mujao. On April 13 Algerian security forces backed by helicopters tracked and destroyed two offroaders in an area around 190km from Bordj Baji Mokhtar, near the border with Mali, said Wakt el-Djazair (14/04). All five jihadists on board, again believed to belong to Mujao, were killed and three rocket propelled grenades, five machine guns and “a large stock of ammunition” were recovered.

Beyond Algeria’s borders, the office of President François Hollande on March 23 officially confirmed the death of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, emir of Aqmi’s Katiba Tarek Ibn Ziad, reportedly killed in late February (see previous report). The next day the Algerian press reported that “Jemal Oukacha, alias Yahya Abou El Hammam was named Abou Zeid’s successor as the Aqmi’s emir for the Sahara region”. This is doubly incorrect, insofar as Abou Zeid was not “emir of Aqmi in the Sahara” but merely commander of one Aqmi’s brigades in the region (albeit an important one), while Oukacha was already “emir of Aqmi in the Sahara” as of September 2012[11]. Aqmi issued a statement on April 6 denying the “death of the emir of the Sahara” and his replacement by Oukacha, explaining that Oukacha became emir after his predecessor died in a car accident “months before the French aggression began”, and, for good measure, accusing the French president of “lying to the French people to boost his sagging popularity”. The Algerian press, followed by some foreign newspapers (e.g. Le Monde, 06/04), contrived to understand this to mean that Aqmi was denying Abou Zeid’s death, even though the statement did not mention him and was clearly not talking about him. Meanwhile, the death of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, announced by Chadian officials in early March, remains unconfirmed, notwithstanding Chadian President Idris Déby’s insistence[12].

Online, Aqmi issued a statement on March 17 to “the Muslim youth in the Maghreb and especially Tunisia” urging them not to leave to take part in jihad in other countries unless “the leaders of jihad in your area, judging the move to be in the interest of Islam, authorise you to go”. Thus “we implore the young Muslims of Tunisia to stay in their land and not leave it in the hands of the enemies Islam”. Those who must leave:

would do better to join the jihad in the Islamic Maghreb, where your brethren in northern Mali are struggling in the face of the French Crusade, or in northern Algeria, where the need for men and materiel is pressing, after two decades of war against the infidels. France, with its allies in the region, is working hard to empty the Maghreb of its jihadist energy, not because they care about other fronts, but in order to cut the supply of fighters on the front to which it has sent its troops.

Although the statement did not mention it openly, the allusion to Syria is clear. Aqmi is trying to persuade would-be jihadists in Tunisia and North Africa to join its ranks instead of leaving to fight in Syria – a rare if not unheard of admission of weakness.

In a separate statement, sent to Mauritanian news agency ANI on March 22, AQMI stated its support for the protests in Algeria’s southern wilayas, which it termed the “Intifada of the South”, and called for more demonstrations against the regime. After listing a litany of “crimes of the Algerian regime” — ranging from “corruption” to the “forced deportation of three million people, a tenth of the Algerian population” — the jihadist organisation described the demonstrations in the south as “a legitimate response to the policy of marginalisation” that has long afflicted the southern provinces and called on the “young men of the South” to “unify their demands and their command”. Tahar Belabès, spokesman of the National Committee for the Defence of the Rights of the Unemployed (CNDDC), which has been organising the protests in the south, promptly and categorically rejected AQMI’s support in a statement to the media, in which he stressed that the movement “is peaceful and hates violence” and condemns “all attempts to manipulate or intepret” it. There have been no indications that AQMI’s statement has gained any traction whatsoever with rank and file protesters either.


Ambassador Edward M. Gabriel

President and CEO

The Gabriel Company, LLC

1220 L Street NW, Suite 411

Washington DC, 20005

Phone: +1 202.887.1113

Fax: +1 202.887.1115



[1] It is difficult to see, however, how a limitation on the number of successive terms of office that would nonetheless permit Bouteflika to stand for a fourth time could have any worthwhile meaning – unless a mechanism is found whereby the amendments do not come into effect until after the 2014 presidential election.

[2] This is not strictly speaking necessary, insofar as the existing constitution, although it does stipulate that the President is “responsible for national defence”, at no point states that the position of Defence Minister is held exclusively by the President of the Republic. The position of Defence Minister exists and, indeed, has been held in the past by individuals other than the President. The inclusion in the constitution of a clause explicitly prohibiting the President from holding the defence portfolio, on the other hand, would represent a potentially significant change in the balance of powers.

[3] On this particular point, TSA adds, “our sources provided no futher details”.

[4] The ‘classic’ division would be into one domestic and one foreign intelligence agency, but this would be to overlook the real extent of the DRS’ remit, which goes way beyond intelligence gathering, notably on the domestic scene. Among the other options would be to split off the Direction Centrale de la Sécurité de l’Armée, possibly placing it directly under the authority of the Defence Ministry.

[5] See AMSR #121

[6] See WSSR 11/04/13

[7] Besides the United States, this includes France, Spain, Britain and Russia.

[8] In mid-April, the Moroccan Interior Ministry issued a statement indicating that the police and the DST (domestic intelligence agency) had succeeded in identifying and dismantling a six-man cell in Fès that had been actively recruiting Moroccan volonteers with the aim of sending them to join AQMI in Algeria.

[9] On March 24, US AFRICOM commander Gen. Carter Ham flew to Tamanrasset to visit the Joint Operational Staff Committee (CEMOC), a structure, based at the headquarters of the Sixth Military Region of the Algerian armed forces, that was established at Algeria’s initiative in 2009 to bring together representatives of the militaries of Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Algeria itself and provide a framework for cooperation between them in the Sahara-Sahel region.

[10], Tout Sur l’Algérie, L’Expression…

[11] See amsr #118 of October 17, 2012

[12] Déby told French newspapers on April 15 that Belmokhtar “blew himself up as Chadian forces surrounded him” and “we could not take pictures of him”.