Almost seven years passed since the beginning of the so-called “Arab Spring” and Algeria remains one of the most stable countries in the region. However, the country is facing the consequences of the high instability in neighboring Tunisia, Libya and the Sahel that reached its territory in 2013 with the spectacular attack of the Ain Amenas Gas facility. During this attack, 800 people were held hostage by the international commando of Mukhtar Bel Mukhtar. The military, the People’s National Army (PNA), the most organized and influential institution in the country, besides being the primary power holder, is reaching an impasse. The army cannot intervene abroad, yet it must protect its borders while being surrounded by weak states that are unable to have control over their territory, let alone their borders. As a way out of this impasse, the PNA has been focusing on its professionalization and modernization as well as on cooperation.
In 2017, Algeria’s army ranked 25 out of 133 armies in the world. It is the second most powerful army in Africa after Egypt with a total military personnel reaching 792,350, an active force of 520,000 and a reserve of 272,350. The Algerian military is highly experienced in counter-terrorism tactics as they have been fighting the jihadist threat since the early 1990s. The Algerian government increased its defense budget to reach $10 billion in 2017, representing 6,24 percent of the GDP and an increase of 176 percent since 2004. In 2017, the country was according to SIPRI the major arms importer in the African continent with 46 percent of all imports to the region.
With the objective of upgrading the Algerian arsenal, the government signed multibillion-dollar purchases with Russia, China, Italy, Germany and the UK for military equipment. The country invested in developing its armament industry by building production plants for small arms and ammunition. It engaged in joint ventures with firms from the UAE (Aabar Investments Fund), Germany (MTU Friedrichshafen and Deutsch AG) and Serbia (Yugoimport). More recently in 2016, Algeria signed a joint venture with Italy to produce light and medium helicopters in Ain Arnat (West of Setif province). It is worth mentioning that the army revealed in 2015 the first locally-assembled Mercedes Benz Actros four-wheel-drive trooper.
The military also invested in quality training for the use of sophisticated equipment and counter-terrorism techniques in its several military academies as well as abroad with NATO academies and with NATO country members (France, Belgium, UK). The PNA reduced the time of national service from 18 to 12 to 9 months and moved henceforth to the employment of contracted personnel. Also, women’s status in the army had been made legally equal to that of their male counterparts. A framework has been put in place for equal opportunities and efforts have been made to apply it. Women are today promoted to the rank of General in Algeria (the only country in the Arab world to do so).
At the tactical level, the military and the security forces were able to keep jihadist threat at low in the country, hinder jihadist activities and confine them to specific regions (north-East mountains of the Kabylia and in the borders). The Islamic State organization, for instance, was not able to gain a foothold in the country as it did in neighboring Libya and Tunisia. The PNA nipped the group in the bud and prevented it from structuring itself as each of its emir (leaders) have been killed a few months after their advent.
The PNA is particularly active in the borders that have never been that unstable and that continue to have a significant bearing on Algerian national security. The country shares 6,734 km of borders with seven other states. The longest one with Morocco (1,900km), despite smuggling activities, is the most stable in the Maghreb. The dangers come from the borders shared with Libya (989km), Tunisia (1,034km) and Mali (1,359km) as being the most insecure countries. Aware of the multiple regional threats (illegal migrants, drug smuggling, and the proliferation of armed jihadi groups), Algeria closed its borders with all neighboring countries (exception with Tunisia). 25, 000 troops were sent to the borders with Tunisia and 5000 along the borders with Libya. New checkpoints have been built as well as trenches to fight trafficking and terrorism by cutting armed groups from one of their main source of finance. To reach higher efficiency, the PNA brought closer the command of some operational units (i.e., the Border Guard Group have been moved from Constantine to Ain El Aouinet in Tebessa). As a result, the PNA has been able to thwart dozens of attacks with a most recent one in the gas facility of Krechba in In Salah in March 2016.
To compensate for the limits of its non-interventionist policy, that is hardly viable in the face of profoundly changing and evolving regional threats, Algeria has been strengthening cooperation with its neighbors primarily with Mali, Libya, Niger and especially Tunisia. Helping Tunisia for its protection is helping Algeria itself. The two countries have been strengthening their cooperation by multiplying bilateral meetings between the structures in charge of border security, coordinating actions, exchanging information as well as experiences in border security and control of smuggling activities.
Algeria helped Tunisia’s ill-skilled and unprepared security forces with training in counter-terrorism tactics, teaching strategies of the Gendarmerie Elite Rapid Intervention Units as well as the teaching of criminology and forensics labs. The two countries have exchanged several high-level delegations. The Tunisians, for instance, sent several delegations from the Army, the intelligence branch and the Air Force to Algiers. In 2012, both countries signed a border security agreement facilitating joint patrols and operations to fight Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb linked groups in Jebel Chaambi as well as criminal and smuggling groups. In 2013 Algiers and Tunis established a Joint Intelligence Unit. This cooperation has resulted in several successful operations: among them, the recent killing of the leader of Uqba Bin Nafi battalion, Khaled Hamadi al-Shayeb, Aka Abu Sakhr along with two other armed militants. Abu Sakhr was believed to be the mastermind behind several attacks: for instance, the attack of Tunisian Interior Minister House, Lotfi Ben Jeddou in May 2014, the beheading of Tunisian Policeman in December of the same year and the Bardo museum attack in March 2015.
With Libya, efforts were strengthened in 2013 in a meeting at Ghadames (Northwestern Libya) to better coordinate border security. The efforts have been hindered by the ongoing political crisis in Libya and the incapacity of the Government of National Accord (GNA) to control the plethora of militias in the frontiers. Also, Algeria initiated the “pays du Champs” initiative in 2010 with Mali, Mauritania, and Niger to coordinate security efforts in the “fight against terror.” Despite its operational dimension with the creation of the Joint Operational Staff Committee (CEMOC) and the Fusion and Liaison Unit (UFL) to foster cooperation between eight countries, these mechanisms are paper tigers and have yet to show their concrete operational capacities.
For Algeria, to foster cooperation with its neighbors is just not enough especially when partners (i.e., Mali, Libya) are not able to protect their territory and their borders. Through the modernization and professionalization of its military, Algeria achieved vast military capabilities that remain underused. These military capabilities should be used to maintain regional stability: the protection of Algeria’s security interests takes place within Algeria but also on the other side of the national borders.
Dr. Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck,Resident Scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.