The January 2013 hostage crisis in Algeria has heightened concerns over protecting U.S. interests in the region. The terrorist group that seized the gas compound with foreign workers (including U.S. personnel) began during Algeria’s decade long civil conflict and is a splinter group of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Algeria’s internal environment contributes to its precarious atmosphere and a growing international unease as economic and political grievances have initiated public unrest. Although Algeria’s economic position is currently stable due to high gas prices, the wealth has not reached the lower levels of the population and unemployment, high food prices, and housing shortages have plagued the country. Algeria’s current political system is dominated by a strong presidency and security apparatus, however, inherent tensions within the elite establishment could indicate potential fracture points if additional pressures are placed on the government. Given the volatile environment, a more thorough analysis of Algeria’s long-term internal conflict is warranted to better understand the conflict today.
Terrorism is not a new phenomenon in Algeria as the country has been inundated by the brutality of these tactics for almost fifty years. At the end of the Second World War, France ignored the increasing demands for reform from its non-French citizens. Feelings of disenfranchisement instigated the formulation of the National Liberation Front (FLN) and its struggle for independence beginning in November 1954. In 1962, Algerians achieved independence. The National Constituent Assembly-comprised of all FLN members- replaced the provisional government and formed the Algerian Republic in September 1963. Following this, the constitution was ratified making the FLN the only party in the government and electing Ahmed Ben Bella as president. The brief break in political violence was shattered by a military coup d’état in June 1965. The overthrow of President Ben Bella was orchestrated by Colonel Houari Boumedienne who then took power. President Boumedienne created a socialist system in Algeria, and made Islam the state religion with a new constitution in November 1975.
President Boumedienne’s successor, Colonel Chadli Ben Djedid, began to explore political pluralism and liberalize the economy in 1978. However, the single-party government system remained and a decline in oil prices from 1985 to 1986 put pressure on the government to institute a series of austerity measures. As a result, there was an increase in public unrest, and a series of strikes and riots were initiated by the General Union of Algerian Workers. The Chadli government imposed a state of emergency resulting in numerous deaths and arrests, however, he eventually attempted to appease the public t by amending the constitution to allow non-FLN members to form political parties. When an Islamic party appeared to be next in line for power, the Algerian government cancelled the parliamentary elections in January 1992. This provoked additional protests and violent attacks by Islamic militias on military and police forces, and subsequently Algerian citizens. Most notably, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) led the guerrilla movement against the secular government. In response to the insurgent attacks, the Algerian government enacted another state of emergency that resulted in a violent crackdown on the militias and any individuals that appeared to be supporters. By 1998, members of the GIA sought to reform its modus operandi to avoid indiscriminate killings and to win over support from the local population. Consequently, the group splintered and formed the Group Salafist of Pour la Predication el le Combat (GSPC). While GSPC drew initial support, the election of President Abdalaziz Bouteflika in April 1999 brought about changes in the Algerian government. Both President Bouteflika’s amnesty law, a program that allowed citizens to exchange their weapons for amnesty, and counterterrorism program drove the GSPC out of the limelight. With this, the GSPC renovated its strategy to remain relevant and officially aligned itself with al-Qaeda in 2006.
While the Algerian government has sought to lead a coordinated regional counterterrorism strategy in North-West Africa, the results have been mixed and other attempts by the U.S. to institute capacity-building programs to counter terrorism has focused solely on Algeria’s West African neighbors. In addition, a unilateral approach by the U.S. to the regional threat presents significant risks and is not a viable option given Algeria’s staunch resistance to foreign intervention. Although the Algerian government permitted the U.S. to employ a Predator surveillance drone during the siege of the gas plant, the U.S. should not expect its cooperation in an expanded drone campaign. Overall, instability in Algeria accompanied by the underlying tensions of anti-colonial sentiment has put U.S. policymakers in perplexing situation on how to address AQIM.
Stacey is a second year master’s candidate at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy and a Senior Editor for the Journal. The photo above is from US Army Africa.