The spectacular abduction of workers at a Saharan gas complex in the eastern desert of Algeria by Islamic militants (and the subsequent raid by government forces that killed dozens of both hostages and kidnappers) has placed a harsh glare on a country that typically avoids the international media spotlight.
Algeria, a vast, sparsely populated, natural resource-rich nation in North Africa that gained independence from France 50 years ago, largely avoided the turmoil of the Arab Spring revolution that toppled governments in neighboring Tunisia and Libya, and is one of the most repressive states in the world.
Ruled by the dominant Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) – or National Liberation Front – since the country’s violent birth in 1962, Algerian domestic and foreign policy has actually been dictated by the government’s super-secret state intelligence agency.
In its current incarnation, the Algerian spy network is called Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS) – or Department of Intelligence and Security – and has been led by one man, General Mohamed Mediene, also known as Toufik, for the past 23 years, an extraordinarily lengthy tenure for someone in such a dangerous position.
Jeremy Keenan, a professorial research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University, compared Mediene’s longevity to other prominent intelligence chiefs, in a column for Al Jazeera.
Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka and the predecessor of the KGB, was in power in the Soviet Union for nine years (1917-1926), Keenan noted. (Dzerzhinsky died of a heart attack.) The psychotic Lavrenti Beria led Joseph Stalin’s NKVD for 15 years (1938-1953) -- he was executed under the reign of Nikita Khrushchev.
Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the Schutzstaffel (SS) under Adolph Hitler, lasted for 11 years (1934-1945) before committing suicide during the closing days of the Third Reich. Apartheid South Africa’s Bureau of State Security (BOSS) was supervised for 11 years (1969-1980) by the redoubtable General Hendrik van den Bergh.
However, Keenan notes, Mediène has lasted longer than any of them.
The rise of Mediene coincided with the emergence of an Islamic militancy that threatened to topple the long-entrenched FLN regime, culminating in an election – subsequently canceled by the government – in which the radical Islamic Salvation Front looked poised to win. That provocative measure – which Mediene participated in directly, sparked a brutal civil war that killed up to 200,000 people, mostly civilians, many of whom were massacred by both militants and government forces.
DRS had its fingerprints all over this dirty war.
One of the principal Islamist groups engaged in a desperate battle to overthrow the government during that conflict was called Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) – or Armed Islamic Group of Algeria.
Some observers allege that DRS, which was ostensibly formed with the express purpose of fighting and defeating anti-government entities like GIA, was actually in bed with them.
John R. Schindler, professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, wrote explicitly in National Interest: “Simply put, GIA was the creation of the DRS.”
Schindler explained that by learning methods of intelligence and counter-espionage from the Soviet KGB, DRS formed groups like GIA to create the largely false impression that Islamic extremists posed a threat to the country’s stability and security -- thereby justifying the intelligence network’s very existence.
“Much of GIA’s leadership consisted of DRS agents, who drove the group into the dead end of mass murder, a ruthless tactic that thoroughly discredited GIA Islamists among nearly all Algerians,” Schindler, a former counterintelligence officer with the National Security Agency, said.
“Most of [GIA’s] major operations were the handiwork of the DRS, including the 1995 wave of bombings in France. Some of the most notorious massacres of civilians were perpetrated by military special units masquerading as mujahedeen, or by GIA squads under DRS control.”
By the time GIA were driven underground by the late 1990s, other Islamist organizations popped up, including those linked to al-Qaeda, including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) -- all of whom were either formed or infiltrated by DRS and/or the Algerian military for their own nefarious purposes, Schindler alleges.
“[The] recent record suggests that DRS influence over any Algerian extremist group is considerable,” he said.
Such a diabolical double-game by DRS is well understood by ordinary Algerians themselves, Schindler noted, but largely unknown to most Western intelligence officials who have turned a blind eye to gross human rights abuses committed by the Algiers regime on the pretext that the Algerian state is deeply involved in fighting terrorism.
Algeria’s weary North African neighbors, in contrast, are apparently wise to Algiers’ and the DRS’ machinations.
“Algeria’s neighbors, who fear the country’s outsized influence in Northwest Africa, are appropriately skeptical of the Algiers-created narrative that portrays AQIM as a major threat to regional stability,” Schindler said.
“They reject the idea that extremists can be combated only by greater Algerian involvement in regional affairs that is implicitly supported by the United States. African officials are known to drop unsubtle hints that AQIM is not quite what it seems to be and ought to be viewed within the broader context of Algerian foreign policy.”
Such knowledge and suspicions can be very dangerous indeed.
In mid-2009, Colonel Lamana Ould Bou, the chief of Mali's state security service, which was responsible for the restive northern regions of Mali, boldly told the media: “At the heart of AQIM is the DRS."
He was shot dead outside his home in Timbuktu soon afterwards.
As for Mediène, now believed to be 72 years old, he apparently remains in power – somehow surviving all the treachery and intrigue inherent within Algeria’s vast security infrastructure.
Keenan explained that Mediene has had a topsy-turvy relationship with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is now in his third term. Apparently, Mediene knows the dirty secrets of top government officials as well as where bodies are buried (since he buried many of them).
“The personal weaknesses of others, such as the propensity to corruption and sexual proclivities, have been fundamental to Mediène's exercise of control,” Keenan wrote.
“It is therefore not surprising that Mediène's support for Bouteflika in 1999 was clinched by the fact that Bouteflika had been convicted in 1983 for the embezzlement of some $23-million … from Algeria's chancelleries while serving as foreign minister from 1965 to 1978.”
While Mediene is almost never seen in public and rarely photographed, accounts of his personality and conduct are harrowing.
Keenan said that in 1999, when DRS arrested a man named Fouad Boulemia for the murder of Abdelkader Hachani, the leader of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), after enduring torture by DRS agents, Mediene confronted the defendant and proposed a chilling choice.
"It's me, the boss,” the DRS chief told his frightened prisoner.
“You are going to see what I am going to do to you. Admit that you killed Hachani and you'll get 15 years prison. Your parents will be able to see you in prison. If not, I'm going to take you to your mother's and will disembowel her in front of you.”
Mediene added grandly: “I am General Toufik, the God of Algeria."
Mediene also reportedly arranged for the sudden deaths of other intelligence officers or politicians who posed a threat to his leadership.
Amnesty International has long accused DRS of committing grave human rights violations.
The DRS “continue to torture uncharged detainees held in their custody,” the rights group said in a report.
“The DRS runs its own detention centers where detainees are held incommunicado and subject to torture. ... DRS officials continue to be allowed to commit torture with impunity. Algeria's civil authorities, in practice, have no control over their activities and judicial authorities routinely fail to investigate allegations of abuse by the DRS or to inspect their detention prisons, although they are legally required to do so."
Methods of torture, Amnesty declared, include “beatings, electric shocks, the forced ingestion of dirty water, urine or chemicals, and the suspension of detainees from the ceiling, adding that most detainees have no access to a lawyer when they are brought before a judge.
Not surprisingly, Keenan indicates, Mediene has benefited financially from his powerful position, with significant stakes in Algeria’s oil and real estate sectors.
Keenan added, however, that the end of Mediene’s bloody reign may be nearing its end.
“Rumors are that third-party intermediaries have spoken with both Mediène and Bouteflika and reached a deal whereby Mediène will retire followed a while later by Bouteflika on grounds of ill-health, with the country to be ruled until the 2014 elections by a deputy president(s) to be appointed sometime before Bouteflika's departure,” he wrote.
Anna Mahjar-Barducci, a Moroccan-Italian researcher president of the Rome-based Liberal and Democratic Arabs Association, suggested that DRS plays the same role in Algeria that powerful spy agencies in Syria and Pakistan play in theirs.
“Real power … is held by the military's DRS,” she wrote in Haaretz.
“In this regard, Algeria is similar to Pakistan and Syria, where the secret police seem to call the shots. This bureaucratic-military political elite has managed to lead the country into a prolonged state of agony.”