The area is the newest theater for the international war on terror, and the media spotlight has swiveled to shine its light on a growing network of Islamist groups who are staking their claim to lawless lands in the Sahara Desert and the semi-arid Sahel.
But one area remains opaque: Algeria, whose security forces have responded to a bloody hostage crisis with fierce independence, and whose national government maintains strict control over the information that leaves its borders.
“Traditionally, the pillar of Algeria’s foreign policy has been sovereignty at all costs,” says Jacob Zenn, an Africa analyst with the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation. “The government considers that a key to stability.”
For the Algerians, stability is about more than just peace; it’s about control. Forces within the government are keen to protect their own powers, and keeping close tabs on the hostage situation -- to the exclusion of foreign nations -- may be just the way to do it.
Crisis Under Wraps
The town of Amenas is situated on a stretch of red, rocky sand near Algeria’s eastern border. That’s where an oil plant -- a joint venture between hydrocarbon companies, the state-owned Sonatrach and European giants BP and Statoil -- was taken over by militants this week. Hostages are still being held, even though Algerian forces launched a raid against the militants on Thursday.
That move was a point of contention with international leaders, including British Prime Minister David Cameron and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who criticized Algerian forces for pursuing the raid without consulting other countries whose citizens are presumed to be among the hostages.
There are conflicting reports about the nationalities and number of people killed so far. Algeria state news reported Friday that 60 foreign nationals were still being held hostage, but the militants themselves, speaking via Mauritanian media, said that only seven were alive.
International news outlets are scrambling to uncover the identities of the workers who remain, but Algeria seems keen to keep the foreign press and officials at arm’s length, preferring instead to address the situation on its own.
“I think Algeria wants to get done with this as soon as possible; they’ve developed a reputation for rooting out terrorism, and they don’t want to shed a negative light on their country,” says Zenn. “They have other oil plants in Algeria, and some businesses are already beginning to evacuate from those facilities. So this could hurt business, tourism and all kinds of investments if it drags on.”
Some think the Algerian affinity for secrecy and autonomy goes even deeper than that.
“Algeria is incredibly touchy about sovereignty, but I think what’s going on now is more complex,” says John Schindler, a former intelligence analyst with the U.S. National Security Agency and now professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI.
“The government has a long history of manipulating hostage events -- and there have been many over the last 20 years. This is just the one that’s gotten the most attention.”
Islamist insurgencies are nothing new for Algeria. The roots run deep, but modern-day conflicts can be traced back to 1991, when the secular regime briefly agreed to liberalize the political system. An Islamist party emerged as a front-runner, and the military abruptly cancelled a parliamentary vote before it reached a second round.
The backlash was a bloody one. Islamist organizations -- most notably the Armed Islamic Group, or GIA as its known by its French acronym -- perpetrated violence against government officials before turning its weapons on civilians. Thus began a decade of civil war, during which at least 100,000 people (the number is highly disputed) lost their lives.
The government prevailed against the insurgency, pushing the remains of the GIA southward into the Sahara Desert. Up in the capital city of Algiers today, the political system is tightly controlled -- and not only by the military. A more shadowy organization, the state intelligence agency called the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité, or DRS, also pulls the strings in Algeria.
“This is how the regime really functions. It is a police state; this is not a remotely free country,” says Schindler. “The regime is really turning the screws now, since Algeria is the last holdout for the Arab Spring. The regional context matters because the regime is really frightened, and more dependent on the DRS than ever.”
Algeria has had great success in pushing militants far beyond the northern cities where most citizens live. Down in the lawless regions of the Algerian south, the militants have adapted to harsh conditions and formed links with al-Qaeda, with many becoming members of the affiliate called al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM.
“What began as an insurgency based in the mountains in central Algeria has become desert-based insurgency, which relies on the remote border regions where al-Qaeda has been able to hide out,” says Zenn. “That’s where it became more of a criminal enterprise [involving drug smuggling and the kidnapping of foreign nationals], which the militants had to pursue for survival.”
AQIM has been the focus of renewed attention since last year, when some of its militants linked up with others in the northern reaches of Mali and took over a vast swath of land there. French forces are currently engaged in ground combat with those Islamists, and Algeria has assisted the effort by allowing French planes to use its airspace.
But according to Schindler, the Malian crisis could actually be a boon for Algiers.
“The DRS, if it doesn’t control jihadist activity, manipulates it. Having a jihadist problem keeps the West off the regime’s back regarding their human rights record. If you say you’re battling al-Qaeda, it gives you a pass,” he said.
“The United States in particular has been in bed with the Algerian regime on counter-terrorism, so Algeria thinks it can blow off the West with impunity because they have made themselves indispensable to the war on terror.”
Fuel to the Fire
The DRS may be turning a blind eye to -- or even coordinating with -- jihadists on Algerian soil, but that doesn’t mean that the current hostage crisis is based on a conspiracy between the state and the militants.
After all, there are several disparate militant organizations in the Sahara and the Sahel. The group in Amenas -- which has been referred to by various names including the Masked Brigade, the Battalion of Blood, and Signatories of Blood -- is led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a one-eyed professional jihadist and smuggler who is reported to have been a major player in AQIM.
“This may really be a bona fide al-Qaeda event,” says Schindler, adding that an attack on an oil plant is not something the DRS would be likely to condone. “But even then, there’s no way the regime is going to be cooperative about this. They like to control the information flow; they have no reason to play it straight with us.”
That may be the case for now, but things are changing in northern Africa. With northern Mali still under the control of insurgents, the region has become a new zone of geopolitical importance -- and now Western involvement as French forces engage in battle.
Algerian officials, fearful though they are of losing their strong grip on power, may be forced to open up the lines of communication as Western actors demand more information and cooperation.
“What the Arab Spring and the current hostage crisis are highlighting is that Algeria will likely need to add an additional layer of flexibility to its foreign policy,” says Zenn. “It’s going to have to work with neighboring countries to resolve issues like the insurgency in Mali and kidnappings across the Sahel.”