‘The Algeria Alternative’ – Other Observations

 In what might be one of the first articles on Algeria in the prestigious American foreign policy journal Foreign Affairs in many years Geoff Porter writes:

Very few Algerians know how policy decisions get made. Instead, policies appear like ripples on water after a stone hits its surface—except neither the stone nor its thrower is ever seen.

In the absence of decisive evidence, analysts have taken to describing a mythical cloak-and-dagger cabal that runs Algeria—often called le pouvoir—whose membership is uncertain and whose power is unchecked. But when theories are pressed about who is actually in le pouvoir and what they are capable of, the concept collapses into speculation.

This is basically accurate and well known. Even early treatments of Algerian politics in the 1960s and 1970s described either an emerging trend towards secrecy and méfiance or an established tendency among Algerian leaders to horde, use and manipulate information to enhance their own power or diminish that of others (boulitique). (See Quandt, Revolution and Political Leadership: Algeria, 1954-1968, MIT, 1966, for an example of a discussion of this.) This only increased over time, enhanced by the emergence of the mukhabarat state and civil war In the last decade the prominence of the military, intelligence services and by many accounts secretive style of Abdelaziz Bouteflika produced a culture of inner circle intrigue and paranoia. The supposed inaccessibility of Algeria as a field for contemporary research (with so many red lines and hard to get visas) means that many analysts see it as a black box or denied terrain run by scary men. There is thus reliance on speculation and over analysis.

As Porter points out the dominance of pouvoirology – both good and bad – means that there is sometimes too much speculation and stereotyping in the way the actions of the Algerian state are interpreted, especially abroad. Algerian leaders are sometimes seen as ‘too clever’ or the military too powerful to make mistakes or to be outsmarted so that any major incident or event is seen as having inevitably been the result of some powerful conspiracy or false flag. Much of this is comes from word of mouth discussions with people who are knowledgeable about but do not know what is actually happening, including officials and party people themselves. And yet there are times when this situation poses no problem at all because Algeria is like any other state in that there indeed are conspiracies (or what look like conspiracies) because most government organizations make plans and execute them, either on or off the books and when these become exposed to the wider world they appear strange and even offensive because they appear out of context or poorly conceived. This is because official often people work in a different setting from non-official and there are always those who become isolated from the outside and whose interests become narrower and more ruthless, regardless of what state they serve.

The most widely available sources of information, like the flagship Algerian newspapers in French and Arabic, are often seen as mere cyphers for the deep state – which is true as often as it is not. Or they are treated as semi-official sources of information on recent events such as organizational changes or appointments within the State. These reports can be put into better perspective and sometimes confirmed using official sources of information or perspective like the Journal Officiel or El Djeich. Many times they cannot. This is often problematic. In the last few years three cases come to mind, some of which vague and difficult to confirm using publicly available sources. Analysis of some of these issues sill leads only to more confusion. 


The first has to do with security service re-organizations in 2013 and 2014. These were sometimes described as ‘purges,’ political power plays, punishment or reforms in response to the In Amenas incident or a combination of such things. Many analysts immediately accepted reports of personnel changes and dismissals that appeared in the Algerian press (which was often contradictory). Very few reports on such matters cited the Journal Officiel (JORADP) or other publications where such matters would be documented. Reviewing at that time revealed very little; reports that this or that bureau of the intelligence services were moved to or from some other ministry or command simply did not appear. Promotions of specific DRS officers noted in the press also did not appear, because such matters tend not to appear there to begin with (this writer could only find one reference to a named DRS officer in JORADPs since 2008 – a 2010 appointment of a Lt. Colonel to the administrative council of the National Institute of Cartography and Remote Sensing; the DRS itself has been mentioned in general, such as when it was created or major authorities have been established; these are probably published elsewhere). It was thus reasonable to rely on press reports and the opinions of knowledgeable Algerians. The dismissals and appointments of top officers were included at the ministerial level or among senior officers (such as the appoint of Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah as Vice Minister of Defense; his appointment and the departure of Abdelmalek Guenazia from the Ministry in September 2013 were also heavily covered in El Djeich). Only one major reference to the organizational changes to the DRS was actually mentioned in the Journal Officiel — stripping of the DRS’s role in corruption investigations a major thorn in the side of the Bouteflika clan. This established of the Judicial Investigation Service under the Directorate of Internal Security (or DSI, reported in the press to have been moved to the Ministry of the Interior; the JORADP decree state that its ‘organization…as well as the powers of its components are to be specified by the Chief of the DRS’ implying that the DSI remained a DRS organ since the Ministry of the Interior is not mentioned), and expressly limited to national security, terrorism, subversion and organized crime.

Another case was that of the Military Regions. Algeria has had six Military Regions, which are organized regionally and overlap with the various Wilayas, since the war of independence. Each is divided into operational zones and districts. These commands are led by Major Generals who coordinate military and security activities within their areas of responsibility and report to the Chief of Staff. They also provide assistance to civil authorities after natural disasters or during unrest. (See here for a recent incident involving the leadership of the 6th Region and local demonstrators after crowd control measures caused discord.) They also coordinate conscription and the training of the troops under their command. Their appointments are almost always recorded in the Journal Officiel, and their commandants and Chief of Staff are regularly mentioned in El Djeich (primarily in notices of inspections or visits by the Chief of Staff, conferences, military exercises or operations and so on). They are high profile figures in the military. The same is true for the service chiefs. These are among the most powerful men in Algeria. In the last two years two issues of major changes to the Regions were reported in the press and then elsewhere which do not appear to have taken place yet or likely took place differently than described.

A 7th Region

The first is the issue of the rumored 7th Military Region, along with changes to the military order of battle in the south. In 2013 and 2014 El Watan reported that the military was considering establishing a 7th Military Region along the border with Libya, which would be centered on Illizi province, now part of the 4th Military Region, and covering areas between Ouargla and parts of the 6th Region. (It was reported/covered elsewhere too.) This was described as a response to the In Amenas incident in 2013 and part of the military’s response to instability in Libya. El Watan also reported the construction of new bases and formation of new operational sectors (sub-divisions of the Regions) in the 4th and 6th regions (the new sectors at In Guezzam, Bordj Badji Mokhtar and Djanet have been discussed in El Djeich).

Many foreign analysts subsequently described in analytical papers as part of the post-2011 and post-2013 reorganization of the military’s order of battle and disposition, which also included changes to the DRS and other intelligence activities, the movement of large numbers of troops from northern regions and the Moroccan border to the southern border with Mali and eastern borders with Niger and Libya. A 2013 report on Algeria’s Defense policy summarized the creation of the 7th Region as a direct result of the regional crises and the In Amenas attack, with two main goals:

  • a greater deployment of forces on the southern and eastern borders (where 30,000 troops are already appointed),

  • and the building of new facilities and bases for the security forces near oil and gas fields in Hassi Messaoud (Ouargla province), Tin Fouyé Tabankort of In Amenas (Illizi Province), and Adrar.[1]

The Algerian security establishment is therefore making relatively important changes to adapt to the regional environment. The same report (see also footnote 15 here) describes a mid-2012 revision to the territorial defense structure, meant to focus on energy and gas plants and other strategic infrastructure within the 6th and 4th Regions (this is not contradictory with the other report). A recent 2015 report also reports a 7th Region, with other regions being specifically focused strategic energy sites. Very little is available in public reports on these matters; there is no mention of these reorganization in the Journal Officiel, which does not typically deal with the internal affairs of the military beyond a certain level. Other methods must be used, and even then without direct military sourcing things remain difficult. It is unclear how accurate these reports are but together with reports and blurbs from El Djeich since early 2012 it is possible to try and understand more. It is likely that the military has undertaken reorganizations of the structure of the regions themselves, rather than created of new ones; a significant amount of attention in studies and articles in El Djeich since early 2012 has had to do with strengthening the organization of frontier defense, the changing nature of threats in neighboring countries and the adoption of new and more efficient communications models and platforms. At least two editions of El Djeich devoted feature articles to these subjects; others discussed strategic perspectives on border security and human development to combat violent radicalization. El Djeich has reported that armored battalions have been posted to the In Amenas area and other sites on the frontier with Libya. Other units in these areas have been conducting humanitarian missions among nomadic communities (descriptions of these activities are similar to those conducted by western Civil Affairs units but details are sparse). This process is happening in the civilian sector as well. Reports from 2014 and 2015 on Presidential-level initiatives to reorganize the Ouargla and Adrar provinces at the administrative and geographic level are likely related to larger efforts to change the way the State manages internal threats and bleed over from conflicts in neighboring countries.

As yet it is unlikely the 7th Region has gone beyond the stages of planning or early implementation. El Djeich continues to provide monthly summaries of training exercises, operations, conferences and inspections in only six Military Regions. Its summaries of interdiction and combat operations in the ‘Struggle Against Organized Crime and Terrorism’ continue to group activities near the Libyan border and in Illizi under the 6th Military Region. El Djeich has not given wide coverage to the creation of a new Military Region and it is likely that if such a concept has come through it has not been implemented fully (or has not reached a point of consensus within the military leadership).

The reasons are probably political, related to the organizational culture of the military. Major decisions often take long periods of time in Algeria. The addition of a 7th Military Region would be substantial as it would reflect bureaucratic changes that directly impact civil-military relations (the Military Regions are the first points of contact between the military and civilian officials) and the corporate inters of the different military branches and individual commanders. The El Watan piece notes that this was under consideration as of mid-2014, rather than having actually happened; it is reasonable to assume that standing up a whole new Region would require much maneuvering and debate both organizationally and at a personnel level. Changes in the organization of the Military Regions and provinces (Wilayat) would probably require significant coordination and administrative effort at a military and civilian level. Military Region commandants cover multiple provinces and have long been considered more powerful than the walis (provincial governors). And the addition of a seventh general commanding territory would probably also have implications for the military’s operational (depending on the school of thought) and political power (again, depending on the school of thought). Still, it is unclear when a 7th Military Region will be declared officially.

Military Region Commanders

During late 2013 and 2014 there many reports that the Military Region commandants had been reshuffled. Multiple versions of this circulated, with various analyses of their political or other meaning and intent going round (some were very specific in this regard). Most of these reports indicated that commanders had been rotated from region to region, had been moved to other posts within the Ministry of Defense or retired. Again, this was generally described as being a response to In Amenas. As stated above, the Region commandants are among the most powerful men in the country and the Regions themselves are important actors.

By early 2014 it became clear that the top-level changes that were reported in the press were more limited that previously thought. Reports that certain leaders retired or that the Ground Forces commander (Ahcene Tafer) was dismissed appeared to be false. Indeed, reporting in El Djeich indicated that most of these changes were transfers of commandants from one region to another. These could also be observed in the Journal Officiel. Where changes were most significant was probably at staff and support level (such as deputy commanders or the chiefs of staffs for specific services with regions; these can be key posts), where the heads of operational sectors were promoted or rotated. Information on these changes was difficult to come by except for a few that were more widely publicized.

Region and service commandants tend to hold their positions for extended period of time; length of service in a top post is usually taken as evidence of influence or power. Many commanders who were young generals at the time of their appointment (usually in 2004, when Bouteflika was trying to boost his support in the military) are now old men. The cases of the service chiefs are instructive: Abdelkader Lounes (10 years as head of the Air Force), Ahcene Tafer (just over 10 years as commander of Ground Forces), and Malek Necib (the deceased commandant of the Navy who passed away in February after 10 years of service as head of the Navy). Historically, Region commandants are often promoted up to service chiefs or similar roles.[2] They also serve long terms in one place or move from region to region over time; men who become Region deputy commandants also eventually take on important staff posts, like Maj, Gen. Cherif Zerrad who was deputy commander of the 3rd Region and now commands the Military Polytechnic School (EMP). Most current commandants have held their posts or served at the current level since 2004[3] – Habib Chentouf (1st Region, Blida), Said Bey (2nd Region, Oran), Said Chengriha (3rd Region, Bechar, previously led the 5th Region, and probably the oldest of the commandants), Ben Ali Ben Ali (5th Region, Constantine, who was previously in the 6th Region), and Amar Athamnia (6th Region, Tamanrasset; the 6th Region’s leadership was historically marginalized by the high command, according to people knowledgable of affairs there in the 2003-2007 period; this is also borne out in some military memoirs where it is described as undersupplied and considered a backwater posting during the 1980s and 1990s). Many of these officers – now in their 60s – were considered young at the time of their promotion to general and had experience during the Civil War as majors and colonels (Athamnia, was an officer in the elite paratrooper regiments; Said Bey was in a senior role in the 1st Region – which was among the most violent — during the Civil War). Most of these senior men were colonels until the mid-2000s. The deputy commandants/chiefs of staff in some of the Regions (and could be confirmed in El Djeich) were reported to have been changed, but the practical and political ramifications of this are difficult to understand from press or other reporting and in some cases probably do have important operational and technical implications. Dramatic ‘purge’ narratives remain difficult to assess.


[1] It is important to take any report on major deployments of troops, major operations and so on in southeastern Algeria with a grain of salt. The deployment of large numbers of troops and the establishment of forward bases and ‘atolls’ (operational positions from which air/helicopter support is launched) or the militarization of the border zones still happens in a vast area that is difficult to cover or patrol efficiently. ‘Surprising’ incidents or attacks from positions in Libya or elsewhere are likely to remain possible given the lack of professional or well organized security forces in Libya. The vast distances between border crossings and often lax and unevenly applied border security protocols on the Algerian side also make penetration likely. The terrain is too large, irregular and the region too volatile for any number of personnel to eliminate the probability that armed groups will attempt to launch attacks at the Algerian interior. The presence of substantial local ethnic and economic discontent in much of the border regions also create opportunities for groups seeking undermine the Algerian state. Grievances over unemployment (an employee at the In Amenas plant provided insider information to Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s group before the attack) and discrimination (for example black Algerians, who have staged demonstrations against state marginalization which have occasionally involved road blockades in towns near Libya) are also significant chinks in the security apparatus’s armor both in terms of terrorism and general public order.

[2] This is common in many African and Arab militaries, less so in western ones. The head of the military intelligence service – Gen. Tewfik – has been in office nearly 25 years. Before 2013-2014 there were commanders of intelligence organizations who had served slightly more or less than a decade. The Gen. Gaid Salah has also been Chief of Staff for over a decade. These long terms of service have been particularly common throughout the upper reaches of the State. Civilian leaders also frequently serve for more than 5 years at a time in the post under Boumedeine and Chadli Bendjedid (Bouteflika himself served as Foreign Minister for almost 15 years). This has of course also been the case during the 16 years of Bouteflika’s rule, with one education minister having served from the early 1990s till just after the Arab Spring. Short terms of service in a high level post usually indicate a lack of piston, organizational acumen, desire or a hostile conspiracy (some say the corruption accusations against Liamine Zeroual’s entourage explains his single term as President, for example).

[3] The top cadre of the regular military and DRS are now generals promoted in the 2004-2005 period by Bouteflika (save for Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Salah). The younger generals have been important in professionalizing and rejuvenating the armed forces, a major part of the agenda set out by the Presidency and general staff at the beginning of the 2000s. This has – reportedly – had the result of depoliticizing the officer cadre and giving the Presidency greater influence of the military in general. The departure of many Janvieristes (senior officers associated with the 1992 coup) in the first half of the 2000s allowed for many of these officers to develop their own profile, focused on technical modernization and modernization. Obituaries of the late commandant of the Navy reflect this: the acquisition of new naval hardware, communications platforms, training/professional standards and operational capacities are the main focus of those in official and private reports on his tenure. The overall emphasis has been enhancing the military’s prestige and institutional durability.


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