Many rumors and news reports have hinted at the creation of additional Military Regions in Algeria over the last three years. These have usually been described as responses to the Arab Spring, the Mali crisis, the disintegration of Libya, and the proliferation of increasing capacity and mobility of terrorist groups in the region. The January 2013 In Amenas crisis was a major catalyst for the revisiting and revision of key Algerian security doctrines in recent years. Algerian military journals have highlighted numerous analytical and academic conferences and symposiums held at the Military Region, command, and national level addressing Algeria’s threat environment and strategic position in the region. Press reports have suggested that the military high command has moved to implement lessons learned and boost the country’s defensive position by reorganizing large parts of the military command infrastructure and redeploying military and police units to the country’s eastern and southern borders. It worth considering some of these shifts in a very general way.
These efforts result from multiple challenges: the vast size of Algeria’s south and its borders with Libya, Niger and Mali; the historic neglect of the 6th and 4th Military Regions by the high command – a legacy of both the long period of peace before the civil war and the focus of the military on the densely populated and violent north during the 1990s and early 2000s; the lack of adequate Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance (ISR) platforms and capabilities in frontier regions; the massive rise in trafficking, weapons proliferation and terrorism-related violence in Algeria’s frontier provinces after the jihadist takeover of northern Mali in 2012 and the collapse of Libya’s transitional political institutions in 2013. The National Gendarmerie has also taken measures that have been attempted in other parts of Africa, such as opening tip hotlines and websites for residents to report terrorist or criminal activities by phone and Internet. As this blogger has written elsewhere, the Algerian posture remains largely defensive, focused on technical means of putting distance between the state’s structural vulnerabilities and the region’s unraveling.
The Algerian security establishment’s evolving thinking has been reflected in conferences and studies held in the capital, at the various military research institutes and at universities in the remote and border regions. The high command has hosted or facilitates a number of conferences analyzing the strategic picture in the region. These have included symposiums featuring military strategists (mainly speaking to military audiences), panels of Algerian and western analysts at the Ecole supérieure de guerre (ESG, the military school for senior officers), the Institut militaire de documentation, d’éavaluation et de prospective (IMDEP, a kind of military think tank), Institut National d’Études de Stratégie Globale (INESG, an international relations institute) and similar institutions. These included conferences on electronic border security instruments, drones, trends in terrorism, Algeria’s role in African counterterrorism and security policies and the regional threat environment. Conferences on more technical matters included symposia on enhancing the role of customs officers on border security operations (a 2013 conference highlighted ways to enhance Algerian customs cooperation with neighboring countries and a growing military presence in customs authorities training), the role of the courts in security, information warfare and similar themes.
The military has conducted studies on unmanned aerial reconnaissance vehicles and electronic surveillance systems as part of its overall modernization campaign. These efforts are a major component of its security engagement with western defense industrial firms and governments. Additionally, the Army in particular has devoted relatively significant resources to developing its remote sensing capacity and educating officers in these platforms and diffusing knowledge and assets toward the 4th and 6th Regions. There is also talk of lining Algeria’s eastern borders with Libya with an electric fence (an effort that sounds futile). Though still essentially defensive and mostly inward looking, Algerian strategic thinking appears to be moving from a ‘strategic ambivalence‘ toward a more more engaged position, backed by more aggressive diplomatic efforts and deeper security cooperation at the bilateral level, even if it remains reluctant to engage beyond its borders using its own military.
Rumors in security circles argued that the changing security environment would lead to the overhaul and refinement of Algeria’s Military Region system, increasing the number of Regions from six to nine as a way of enhancing and focusing Command, Control and Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance (C2ISR), especially in the country’s vast southern frontiers. Enhancing communications and C2 capacity has been a major focus of Algerian research and development in recent years. Important changes included the creation of new military ‘sub-regions,’ which overlap with and exist within the six Military Regions. These focus on specific sections within the 6th and 4th Military Regions (which border Libya, Mali and Niger) and on specific themes such as counterterrorism and counter trafficking operations or fighting organized crime. They are semi-autonomous and are intended to shorten the chain of command to allow for more rapid responses to security crises and increased operational tempos. While there is less reliable information on plans to create additional Regions, talk of a 7th Region has been widespread in the last two years. Algerian press reports have described the creation of such a command as immanent. Sources in Algeria and elsewhere have described such a project as already underway; according to these accounts the 7th region is meant to focus almost exclusively on counterterrorism operations. Detailed or public information on this remains difficult to obtain and assess.
The civil action sections of the Military Regions were also engaged in projects aimed at promoting “sustainable development” and a “culture of security” in the historically marginalized and increasingly restive provinces of the oil and gas-rich south. This included infrastructure projects (especially water and roads) as well as more traditional state security tasks aimed at increasing the presence of the state in remote communities and along key trade routes to combat smuggling and the activities of armed groups and terrorists. To support the military’s intensified ‘struggle against organized crime and terrorism’ (the terms used to summarize these efforts in military publications), the segments of the existing Regions have been reorganized on a thematic basis to increase operational tempo and focus on preventing border incursions from Libya, Mali and Niger while also cracking down on militant activities within Algeria’s borders.
Security cooperation with Tunisia is interesting example of Algeria’s efforts at bilateral military cooperation (though Algeria has promoted multilateral security frameworks, in practice is often relies more heavily on bilateral arrangements to implement these schemes in the security sphere). Since 2012, the Tunisians have face a surge in jihadist youth subcultures that have bled over into internationalist jihadist tendencies, in the al-Qa’ida and Islamic State steams. Algerian and Tunisian jihadists exploited the ‘window of opportunity’ after the 2011 revolution to expand operations into western Tunisia. Dozens of Tunisian soldiers and police forces have been killed by landmines, ambushes, and have been targets of grizzly beheadings at the hands of AQIM militants. Political assassinations and the recent attack at the Bardo museum point to a long-term underground campaign against the state by Tunisian jihadists with support and leadership from the Algerian maquis. Tunisian returnees from Syria and Libya, along with Islamic State sympathizers have also been rolled up by security forces and claimed attacks.
In response the Algerian military and Gendarmerie have also increased their presence on the border operating on high alert since spring 2013 with Tunisia, where jihadist groups linked to AQIM and the Islamic State have waged a low intensity insurgency against Tunisian military and security forces since 2012. As western countries have increased their counterterrorism assistance to Tunisia, the Algerians have too. Tunis and Algiers have held high level intelligence and military exchanges at a high tempo since late 2013 and these efforts appear to have intensified in 2015 (as was noted by this blogger here and in commentary to regional media). In late 2012 and early 2013 the security annex of an existing bilateral agreement was updated to cement security links. This has included intelligence sharing and training for specialties and operations categories relevant to the Tunisian military’s efforts against the AQIM and Islamic State-linked. This level of military-military assistance is unprecedented for Algeria, and probably the single most successful (despite evident suspicions of Algerian motivations owing to the Algerians’ history of manipulating jihadist groups and small-country-big-country complexes in some quarters in Tunisia), and remarkable especially when compared to the the legacy of Algerian security cooperation with Mali (if it could be called that) and the mixed impressions of the Combined Joint Chiefs Council (CEMOC) in the region. Tunisian military and Interior Ministry delegations appear to be studying Algerian counterterrorism units (Tunisian National Guard representatives reviewed Algerian Gendarmerie rapid intervention counterterrorism units’ training and organization last month, for example) as they adapt to the current threat environment. Units on the border have coordinated operations against militants and smugglers operating along the border between El Tarf and Jendouba, Tebessa and Kasserine (the Chaambi, Selloum, Semmama and Mrihla mountains around Kasserine, Sbeitla and Foussana, favored by AQIM and lately Islamic State-linked militants, are part of the same difficult belt of terrain in the early Atlas as Algeria’s Tebessa mountains, also favored by jihadists for its remoteness, cave systems, forests and many valleys; after Kabylia this is one of the last areas where AQIM has maintained an operational stronghold in Algeria).
 In the last 18 months local protests and riots emerging from grievances around perceived discrimination in the extractives sector, unemployment, marginalization of local ethno-cultural traditions, and poverty have increased dramatically. Recent protests over plans for hydraulic fracturing in south central Algeria are a good example. Demonstrations by unemployed graduates seeking work outside the security sector have also grown. General demands for greater reinvestment of energy resource revenues in the energy producing regions of the country have been a major source of unrest, part of a trend called ‘resource regionalism’ by regional experts. Though rioting and protests are common in much of northern Algeria, the tone and political character of such demonstrations has generally been less ambitious and less organized. Some analysts see this as a legacy of the intense political violence in the north during the Civil War; southern Algeria saw less violence and was often considered safe during the conflict, leading many northerners to resettling in southern cities like Djanet, Tamanrasset and elsewhere (to the point where some of these cities have near or slim ‘Arabo-Berber’ northern majorities). The perceived preference given to ‘white’ northerners has also been a vector for dissent. Communities of black Algerians and other minorities have also had sometimes violent demonstrations in recent years, demanding more inclusive economic policies and greater representation. It is unclear to what extent Algerian military efforts to mediate security challenges emerging from these grievances are or have been effective, though publications like El Djeich frequently give close attention to doctrinal matters related to the military’s role in humanitarian operations, sustainable development, alleviating social strain by providing or supplementing social services, using disaster response/relief operations as opportunities to build good will, and fostering the military’s ‘organic relationship to the people’ (the military’s preferred idiom for civil action activities).