Pressing for Depth

Three of Algeria’s security chiefs were swiftly dismissed last week, after a bizarre episode involving a group of local youth entered the grounds of the Presidential residence in Zeralda, causing guards to discharge their rifles. Another version has firecrackers causing panic among the same guards. The incident caused a ‘panic,’ and the result was the removal of Gen. Moulay Meliani (head of the Republican Guard), Gen. Djamel Lakahel Medjdoub (head of the General Directorate for Presidential Security, DGSPP) and Gen. Ali Bendaoud, head of the Directorate of Internal Security (DSI). Two of these organizations are sub-organs of Algeria’s sprawling intelligence service, the DRS, subordinate to the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, though the DGSPP operates semi-autonomously; the Republican Guard falls under the Chief of Staff as well, but operates as a service in its own right. There were other changes among the walis, ministries and other parts of the administration. The Presidency and Chief of Staff continue to expand their depth in the deep state.

This yet another major shake up in Algeria’s security sector. Numerous conspiracy theories about the Zeralda incident are circulating, including that the incident was staged to provide a pretext for a ‘purge’ at the direction of President Bouteflika’s younger brother Said, whom many see as the hand behind the throne. One French report characterized it as botched coup attempt. An actual coup attempt would likely only play against the conspirators and is wide of what the security and political consensus appears to be. It would suggest the state of play between clans is far more dire than ever imagined. It is unlikely (but not impossible). Like previous reshuffles and personnel changes in the security sphere this comes after several notable security incidents, the main one being the Zeralda shenanigans, and others including the Ain Defla attacks and a string of other terrorist incidents targeting military or gendarme elements in eastern Algeria. This episode, like those before it, can be filed alongside other recent changes to the intelligence and security services: there is a pretext (a security failure of some magnitude or another) and a move by the Presidency and Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces to expand their institutional depth at the expense of the DRS.[1]

The 2013-2014 reorganizations marked a fundamental shift in the Algerian intelligence community. This moved the DRS away from the KGB-style centralism established in the 1990 reorganization of the Sécurité militaire (SM).The DRS retains domestic and foreign responsibilities but its role as a political police and all-seeing eye over the military has been greatly diminished. They were an assertion of the power of the Presidency’s and Chief of Staff’s power over the intelligence services. It upset many dominant and popular narratives about the balance of power within Algeria’s very real deep state. It positioned the DRS as the weaker component of the regime, when it had long been seen as the central and most powerful institution in the country. Now, the Presidency and Chief of Staff were being depicted as the center of regime power. But the general pattern of intra-elite intrigue has remained. Personnel shakeups within the DRS leadership cadre were seen to represent various shifts in generational and patronage networks within the regime. Virtually all of those replaced in the 2013-2014 reorganization were long-serving generals who took their posts in the mid-1990s and were viewed as protégés of DRS boss Gen. Mohamed ‘Tewfik’ Mediene. The dismissal of the controversial and celebrated Gen. Athmane ‘Bechir’ Tartag from the DSI was first presented by the Algerian press as a rebuke to a whole style of operation following on from the In Amenas crisis and the fall of a potential successor to Tewfik. His reemergence several months later as a security advisor to the President following the dismissal of a number of national security officials at El Mouradia was then presented as a machinization of Said Bouteflika, to take the crown jewel of the DRS state and place it in the crown of the Presidency. The dismissal of Gen. Abdelkader Hassan’ Ait Ouarab, who led the DRS’s Service de coordination opérationnelle et de renseignement antiterroriste (SCORAT), was also seen as a blow to Tewfik — Hassen was accused of the ‘creation of an armed group, the detention and retention of weapons of war, and the misrepresentation of weapons stocks made available for the prerogatives of anti-terrorism’. His replacement was not announced until last month. The press presented Ali Bendaoud, Tartag’s successor at DSI was as a younger officer who had spent much of his career in foreign intelligence — his time in China and France were particularly highlighted — and who was an apolitical appointment, a boon for the Bouteflikas. A ‘Colonel Abdelaziz’ has since replaced Bendaoud.

The DGSPP, responsible for presidential security, was historically a DRS appendage. During the 2013-2014 reorganizations it received scanty mention in press reports. If the overarching theme in that period was the assertion of the Presidency’s control over the intelligence services, that its chief survived the dismissals and reshuffling of authorities is notable. There is relatively little about it in the open-source literature on Algerian security. The main reasons for Medjdoub’s dismissal were reportedly security lapses and negligence — professional matters, in other words. Other reasons for his dismissal, though, were reportedly his clashing with the Chief of Staff over managerial and technical changes imposed following the security reorganizations. The same reporting also marked him as being too close to Tewfik. His replacement will presumably reflect the interests of the presidential clan. The logic here is likely similar to that of moving the DCSA (military counter-intelligence) from the DRS to the Chief of Staff; to limit the ability of DRS principles to exercise a kind of political role within the military and security apparatus. This creates depth for the Presidency.

In recent months press reports have suggested that the DRS chief has been so displeased with the handling of security policy since the security reorganizations that he boycotted a medalling ceremony (reportedly sending his Chief of Staff in his place) at which he (along with Gendarmerie chief Ahmed Boustela, 5th Region Benali Benali, and Chaalal Hamza of the Special Troops) were awarded the Medal of Bravery, Algeria’s highest military award. But it is unclear whether he would have attended or been photographed at such a public ceremony even if he were over the moon, given that there is only a single image of him used publicly anyway.  In the official notices and write ups on this ceremony — in El Djeich [see the image below], El Moudjahid and press releases from the Ministry of Defense — Tewfik is not mentioned by name. He appears only as ‘Chef’ of the DRS and his picture is absent (as was he, allegedly). [Note: Boustela and Benali were both promoted to Général de Corps d’Armée last month, the highest military rank; the consequence for Benali is now clear; what next for Boustela?] These reports also named a Colonel Youssef as Gen. Hassen’s replacement as head of the SCORAT (which appears in press reports only from late 2014 — mentioned in media reports as the main unit responsible for responding to the killing of Hervé Gourdel by the ISIL branch Jund al-Khalifah and does not appear in most of the open-source literature on the DRS or Algerian military). It is possibly notable that the men named to replace at least two DRS generals are reported as Colonels and named by their noms de guerres. So little is known about the norms of these things, making assessment difficult. One might speculate that these men were among the colonels promoter to generals last month but such thinking is more comforting than informative.

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The dismissal of Moulay Meliani as Republican Guard boss set in motion a series of appointments. Meliani was replaced by Gen. Benali Benali, recently commandant of the 5th Military Region (headquartered at Constantine).  Benali was in turn replaced by Gen. Ammar Athamnia, previously head of the 6th Military Region (based at Tamanrasset); Athamnia was in turn replaced by Gen. Souab Meftah. Meftah was deputy commandant of the 6th Military Region from 2011. The Algerian press noted that Meftah’s wife and daughter were killed in the plane crash at Oum El Bouaghi last year.

Some have described the sacking of these three security chiefs as a ‘purge’ at the behest of Said Bouteflika. If the old rumors that Bendaoud and Tartag’s appointments were some master play by the Bouteflikas had truth to them, there may be grounds for speculation that questions of reliability and loyalty may have contributed to the situation. This of course assumes the official and unofficial stories about actual security cock ups are partly or wholly false. If there was an attempted coup, it would signal a real response to recent changes  from opposing clans within the deep state and a breach of the broad status quo consensus that has contained some intra-elite strife in the Bouteflika era. Coup or screw up or false flag or purge, this move points to unresolved irridenta, so to speak, within the security bureaucracy, hinted at by the absence of Tewfik at recent ceremonies and spooky rumors about his attitudes mentioned above. As always, rumors of the imminent sacking of Tewfik are circulating. The environment is as murcurial and dark as ever.

Certainly patterns of political behavior have been broken in the wake of these cuts. There were reports that family members of Gen. Medjdoub were complaining that his long service should have garnered kinder treatment. Some Algerian politicians, like Louisa Hannoune, have pointed to the summary dismissal of ‘long serving’ officers as indicative of disrespect that would demoralize the military. Some who pointed to Bendaoud’s appointment as evidence of his being close to the Bouteflika clan now suggest he was imposed by Tewfik, and thus done away with. The contradictions abound because so much is still in the dark. Some observers have argued that not since the last sacking of Abdelaziz Bekhadem have Algerian elites been so unceremoniously dropped from top posts. Indeed there are novelties here; the relatives of generals rarely complain in public so immediately and directly so soon after a decision like this. Unlike with past changes to the leadership of the Military Regions or appointments to top posts, the Defense Ministry quickly swore in and publicized the new bosses of the Republican Guard and 5th and 6th Regions. It is a swift move in a system that communicates opaquely and often slowly. In the last several years many taboos in the discussion of the security services and affairs have been broken. And there are those who like it to seem the old security state is being broken and replaced with a new one.

While ‘something’ can be said to be going on, little can be said outside of commentary on meta-narratives that project expectations and attitudes and predilections onto (and sometimes from) Algerian institutions.

NOTES:

[1] Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Salah has emerged as one of the most prominent surrogates for the President in the last five years. Since the 2013 reorganizations and appointments he has been vice minister of defense (in practice Minister of Defense, the formal title is held by the president). This ended the sort of clan condominium between the generals of the 1990s and Boutelfika’s people at the Defense Ministry. Along with PM Abdelmalek Sellal, he is consistently among the principals who appear alongside Bouteflika in public, and receives top-level military and civilian delegations. The state media presents the 75-year old general as hyperactive; each month he can be seen receiving foreign ministers, inspecting the military regions, supervising combat simulations, exercises and war games, officiating promotions, traveling to international arms shows, attending funerals and inspecting cadets. The Chief of Staff has emerged as a center of power in the Bouteflikas orbit over the last decade (since Gaid Salah replaced Mohamed Lamari in 2004), where as before it had been under the influence of the janvieristes and Bouteflika skeptics. In the last three years it absorbed many powers that were the basis for the DRS’s political role. Military counter-intelligence, counter-terrorism and a range of other duties formerly in the DRS’s fife have been placed under his command. He has also been the target of hostile rumors and ridicule by retired officers and other under alternative patronage – as being corrupt and lacking the respect of the military. These are signs of his relevance and his firm roots in the system. Last month he wrote a letter to FLN secretary general Amar Saadani, congratulating him on winning re-election. The outcry from the opposition — from Benflis to Hannoune and beyond — was instructive. It was condemned as un- or anti-constitutional by some, but nothing came of these protests. Though the military has long claimed to be out of politics, and avoided any overt partisan activities it remains the bedrock of the regime. There is no Algerian system without the Army. And the survival of the Bouteflika clan has meant conquest of the Army and of the deep state. This is not possible without winning coverts and allies in the military, and Gaid Salah is the clearest evidence of this.