The January deployment of French troops in support of the beleaguered Malian government has focused much media attention on a hitherto widely overlooked area of geopolitical significance. The North African and Sahel region is a vast, mineral rich expanse of sparsely populated states beset by a weakly functioning government and secessionist minorities. Global interest has further intensified following the hostage situation at the western-owned Tigantourine gas facility near the town of In Amenas in Algeria. Over 800 workers were taken hostage by a conglomerate of Islamist fighters distinguished by loose affiliations with Al-Qaeda and a history of subverting the Algerian state. Their demands were ostensibly for France to cease its operations in Mali and for the Algerian government to release prisoners held on terrorist charges. The crisis lasted from 16th January, when the buses taxiing workers to and from the plant were hijacked, until the 17th of January, following the unilateral decision by the Algerian government to end the situation by force. The government reaction killed 39 hostages and 29 of the militants. This was a tragic event and should be remembered as such, but the reasons for the attack and the manner in which it was perpetrated cannot be divorced from the recent regional politics of North Africa during the Arab Awakening, and this warrants discussion. Why was the Algerian oil and gas industry targeted, and what does the response indicate about the relationship of the Algerian regime to the West?
No Awakening in Algeria
Until the events at In Amenas, Algeria had been noticeably absent from the world media during the tumultuous uprisings that resonated across the Arab world, most dramatically in the North African Maghreb. Algeria’s neighbours, Tunisia and Libya, respectively represent the birthplace of the popular protest movement and one of the more spectacular cases of regime change and foreign intervention in the region. As the domestic discontent has been largely predicated on a desire for representation and democratic reform, it is something of an anomaly that protests in Algeria have largely been relegated to small, localised events. However, the authoritarian Algerian regime has several key differences to those other states. Like Libya, it is oil rich; 95% of its exports come from oil and gas, but unlike Libya, Algeria has experienced a brutal and traumatising civil war within recent memory (1991-2000). That conflict erupted after military intervention prevented a likely victory for Islamic parties following the first democratic elections held in Algeria since its independence in 1962. With potentially 200,000 dead from that conflict and a resounding defeat for the Islamic resistance, it is perhaps not surprising to observe a reticence on the part of the Algerian people to engage in popular protest.
For its part, in 2011 the Algerian government lifted the national state of emergency that had been enforced since 1992 and held conciliatory elections in May of 2012 with a 42.9% voter turnout and active participation from main Islamic opposition parties. In a political move borrowed from the equally oil rich monarchies of the Arabian Gulf, President Bouteflika succored his domestic support by raising civil service wages by 35% and increasing subsidies on flour, milk, and cooking oil. The chaos following the Arab awakening has also provided the ruling regime with the perfect excuses for delaying active recourse to the democratic process; the violence in Libya and Egypt acts as a readily available example of the potential pitfalls of revolution. The Algerian independent newspaper Le Matin claimed on 11th May 2012 that the Arab Spring chapter for Algeria was closed.
The Algerian government has less to fear than most from the Arab Awakening, but in the insecure world of regional politics this is not a comfortable situation for a government acting as an arm of the military establishment. In order to receive the most recent equipment and desired military funding from allies, a regime must be able to present itself as a strategic and reliable asset. For the Bouteflika regime and the security apparatus of Algeria, this has effectively meant demonstrating to the western world that it is a state at risk from the perils of Islamic terrorism and requires the necessary support such a position entails. This strategy has been successful. In 2003 the Salafist Group for Freedom and Prayer (SGFP) kidnapped 32 European civilians in Algeria and held them to ransom. In this instance the Algerian government negotiated before using military force, and many of the kidnappers were allowed to flee on foot to the haven of northern Mali after a five million Euro ransom was paid. Unreported at the time was that the leader of this operation was a former member of the Algerian security services under the nom-de-guerre of El Para. This figure has been alleged to be acting under the orders of the Algerian security forces to create a security threat that would encourage external support for the Algerian regime. The immediate aftermath of this situation was entirely beneficial for the Bouteflika regime; Algeria received US anti terrorism equipment and was lauded as the most democratic country in the Arab world. The United States European Command deputy commander General Wald designated the Sahara area of southern Algeria a ‘Swamp of Terror’ and in 2005 Algeria was accepted into the Trans-Saharan Counter Terrorism Initiative. The SGFP are now known as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), from which the purported mastermind of the In Amenas crisis, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, splintered his own Islamist group.
Whether or not this latest act of violence by Islamic groups in Algeria was a part of the government’s strategy for ensuring geopolitical relevance and support, there are conclusions to be drawn. In demonstrating that there is the potential for threat to Western oil interests, the Algerian government has ensured that international support for internal campaigns of violence, against those designated enemies of the state, will continue to be viewed as a necessary evil. With their unprecedented public demonstration of military intransigence, they have ensured to potential investors that any risk will be minimised through overwhelming force. The military, and thus the regime, has shown to its populace that it will maintain the source of income that facilitates government subsidies. In the face of an Islamist quagmire in Libya and domestic sclerosis in Egypt, a powerful and decisive Algerian state can continue to develop itself as a force within Africa.