Algeria: Restrained Yet Effective


January 17, 2015: The government continues to push a policy of strong border security and non-intervention in the unrest tearing neighboring Libya and Mali apart. The government urges other countries neighboring these trouble spots to do the same. However the government continues to sponsor Mali peace talks in Algeria and encourage them in Libya. Egypt sees Libyan peace talks as futile and counterproductive because the Islamic terrorist factions really have no interest in compromising. Nevertheless Algeria and most Western nations (especially the EU) see a negotiated settlement as the best way to deal with the Libya civil war. The Tobruk government there is going along with this, mainly because they cannot afford to annoy the UN and risk losing the international recognition as the legitimate government. Despite continued pleas from the Tobruk government Egypt still insists that it will not intervene militarily but is apparently providing substantial, and secret, support. This comes in the form of air support, weapons and other military supplies and even some Egyptian special operations troops. Algeria, t he United States and the UN are trying to persuade Egypt, the UAE (United Arab Emirates) and Qatar to drop their support for more secular (and non-terrorist) pro-Tobruk factions fighting in Libya.

The increased Algerian border security has led to more arrests, but almost all of those caught are smugglers, not Islamic terrorists. Most of the smugglers are moving consumer goods, illegal migrants headed for Europe, drugs or fuel but illegal weapons (especially assault rifles) are often found as cargo and not just carried by smugglers for self-defense against bandits. The border security effort has become a major problem for the smugglers who have had to find new smuggling routes as the traditional ones (some used for centuries) were now patrolled by aircraft and troops on the ground. Because of the Islamic terror threat the government has made it more difficult for the smugglers to bribe their way past the security forces. The smugglers still get through, but in fewer numbers and via more difficult routes. The security forces are still arresting Islamic terrorists in the south who got smuggled in successfully.

The government has resisted French suggestions that Algerian troops get involved in detecting and destroying terrorist bases in neighboring countries. France is particularly concerned about such bases in southern Libya. Chad has agreed to help with this effort but all Algeria will do is secure its own border and hunt down any Islamic terrorists in southern Algeria. France admits that this is useful and the result of a major military effort, so the pressure on Algeria to do more has been quiet and polite.

The government is also seeking to bring police presence to the entire country. Currently security forces regularly operate in 75 percent of the country and it may take five years of more to reach 100 percent. Especially in the largely desert south there have always been huge areas with few people and no police presence unless the locals called for it. It wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that radio communication was available to most inhabited areas in the south. Before that the only way to alert the police was to send a rider on a camel hundreds of kilometers to the nearest telegraph station.

The falling price of oil is doing a lot of damage to the economy. The government prepared its budget for 2015 based on oil selling for an average of $37 a barrel. That follows price of oil falling 50 percent since 2013 (from $110 to $55 a barrel) in 2014. Oil and gas are nearly all (97 percent) of the country's export revenues, and 40 percent of GDP. The 2015 budget keeps spending levels largely the same and to do that $51 billion will have to come out of the reserves. This cannot continue for long as Algeria only has $200 billion in reserve and not much in the way of credit for big loans to cover budget deficits. Still, the oil revenue is an essential tool for keeping an increasingly unhappy population quiet. For example in 2011 the government announced huge (over $200 billion) investment plans for the rest of the decade, to build infrastructure and support job growth. But such promises had been made before, and somehow never panned out. This time the charm offensive was more sustained and extensive. Local officials were ordered to try harder, a lot harder, to do something for the poor and unemployed who come to them for aid. This resulted in a sudden surge of reports from all over the country about how cranky officials had suddenly taken happy pills and undergone amazing transformations. This time the investment plans have largely been fulfilled, at least so far and that had managed to keep a lid on popular discontent. Until late 2014 government spending plans assumed an oil price of $100 a barrel. Some programs can be cut or delayed while some money can be borrowed. But not enough of this will make up for revenue lost when oil sinks below $55 a barrel. A few years of very low oil prices and the situation gets dangerous and possibly ugly as the populations suffers more economic privation.

January 16, 2015: Thousands of people demonstrated in the capital to protest Western publications like Charlie Hebdo for publishing images of the founder of Islam. A growing number of Islamic scholars are pointing out that Islamic scripture does not call for such a prohibition and those who do are Islamic conservatives who have invented many more things you can’t do if you want to be a hard core and a “more authentic” Moslem. This is at the root of Islamic terrorism; the tendency of Islamic conservatives to use threats and force to impose their beliefs on others. Many Moslems (and a growing number of non-Moslems) have died because of this internal dispute. The three Islamic terrorists responsible for the Charlie Hebdo massacre were all of Algerian ancestry. There are over seven million Moslems in France, about a third of them of Algerian origin. The large scale movement of Moslems to France did not begin until after World War II (1939-45) and many of those migrants, or their children or grandchildren did not adjust to being in a largely non-Moslem culture. .

January 15, 2015: Some 120 kilometers east of the capital an army patrol has found the body of the French tourist beheaded last September by Islamic terrorists loyal to ISIL. After the murder the government sent more than 3,000 soldiers and police to track down the killers, which succeeded in finding and killing most of them.

January 14, 2015: Over the last two weeks the security forces have arrested a dozen Islamic terrorists in the south (especially around Ghardaia and Amenas) who were plotting attacks. Those arrested apparently entered the country from terrorist bases in Mali and Niger.

January 11, 2015:  The government announce plans to drill more than 200 natural gas wells in the south (over a thousand kilometers from the coast) and use fracking to extract 20 trillion cubic meters of gas a year. That would bring in over $60 billion a year in sales. There have been protests against this program in the south because of the disruption the construction and operation of the wells would bring to the area. The locals also do not trust the government to handle the water problem (lots of water is used in fracking) in a responsible manner.  Algeria has one of the largest deposits of frackable natural gas in the world.

January 10, 2015: About a hundred kilometers east of the capita (Tizi Ouzou) troops tracked down and killed an Islamic terrorist. The dead man was carrying an AK-47, 131 rounds of ammo, three cell phones and binoculars. Troops continue to search for any of his associates in the area.  

Ethnic violence (between Berbers and Arabs) continues down south in Ghardaia where ten people (two police and eight rioters) were wounded today. This was the first such violence since last October, which left two civilians dead and several building burned. Violence in April 2014 left two policemen and at least ten civilians injured in Ghardaia. Earlier in 2014 the government sent more than 10,000 additional police to deal with the persistent unrest and that helped keep things quiet. In Ghardaia the violence between Arab and Berber residents is all about water rights, jobs, land, ethnicity and religion. Arabs also accuse the 800,000 Berbers in the south of supporting al Qaeda. The province of Ghardaia is on the edge of the Sahara Desert and contains only 200,000 people. The unrest has been going on since late 2013. Over a hundred people have been arrested and there have been over 400 casualties (including at least 17 dead). Over a hundred building has been burned down along with dozens of vehicles. Thousands have fled the city and many businesses stayed closed for days or weeks at a time. The police, who are largely Arab, are accused of being biased against the Berbers. The ethnic tensions in this area, 600 kilometers south of the capital, have been growing since 2008 and there was another outbreak of violence in October 2013 that was put down violently. As bad as the ethnic tensions have been there are also disagreements over religion. The Arabs belong to the Maliki school of Islam while the Berbers are largely from the smaller Ibadi sect. About 30 percent of Algerians are Berber, but the percentage is higher in the south. Ghardaia is an ancient Berber city of 90,000 that contains many Ibadi shrines. Berbers are found throughout North Africa, west of Egypt and down to the semi-desert Sahel (where the closely related Tuareg tribes live). The six million Berbers of Algeria are considered the most abused in the region. Ghardaia Arabs got the recent unrest started by desecrating some of the Berber shrines. This led to violent Berber reprisals, especially when images of the damage appeared on the Internet. The government is concerned for several reasons. For one thing there are oil fields are nearby. Worse, the sustained unrest among the Berbers could be the first breeze in an uprising that could engulf the entire country.

January 8, 2015: The government announced that it had reduced illiteracy from 22 percent of the population to 14 percent since 2008. The government has been less successful at reducing the unemployment rate, which is more likely to cause violent street protests than illiteracy.

December 26, 2014:  In the west (Tiraet province) police arrested a college professor and another man and accused them of recruiting for ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant).

December 20, 2014: Soldiers ambushed the Islamic terrorist leader responsible for beheading a French tourist last September. Abdelmalek Gouri and two of his followers were killed some 50 kilometers east of the capital. Gouri was a veteran of the 1990s Islamic terrorist campaign to take over Algeria. He has been on the run for nearly two decades and was known to have remained active. In 2014 Gouri announced that his faction was joining ISIL. It took three days to confirm the identity of Gouri.



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