Understanding Algerian Non-InterferenceFebruary 7, 2013 in Algeria
The hostage crisis at Ain Amenas gas complex in January placed a spotlight on Algerian foreign policy and security measures. Although unilateral Algerian security tactics frustrated international governments, authorities in many nations still believe Algerian support is necessary for security in North Africa. Yet President Bouteflika and the Algerian government are unlikely to provide extensive cooperation beyond their borders; Algerian policy is isolationist at the core.
The Algerian government has long held a “non-interference” foreign policy strategy. Historically, President Bouteflika has been a vocal opponent of foreign intervention, believing in particular that Western foreign military spending in North Africa allows too much leverage and insight into domestic militaries. The January attacks highlighted the extent to which Algeria is ready to act unilaterally. When Islamic militants took several hostages, including 48 foreign nationals, the Algerian military acted quickly to end the siege. This decision, made without the advice or support of other nations, aggravated world leaders who commonly cooperate in such situations. However, to the Algerians, these dialogs appear time-consuming and intrusive.
Algerian reluctance to invite coalition cooperation within its borders is equally matched by an unwillingness to interfere beyond its borders, as evidenced during the2011 Libyan Revolution. Though the Algerian government did not support the Gaddafi regime, they were reluctant to become involved in NATO-supported operations to remove the dictator. Rather, the Algerian government focused on the potential volatility in Libya, fearing that instability would create pockets of opportunity for increased weapons trafficking and radicalised groups to take hold. The Algerian government fortified its borders, shutting down crossings between the two nations. Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci stated, “We can only say that the relationship between us will improve with the return of stability to Libya.” Further, the Algerian government believes that those who aided in the overthrow of Gaddafi, particularly NATO, are responsible not only for the resulting instability, but are beholden to guide Libya’s new government through course-correction as it makes its way into democratic polity.
The nature of this “fortress-like” philosophy dates back to Algerian independence from France in 1962, when the Algerian government became determined to become a pillar of sovereignty. Decades later, in 1992, Algeria suffered a coup d’etat which led to a decade long civil war between the Algerian military and two Islamic parties; the Islamic Salvation Front, and the considerably more radical Armed Islamic Group (GIA). The GIA carried out a series of massacres, and Algeria found itself alone in struggling with militant Islamic insurgencies, relatively unaided by Western forces. By the end of the war, insurgencies cost the lives of almost 200,000 people, yet the terrorist threat in the Middle East was not fully acknowledged by Western forces until the attacks in the US on September 11, 2001. As a result, Algeria’s experiences have reinforced the government’s conviction to remain solidly independent in dealing with domestic security issues, and non-intrusive in events beyond its borders.
Complicating matters for Algeria, however, are contentious neighbours along those borders. Algeria is the largest country in Africa (five times the size of France) and has a 2,500 mile land border. Six hundred of those miles are shared with a still-unstable Libya, and a further nine hundred of those miles are shared with Mali, where Islamist militants have taken over the northern region of the country, threatening to impact security along Algerian borders. Still more troublesome, a large section of the nation borders fall deep within the Sahara. In that vast, secluded space, many militant groups have taken residence in the areas bordering Algeria, particularly in northern Mali.
In April 2012, an offshoot group of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) kidnapped seven people from an Algerian consulate in northern Mali. The militants executed one hostage and released three in the summer. The three remaining are reportedly still in captivity. Despite these affronts, the Algerian government has been loath to cooperate in actions against militants in Mali, acutely aware of their direct impact on security within Algerian borders. Algerian officials fear that military involvement might push the radicals further north into domestic territory. Further still, Algerian actions may cause radicalisation of the nomadic Taureg Bedouins, whose territory resides on the borders of Algeria, Mali, and Niger.
While the Algerian government is adamant that they will not send troops to Mali, it has granted permission for French fighters to use Algerian airspace, and has reinforced military presence along the Malian border. The attackers at Ain Amenas gas complex claimed that the siege was a direct result of Algerian cooperation. Attacking Algeria’s gas complex is a significant step for militant Islamists; the assault was more sophisticated than bombings in public places, and sources confirm that the attack has been planned for some time, with the help of individuals working inside the complex. AQIM and other radicalised groups have historically profited from ransoming hostages, and a complex with foreign nationals would possibly provide income to spend on achieving goals in northern Mali. In addition, the attack sends a message. Sonatrach, Algeria’s nationalized oil and gas company, is the tenth largest in the world. The hydrocarbon industry provides the bulk of the nation’s wealth. An attack within such an infrastructure signals an attempt to cripple the Algerian economy.
However, a large percentage of Algerian revenue supports its defence spending. Algeria has the 16th largest defence budget in the world (primarily purchasing weaponry from Russia), and a highly proficient military, adept after years of experience, at securing its borders and ensuring safety to its hydrocarbon profit sectors. Algeria will continue to secure and reinforce its borders from within, but are unlikely to provide more than airspace permissions in affairs beyond its borders.