The Magazine

The New Battle of Algiers

Bouteflika has the upper hand, for now.

Oct 29, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 07 • By ROGER KAPLAN
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One factor working against a return to civil war is the hydrocarbons-fueled prosperity that began early in Bouteflika's first term. Favored in geographic and human resources, Algeria should be a prime beneficiary of globalization. Undercutting its potential, however, is chronic mismanagement, due to a pernicious inheritance that combines the worst features of French statism--trying to micromanage everything from the center--and Ottoman sultanism--trying to control everything from the bathhouse and the harem. Here, Bouteflika has reformed little, and cronyism and secrecy remain key to getting things done, or not. The most important thing not getting done in Algeria is job-creation. You do not have to be Benjamin Franklin to see that with a population largely made up of young people, most of whom know someone, or know of someone, gainfully employed in Europe or North America, idleness is social poison. Energy-sector revenues are facilitating some rebuilding of infrastructure, but they have not sparked the small-enterprise boom needed for the creation of real wealth, as opposed to riches divvied up by the ruling cliques.

So Bouteflika's record is somewhat ambiguous. But does that warrant killing him? The suicide bomber waiting for the president in the eastern city of Batna on September 6 apparently thought so. Spotted before the arrival of the presidential motorcade, he detonated his ordnance, taking two dozen bystanders with him. Two days later, in Dellys, on the eastern coast, a truck bomb killed 35. And this followed repeated attacks during the winter and spring, including one on April 11 that simultaneously hit the main government center in downtown Algiers and a police barracks in a suburb. As the toll mounts into the hundreds, it appears that the alliance formed two summers ago between the local terrorists of the "Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat" and a new "Al Qaeda in the Arab Maghreb" was no mere publicity stunt, as some once assumed.

The government, which normally downplays terrorism news, claims its forces destroyed a substantial terrorist band in the Kabylie region last July, and followed up with successful engagements there in September. Kabylie is not jihad-friendly, but its rugged mountains have long served as hideouts for outlaws and insurrectionists.

After the assassination attempt at Batna, Bouteflika blamed a "foreign plot" for the resurgence of violence. This, or "banditry," has long been the preferred line. His ambassador to Egypt, meanwhile, assured a newspaper interviewer in Cairo that the army is dealing with the residues of the homegrown Islamic Salvation Front. Algerian newspapermen, reflecting a range of sources inside the government and military, reported variations on these explanations. The U.S. ambassador in Algiers, for his part, is convinced al Qaeda is to blame.

The truth is that all of the above are mutually compatible. There are surely foreign fighters in Algeria, and have been since the late 1980s, when bearded, wide-pantalooned "Afghans" began to be reported by security forces. Some really were Afghans, others were Algerian kids who had paid their dues and got their political and military training in the anti-Soviet war. But the locals have never mixed easily with their foreign accomplices. A top Algerian Islamist named Hassan Hattab recently surrendered after protracted negotiations, underscoring a divergence of both strategy and tactics with the al Qaeda-Maghreb lot. Hiding in the Sahara and the Sahel, the operatives of the Maghreb al Qaeda know they are in no position at present to take over Algeria, and in any case they view that as the parochial objective of small-minded locals like Hassan Hattab. They take a longer view.

To the south, they see the vast regions of African Islam. To the north, they see the land they still call Andalus. Someday, they know, they will emerge like avenging angels from their desert redoubts, the Koran in one hand, the sword in the other, and give the infidel his due.

Which is precisely why the American infidel would like to keep al Qaeda confined to the dunes. For the past several years, a containment policy in all but name has done just that. The Algerians, our tactical allies in this task, can be prickly, difficult. We send new surveillance and communication equipment, and teams to train local forces in their use and to back them up on long-range patrols. But the Algerians have nixed the U.S. suggestion of a permanent base in the region for the new U.S. Africa Command, which at present is still operating out of Europe Command in Stuttgart, Germany. Nevertheless, on the whole, the policy has been successful--so far. In coordination with the State Department and other agencies, the Defense Department seeks to defeat the enemy while making ourselves attractive to the locals.