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Rumors of Instability

Is Bouteflika losing control in Algeria?

May 12, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 33 • By OLIVIER GUITTA
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Because of Algeria’s porous borders with Mali, Tunisia, and Libya, AQIM and its affiliates transit easily and pull off attacks around the region. Making matters even easier for terrorists, Algiers refuses to cooperate with its neighbors and accepts no external involvement in its management of terrorism. Also, the fact that the Algerian military maintains thousands of troops on the border with Morocco, with which it is waging a longstanding undercover war, limits its effectiveness in other areas.

Even so, the Algerian Army remains by far the best in the region, well equipped and well trained; its budget is higher, for instance, than that of more populous nations like Pakistan and Iran.  

What remains most trouble-some is AQIM’s ability to attack strategic targets like the gas facility at In Amenas, which it struck in January 2013, killing 39 foreigners and an Algerian security guard. It seems likely that lessons were not learned and a repeat could occur anytime. Just a few days after Bouteflika’s reelection, AQIM proved how formidable an adversary it is by killing 11 soldiers in Tizi Ouzou. Even though the Algerian Army has killed 37 terrorists so far this year, there is no reason to believe that the threat from AQIM is going away anytime soon.

As for the United States, the visit of Secretary of State John Kerry just a few weeks before the Algerian election demonstrated that what counts for the West is stability. While Algeria is not generally big on international cooperation, its special forces, according to Le Figaro, have joined recently with U.S. Special Forces to fight AQIM elements in southern Libya. 

Algeria has so far avoided an Arab Spring, but the Soviet-style presidential election of April 17 could be the last straw for many. Though the civilian opposition is disorganized, any spontaneous outbreak of disorder, coming on top of the Berber issue and the depredations of AQIM, might be too much for the 77-year-old Bouteflika—or anyone else, for that matter—to handle. Algeria, which endured a brutal civil war from 1991 to 2002 and a bloody war for independence in the 1950s and early ’60s, has known chaos before.

Olivier Guitta is the director of research at the Henry Jackson Society in London. Camelia Assem assisted in the research for this article.

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