North Africa's Last Line of Defense
While the world continues to focus on the implications of a destabilized Libya, Algeria has been working diligently to prevent a resurgent Al Qaeda from toppling its regime in its quest to install an Islamic Caliphate in the Maghreb region of North Africa. Since the Libyan conflict first broke out in February 2011, a wave of terror attacks has hit Algeria as the result of an increasingly porous border and the loss of the Gaddafi regime, perhaps Bouteflika's most important ally in the war on terror.
For the past two decades, the secular regime of Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been the target of local Islamic extremist groups, who have recently extended their fight beyond Algeria, setting their sights on the entirety North Africa. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) traces its roots back to a failed revolution attempt which began in 1992 when Algeria's military government cancelled the second round of parliamentary elections when it seemed evident that an Islamist coalition would take power. In the years that followed, Algeria descended into a bloody civil war as extremist groups led by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) killed tens of thousands of civilians in their efforts to topple the government. The conflict eventually died down due to government amnesty programs and counter terror measures, while splits within the GIA began to emerge as a result of its policies of targeting civilians. One of the groups to break off from the GIA was called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which pledged to restrict its attacks to government and military targets. Following September 11, the GSPC began to cooperate with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, officially joining its ranks in 2006 following an announcement by the groups' second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who then designated the group as 'Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb'.
While still keeping its main focus toppling the Bouteflika regime, AQIM has worked to spread its influence across the region, establishing cells in neighboring Morocco and Libya, while sending its members to fight Coalition forces in Iraq. In Algeria, AQIM continued to operate in the populous coastal region until a heavy handed counter-terror campaign in 2010 by the Algerian government sent them fleeing southward, to the expansive and uninhabited Sahel region. Gaddafi's Fall A Setback in Algeria's war on terror
Despite his past connections with various terror networks, Gaddafi's regime was also threatened by Islamic extremists, including the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which holds a similar Salafist ideology to AQIM. Up until the civil war, Gaddafi's regime was successful in preventing the LIFG from gaining influence, using a carrot-and stick policy of crackdowns and monetary rewards to dissuade various tribes in Libya from falling under their influence.
Because of Gaddafi's hard-line policy against Jihadist groups, Algeria remained one of the very last countries to recognize Libya's National Transitional Council (NTC), as they had just ousted their strongest ally in the war on terror. In 2010, just before the first protests took place in Benghazi, it seemed as though AQIM's operating capability was all but diminished. As the situation in Libya deteriorated into civil war, Algeria began to witness an increase in terror attacks claimed by AQIM, and its' mountainous eastern provinces began to resemble southern Afghanistan. Taliban-style bombings and ambushes of government troops became a weekly occurrence in these areas, as the border with Libya became increasingly porous as a result of the fighting. Terror has returned to the coast as well, most noticeably when 16 people were killed in a double suicide bombing outside a police academy in the western city of Cherchell, in August 2011.
As terror attacks in Algeria persist, speculation is rising that the Algerian-Libyan border has become a corridor for smugglers who are trafficking advanced arms out of Libya for use in insurgencies around the Middle East. In early September, the Algerian government closed the border after confiscating a large quantity of anti-aircraft missiles from smugglers crossing in from Libya. A government spokesman stated that the missiles carried French markings, suggesting they were taken from munitions drops to Libyan Rebels in the beginning of the conflict. There is still a high level of tension and mistrust between the two neighbors, as public opinion in of Algeria is at a low point among Libyans, critical of Bouteflika's past support for Gaddafi and his willingness to shelter members of his immediate family. Algeria on the other hand, suspects hostile elements may hold ranking positions in the NTC, while doubting their overall willingness to fight Islamist extremism. Bouteflika's Regime Must Be Supported
Despite his willingness to fight Islamic Terror, Bouteflika's government is regarded throughout the Arab world as one of the last of the repressive and corrupt regimes who have yet to be overthrown in the 'Arab Spring'. Protests and demonstrations occur throughout the country on a daily basis, protesting quality of life and labor related issues, as well as government corruption. Despite these protests, a unified reform movement to topple Bouteflika altogether has yet to emerge, as Algeria's citizens are fearful of the advent of another civil war, traumatized from the bloody conflict which ended just a decade ago. That being said, there are still calls for Bouteflika to step down- most often from prominent Algerian Islamist clerics. In addition, Algeria's faltering economy coupled with an increasing national awareness as one of the last remaining nations to tolerate corruption will only fuel discontent.
It is therefore up to the leaders of the Western world to ensure the survival of the Bouteflika regime for the near term, for it is they who will ultimately suffer the consequences of North Africa turning into another Afghanistan, Yemen, or Iraq. The Libyan and Tunisian conflicts have already sent thousands of refugees to the shores of Italy, and an uprising in Algeria will most likely do the same, bringing with them cells of Islamic Extremists who seek to repeat acts of terror such as the Madrid Train Bombings or the London Subway attacks of 2005. The consequences of a destabilized Algeria would be even worse for those African nations who are currently allied with the west. Morocco is already investing considerable resources in fighting local cells of AQIM, while a notable increase in militant attacks has been cited in the border areas of Niger, Mauritania, and Mali, while Islamist cells in northern Nigeria continue to threaten the stability of the oil-rich nation.
With the rest of North Africa destabilized by recent revolutions, Bouteflika continues to demonstrate his nation's willingness to fight Al Qaeda, sustaining wave after wave of terror attacks in the process. He has recently sent large contingents of troops to the Libyan border to stop weapons smuggling, while hosting a counter-terrorism conference in September with other African nations facing the same phenomenon. Should Algeria become embattled in the turmoil of the Arab Spring, the western world must treat the situation with considerable sensitivity, refraining from rescinding support for Bouteflika as hastily as they did with Mubarak in Egypt.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has already moved quickly to take advantage of the instability in places like Libya and Yemen, and the latest upswing in attacks proves that they still desire to take down the Algerian government for its resilience in fighting Islamic extremism. Despite its repressive nature, the United States and Europe need to continue to ensure that the Bouteflika regime remains in place, as long as the rest of North Africa is struggling to restore stability. A reckless policy toward Algeria would allow the cancer of Islamic Extremism to spread throughout the Maghreb, and turn southern Europe into the new front line in the war on terror.
The author is an Argov Fellow For Leadership and Diplomacy at the IDC Herzlyia. He works for Max-Security Solutions, a risk consulting firm based in Tel Aviv. He is also Co-Founder of the Friend-a-Soldier dialogue project and www.Israelicentrism.com.