The Algerian Question

French intervention in Mali has proceeded apace as French troops begin a ground assault on extremists in the North. However, at the same time that France is making a push in Mali, Algeria is suffering from a terrorist attack targeting one of its gas plants 60 kilometers from the Libyan border. Reports are mixed, but it clear that the Algerian military has launched a strike that has freed the majority of the hostages, although the attempt also led to the death of many hostages as well. As it stands, militants in Algeria claim that they are still holding 41 foreigners.

What is also clear is that Algeria did not collaborate with foreign governments whose citizens were held hostage, including the United States. Algeria did not inform potential partners of its plans nor did it accept offers of assistance. The question, then, is why did Algeria not accept any of these offers or even at least inform is counterparts that an assault would be attempted?

The answer to this question lies in Algeria’s historical legacy. Algeria’s political identity was formed in the fire of a violent revolution against France. The struggle against colonialism has left an unwillingness to engage in multilateral interventions that was only enhanced by the civil war of the 1990s. Additionally, the scars of the civil war have left a mindset in the Algerian military that they must do whatever it takes to put down militants and rebels, whatever the consequences. The 1990s was truly a desperate time, full of massacres and atrocities committed both by the government and militants. During the 1990s Algeria learned from Hafez Al Assad the way to put down rebellions. Hafez Al Assad would have been a likely target to learn from, given that he had crushed a somewhat similar uprising in Hama as the Algerians believed they were then currently facing. Some claim that Algeria has, more recently, lent their advice and lessons learned fighting their civil war to Hafez’s son Bashar Al Assad as well as advising Ben Ali before his ouster in Tunisia. Algeria also voted against the imposition of a no-fly zone during Libya’s revolution. This assistance to regimes in danger is indicative of Algeria’s distaste for foreign intervention as well as its belief in the sovereignty of a government to control what occurs within its borders. 

Suffice it to say that it is clear that Algeria is both uneasy with foreign intervention and has a belief that it knows exactly how to deal with militants. In the eyes of the military, even if it was brutal, Algeria did eventually crush the Islamic militants that struggled against the state in the 1990s.

In a previous post I argued that Algeria’s feeling of discomfit with interventions may have unforeseen circumstances for the intervention in Mali. While Algeria has granted France the use of its airspace in order to allow French air raids in Mali, the current hostage crisis demonstrates that Algerian cooperation is unlikely to be comprehensive. It is critical that the French and Algerians come to an understanding regarding strategic goals and tactical methodology in Mali.

Algeria and Mali have a very long border. The hostage crisis demonstrates that militants remaining in Algeria are influenced by events in Mali. It also shows that Algeria will not defer to outsiders when dealing with issues within its borders. Looking for a silver lining here, perhaps the Sahel crisis is an opportunity to create a new understanding between Algeria, its neighbors, and the wider international community – including the United States. It will take some very difficult diplomacy and a rethink of longstanding ideas, both on the part of Algerians and the rest of the world, but perhaps some good may come from this tragedy.

 Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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