Is Algeria once again confronted with the threat of terrorism?

Posted on Friday, 22 January 2021 15:09
Continuation of the search in the Tipasa mountains: Saïd Chengriha in the military theatre. © EL WATAN

Across Algeria, a growing number of attacks, arrests and weapons have come to light, indicating a possible resurgence in jihadist activity in the country; a chapter from the 1990s that many hoped would stay closed.

At dawn on 14 January, a group of hunters from the town of Bir El Ater, in the province of Tébessa, set off towards their hunting area in a pick-up truck. Their vehicle drove over a home-made bomb operated from a distance. The resulting explosion killed five people and caused a stir among the town’s residents, who have long suffered from terrorism.

This is not the first time that hunters or hikers have been victims of mines in the region, usually abandoned bombs from the 1990s. However, it is the first time a civilian vehicle has been deliberately targeted by terrorists since the end of the dark decade.

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A few hours later and about 30km away, in the province of Khenchela, the army shot down a terrorist who had taken refuge in a cave. The equipment found in his possession – binoculars, a machine gun and a radio – indicate that he was in charge of monitoring this strategic area for armed groups.

An arsenal of war

A week earlier, on 7 January, an operator of the 104th operational manoeuvre regiment – an elite anti-terrorist unit of the Algerian army – had uncovered the long tube of a portable Russian Strela-2 anti-aircraft missile. It was the first time in 30 years of terrorism that such a discovery had been revealed to the public. Although terrorist groups had already gotten their hands on this type of missile in the past, notably in March 1993 after the attack on the Boughezoul barracks, south of Algiers.

The discovery of this explosive device and the small war arsenal accompanying it is all the more worrying as the weapons were found in a cache located in the province of Tizi Ouzou, just a short distance away from the capital.

This discovery came after the arrest of the terrorist Rezkane Ahcène, alias Abou Dehdah, in the eastern region of Jijel on 16 December. The information learned from interrogating him enabled the security forces to make two important discoveries. The first was the unearthing on 28 December of €80,000, which according to the Ministry of Defence (MDN) was from the ransom paid for the release of hostages in Mali, then this cache consisting of a war arsenal.

More transparent communication

The discovery received extensive media coverage, an unprecedented development compared to previous years. The MDN, for example, had never informed the public about the number of soldiers who lost their lives in ambushes or in fighting against terrorists. The ministry was generally content to talk about the surrender of armed elements at the southern borders and the discoveries, never explained, of arms caches at the borders with Niger and Mali.

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Since Saïd Chengriha’s appointment as head of the army in December 2019 however, communication has become more transparent, with the MDN now reporting its losses. In line with this new strategy, the armée nationale populaire (ANP) carried out a vast anti-terrorist operation on 3 January – the day after a brief confrontation between soldiers and terrorists that claimed the lives of two soldiers in Tipaza some 30km west of the capital – under Chengriha’s supervision.

The army boss then visited the various combat outposts, despite the appalling weather conditions

Stemming the return of the “Hirak”

The media coverage of events linked to Islamist terrorism has, since the 1990s, constituted a form of political strategy especially after the Arab Spring. For example, the media’s constant coverage of the army’s operations was meant to encourage Algerians to unite during periods of tension between the population and its government.

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In doing so, it aims to emphasise the danger coming from the borders in order to close ranks in the country. A return to more transparent communication on domestic terrorism would therefore be a way of brandishing the threat in order to prevent a possible return of “Hirak” to the streets.

This communication though is also intended for the outside world. Increasing awareness about the ransom paid for the release of Western and Malian hostages in northern Mali, as well as the arrest of at least two freed terrorists, are also at the heart of Algeria’s media strategy.

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Algeria intends to make the Western countries that took part in the operation – France and Italy – pay for the alleged breach of international customs and practices concerning the payment of ransoms to jihadist groups. Algiers, as it frequently argues in the UN Security Council, considers these payments to be a form of terrorist financing.

The fact remains that, communication strategy or not – since Abu Obeida Yousouf al-Annabi’s appointment to the head of AQIM on 22 November 2020 and six months after Abdelmalek Droukdel’s death- the resurgence of terrorist activity in the areas known to still harbour armed groups, such as Kabylia and Mount Chenoua, is very real.

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