Morocco/Algeria: Military leaders in the shadows

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Algeria – Morocco: crisis loading

By Akram Kharief, Farid Alilat, Jihâd Gillon

Posted on Friday, 5 March 2021 20:01
This 19 December 2019 photo shows Algerian military leader Gaid Salah at President Abdelmadjid Tebboune's inauguration. © Doudou Toufik/PPAgency/SIPA

Morocco's and Algeria's top military and secret service leaders have risen through the ranks and often led brilliant – and sometimes action-packed – careers.

This is part four of a five-part series.

Morocco – Abdelfattah Louarak, inspector general of the Royal Moroccan Armed Forces

General Abdelfattah Louarak, inspector general of the armed forces. © MAP

In January 2017, General Abdelfattah Louarak, 66, was appointed inspector general of the Royal Moroccan Armed Forces (whose commander-in-chief is none other than the king), replacing General Bouchaïb Arroub, who had held the position since 2014. Louarak’s promotion to this strategic role, if ever there were one, has ushered in a period of stability.

He was made a four-star general by King Mohammed VI in January 2017, joining the highly selective ranks of the “four-star club”, which includes the likes of his four-star predecessor, Hosni Benslimane, a former commander of the Royal Gendarmerie.

Born in 1955 in Ben Ahmed, a town in Morocco’s Casablanca-Settat region, Louarak graduated from the Meknes Royal Military Academy in 1976. He is well acquainted with the Western Sahara situation. For the first 10-odd years of his military career, he served in the 11th Motorised Infantry Regiment during the Western Sahara War (1975-1991). Little information is known about his military exploits, but he was decorated with the Order of Ouissam Alaouite star at the end of his service.

In 1986, Louarak was transferred to an elite unit, the 2nd Parachute Infantry Brigade, where he helped train the Moroccan Special Forces. He went on to take over the logistics and transport for the armed forces. In 1994, while still a commander, he obtained a certificate of higher education from the Collège Interarmées de Défense military academy in Paris, which became the École de Guerre in 2010. Louarak also oversaw the recruitment of senior military officials at the department of officer personnel.

In addition, the four-star general has diplomatic duties, as he travelled to Washington DC in early January to sign military agreements between the kingdom and the United States for the 2020-2030 period.

Mohamed Yassine Mansouri, director general of Morocco’s intelligence agency

Mohammed Yacine Mansouri, national intelligence director. © AIC PRESS

Mohamed Yassine Mansouri, 59, is director general of the Direction Générale des Etudes et de la Documentation (DGED), Morocco’s intelligence agency. He was one of the king’s classmates at the Collège Royal de Rabat, a royal academy for prominent Moroccans.

Mansouri was appointed director of the country’s news agency, Maghreb Arabe Presse, in 1999. In 2005, the King named him as director of the DGED. His 15 years of intelligence experience gives him a significant edge over his Algerian counterpart, Nour-Eddine Mekri, who has been on the job for a few short months.

Mansouri also has considerable diplomatic chops, including experience with the Libya crisis, which has earned him the status as the architect behind the Bouznika peace talks held in September and October 2020. He often represents Morocco during meetings held by regional and international institutions on terrorism issues.

Alongside Nasser Bourita, the country’s foreign minister, the intelligence director took part in roundtable discussions held by the UN in December 2018 that brought together the Western Sahara’s Polisario Front, Algerian officials and representatives from Mauritania.

A legal expert by training who ended up in the media business, Mansouri has an atypical background for a senior intelligence official, though he previously worked for the interior ministry, which he joined in the late 1980s under Driss Basri, the high-powered minister who maintained his grip on the agency from 1979 to 1999. During Mansouri’s time there, he made regular visits to Western Sahara.

A few months before Morocco was readmitted to the African Union in 2017, he travelled to Algeria with Bourita for a ground-breaking visit during which he met with Algeria’s then foreign minister, Abdelkader Messahel. Mansouri’s career is the embodiment of his country’s security- and diplomacy-oriented approach to Western Sahara.

Algeria – Saïd Chengriha, chief of staff of the armed forces

Major General Saïd Chengriha © Zinedine ZEBAR

After enlisting in Algeria’s army in 1963, when he was 18, Saïd Chengriha was promptly sent to France to study at the École de Saint-Cyr Coëtquidan military school, where he gained experience with armoured vehicles. After fighting Israeli troops as a member of the task force sent to back Egypt during the Yom Kippur War, he graduated from the Soviet K. E. Voroshilov Military Academy in 1973.

It was in 1992, in the aftermath of riots that broke out over the cancellation of parliamentary elections, that the life of the native of El Kantara, a town in Biskra Province, changed dramatically. Chengriha was tasked, alongside his immediate superior, Abdelaziz Medjahed, with leading the Centre de Conduite et de Coordination des Actions de Lutte Antisubversive in Bouïra Province, south-east of Algiers.

His performance was so impressive that his bosses decided, two years later, to reassign him to his original unit, the 8th Armoured Division, and entrusted him with an important job: he would examine ways to modernise the army to keep it on top of the latest emerging threats.

One such menace was the increasingly tense situation at the Moroccan border. In 2004, Chengriha was appointed to lead the 3rd Military Region of Béchar, which is covers a part of the border, where he became known for his hawkish hostility to his country’s western neighbour.

Named commander of ground forces in August 2018, he was well placed when his immediate superior, Ahmed Gaïd Salah, urged Abdelaziz Bouteflika, then president, to resign, effectively elevating himself to the role of acting head of state.

Chengriha – or “Tcheng” – as he is nicknamed for his uncle Abdelkader, a leading figure in the Armée de Libération Nationale and intelligence community – had never been so close to the government. When Gaïd Salah passed away a few days after President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s election, he was the natural choice for acting chief of staff. He was formally confirmed in his post on 3 July 2020.

Nour-Eddine Mekri, aka “Mahfoud Polisario”, Algeria’s foreign-intelligence chief

Born in the 1950s in Mascara, a city in western Algeria, Major General Nour-Eddine Mekri, aka “Mahfoud”, is part of a generation of officers who joined the Algerian armed forces to serve in the intelligence service, which had opened its doors to academics.

His extensive expertise on the Western Sahara – he witnessed the conflict firsthand during lengthy visits to Tindouf (near the Algeria-Morocco border) – earned him the nickname “Mahfoud Polisario”.

In the 1980s, he worked closely with Mohammed Seddik Benyahia, then foreign minister and the architect of the release of US hostages in Iran. Mekri has also been in charge of the Institut des Hautes Etudes de Sécurité Nationale since the early 1990s.

His career changed direction when he was appointed director of the defence ministry on 10 September 2009, where he is responsible for cooperation and foreign relations. This strategic post allows him to appoint and lead Algeria’s cohort of defence attachés serving overseas, assist foreign military delegations visiting Algeria and monitor diplomatic missions with military offices in Algiers.

In 2015, he paid a steep price for his close ties with General Mohamed “Toufik” Mediène. When forced into retirement, the general had been head of the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité, but it was shut down afterwards. Mekri, a collateral victim of a dispute between his boss and Gaïd Salah, was sacked without further ado.

His appointment as foreign intelligence chief, announced on 20 January 2021, is a comeback of sorts. He will be tasked with re-establishing tighter and more efficient coordination channels between the diplomatic corps, the military establishment and the foreign-intelligence service. Given his background, he is, at least in theory, the ideal man for the job.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options
Also in this in Depth:

Are Morocco and Algeria on the brink of war?

Hostilities between Morocco and Algeria have taken on a new dimension in recent months, especially over the Western Sahara question. Could the situation descend into a full-blown conflict? The Africa Report takes an in-depth look at the forces involved.

Morocco/Algeria: Western Sahara conflict shows signs of escalation

Tensions between Algeria and Morocco have never been as tense in 45 years. November 2020 unleashed pandora's box following the military intervention in Guerguerat and Washington's recognition of Rabat's sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Morocco/Algeria: The armed forces behind the Western Sahara conflict

The Algerian and Moroccan militaries rank second and fifth in Africa, respectively, and shell out dizzying sums to acquire the latest equipment. Rabat turns to US and French suppliers, while Algiers sticks with Russian-made military goods.

Morocco/Algeria: Jeune Afrique, a magazine caught between two mortal enemies

The Western Sahara question has poisoned more than just Moroccan-Algerian relations. 'Jeune Afrique' magazine continues to be banned in Algeria, where it, too, has become a casualty of the tensions between the two countries.