How Algeria Faces the Libyan Conflict
By Jalel Harchaoui
This Briefing Paper explores the underpinnings of Algeria’s foreign policy, and how it has evolved with respect to the ongoing crises in Libya, and offers insight into future prospects.
Before reviewing the impact that the Libyan crisis has had on Algeria since 2011, and the policies that the country has implemented in response, it is useful to examine the relationship between the two countries in the years prior to 2011.
Algeria’s stance on Libya
A rebuke of Algiers published in the Emirati media during 2011’s NATO–Arab intervention asserted that ‘the Algerian regime [was] a true friend to Qaddafi’ (Cheref, 2011). The historical record points to a more complex reality.
History of Algeria–Libya relations prior to 2011
Qaddafi’s Libya was an impulsive, revisionist power that pro-status quo Algeria deplored. The Algerians disapproved of Qaddafi’s incursions on Chadian soil in 1978–87 as well as his short-lived alliance with Morocco in 1984 (Maddy-Weitzmann, 1986, p. 117).
From 1979 onwards, Qaddafi, in deploying an anti-imperial rhetoric, supported irredentist movements in many countries, including Algeria (Entelis, 2015, p. 195; Buijtenhuijs, 1987, p. 143; Metz, 1989, p. 268).
To Algeria’s great dismay, the Libyan leader promised a recast of the post-colonial Saharan space and its borders to support the Tuaregs. Yet Chadli Bendjedid’s Algeria (1979–92) made sure to stay in close touch with Qaddafi and gave him the impression that it was ready to stand, or even fight, alongside him.
During the same period, Chadli granted a base to Libyan nationalists belonging to an anti-Qaddafi group called the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL) as they prepared, with support from the US, a coup against the Libyan dictator.
The 1985 operation was derailed by a leak (Laham, 2007, p. 148). After Chadli’s departure in 1992, Algiers continued to permit the NFSL, which US-based anti-Qaddafist Khalifa Haftar was then associated with, to meet in Algeria (Ougartch-inska and Priore, 2013, p. 193; Hilsum, 2013, p. 87; Barfi, 2014, p. 4).
In the 1990s, some Algerian officials were convinced that Qaddafi supported Islamist insurgents operating in their territory. Moreover, after the West’s 2003 thaw with Qaddafi, Libya and Algeria were rivals in the energy market. Libya sought to displace Algeria as the Maghreb’s main supplier of natural gas to Europe (Zoubir and Dris-Ait-Hamadouche, 2013, p. 73).
The two principal funders of the African Union also championed two incompatible visions of the continent. As a US expert of the Maghreb notes, the Algerians were always torn by the question of whether a strong or chaotic Libya presented a stronger challenge.
This serves to demonstrate that what preoccupied Algeria in 2011 was not friendship for Qaddafi. Although the Algerians found his policies unpleasant, they feared the vacuum and disorder that would ensue in the event of his overthrow.
A then-senior figure in the Libyan rebellion, in addressing Algiers’ attitude in 2011, observed that ‘our requests for a meeting with Algerian officials to present our case from the National Transitional Council’s (NTC) perspective were not answered at all’.
Months after French President Sarkozy’s government recognized the NTC on 10 March 2011, Algiers refused to follow suit, insisting that the Libyan rebels should first commit to fight al-Qaeda in North Africa. Meanwhile, the NTC accused Algiers of facilitating the transit of hundreds of Polisario Front fighters who joined Qaddafi’s camp as mercenaries via Algerian land.
It should also be noted that Algeria did not seek to prevent the Gulf states from funnelling weapons to the anti-Qaddafi rebellion in 2011. In May 2011, the UAE began sending weapons to the rebels in the north-western city of Zintan (Cole and Khan, 2015, p. 76).
An eyewitness recalls: Arms shipments landed in Tunisia. Then trucks crossed the border strip near Algeria, in the Ghadames area. The Algerians turned a blind eye to what was happening at the border, and sometimes even stepped in to help the Zintanis. In general, Algiers does not like to deal with the Gulf states. But it had a historically strong relationship with the city of Zintan from before 2011.
Soon after the fall of Tripoli in late August 2011, Algeria is believed to have refused a fleeing Qaddafi access to its territory (Aïd Mouhoub, 2011). The dictator’s wife Safiya, daughter Aisha, and sons Hannibal and Mohammed were however allowed in (Harding, Chulov, and Stephen, 2011).
Some commentators maintain that Algiers should have been quicker to support the NATO–Arab intervention against the Qaddafi regime, and embrace Libya’s rebels. In this reading, Algerian reluctance showed that they ‘got the new Libyan reality wrong’ in 2011 (Matarese, 2016). Others disagree with this interpretation, and instead suggest that Algiers’ assessment of the NTC was more accurate than that of Paris or London.
These commentators argue that Algiers immediately saw the interim government as a flimsy façade behind which factions had already begun fighting each other, thus indirectly enabling jihadi cells—and rogue armed groups in general—to strengthen. Algeria’s ‘body language’ during the 2011 war in fact betrayed its visceral fear of a Libyan collapse yielding to non-state actors and internecine strife among rebels (Thieux, 2018, p. 9).
From this perspective, Algeria’s rigid response in 2011 was more a sign of its wish to see some state structure subsist in its near abroad than full-blown support for Qaddafi per se.
While much of the Algerian scepticism towards the various factions of anti-Qaddafi rebels proved warranted, the refusal to talk to them for several months after the revolution began was neither pragmatic nor shrewd.
During the two years that followed the toppling of Qaddafi in 2011, Algeria’s diplomacy in Libya never fully stopped, but it was hesitant and somewhat scarred by the rigidity displayed during that key year (Megerisi, 2017, p. 34).
It took on a new life after the civil war erupted in May 2014. Prior to addressing Algeria’s policy towards Libya since the ongoing conflict
erupted in 2014, it is necessary to review the extent to which the February–October war exerted an impact on Algeria’s national security.
Overall, the Libya war of February–October 2011 contributed to making Algeria’s security landscape more dangerous. Weapons proliferation and the frequency of militant attacks increased. The 2011–12 period also saw a crescent of weakly-governed or ungoverned spaces emerge around most of Algeria, particularly along the borders with Libya, Mali, and Tunisia.
Spike in jihadi activity The uncontrolled overabundance of explosives, light weapons, small arms, and related ammunition in Libya since early 2011 has strongly influenced the perceptions that Algerian officials have of their worrisome neighbour to the east.
The proliferation inside Libya, 46 which instantly caused spillover effects into countries nearby, materialized through the dispersal of Qaddafi’s existing inventory during the 2011 war and the provision of additional weapons by member states of the coalition that intervened the same year.
From the outset of NATO–Arab coalition’s 2011 military campaign in Libya, it became clear that fighters from Algeria’s archenemy al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) participated in the armed rebellion against the Qaddafi regime (Entous, Johnson, and Levinson, 2011).
Within Algeria, the level of jihadi violence rose. Hundreds of kilograms of Qaddafi’s Semtex explosive were reportedly used by jihadis near Algiers during the summer of 2011 (Ouazani, 2011).
Tapping into the Libya free-for-all, AQIM hit northern Algeria’s security apparatus with a wave of terror attacks that began in April 2011. Starting in October 2011, another wave of attacks was launched against Algeria. These attacks drew part of their logistical strength from Libya but were launched from Mali.
In the regional scheme of things, Algeria was not however the jihadis’ top target in 2011–12. Non-state actors with access to weapons circulating in Libya perceived other territories in the wider region to be either more permissive or a higher priority than Algeria.
Arms outflows from Libya went to Syria—and along the way, a portion ended up in Gaza, southern Lebanon, and the Sinai (Chivers, Schmitt, and Mazzetti, 2013; Nichols, 2013). Northern Mali was the other major destination for Libyan armaments (Anders, 2015).
The large amount of weapons caches in Algeria’s south is disproportionate to the suspected number of militants operating within Algeria’s territory. One possible explanation is that Algeria’s south is used mostly as a pass-through area or a warehouse area (Hanlon and Herbert, 2015, p. 27).
Until 2009, AQIM still regarded Algeria proper as their main area of operation and their principal target and, at that time, used the Sahel and the Sahara as secondary areas for support purposes. A change has taken place over the last few years as the jihadi group started its ‘Sahelization’ strategy and extended its scope of operations by opening a southern front to Sahelian territories (Boukhars, 2016a).
This logic suggests that Algeria may no longer be the centre of AQIM’s attention and that Algeria’s south will henceforth be used as a steppingstone territory for an agenda focused on the Sahel.
Another possible explanation is that AQIM prepares cross-border assaults in Algeria’s south. Cross-border action is more likely to succeed if the terror cells are nimble and not overloaded with ammunition or weapons. For this reason, insurgents sometimes prepare weapons caches in or near target areas located in Algeria, in preparation for future attacks there.
They may also do this with the intention of preparing against possible siege scenarios on territory they wish to take and transform into a stronghold.
In order to prevent the entry of weapons and terrorist groups, Algeria has, since 2011, expended vast amounts of effort and money on the monitoring of its eastern borders. After the January 2013 shock of In Amenas, the army reacted by moving the Border Guard Group from Constantine to Ain El Aouinet in Tebessa, near the Tunisian border (El Watan, 2014).
Algiers also claims it is building a barrier, which consists of sand running alongside water-filled trenches (Amiar, 2016; Assemblée Nationale, 2017). In addition, the government has also deployed air assets, including: aircraft, patrol helicopters, and surveillance drones (Alilat, 2016). The supplementary troops allocated permanently include special forces and border guards.
The level of mobilization increased in May 2015, when IS took the airport of Sirte. According to the Algerian government, the human personnel stationed along the country’s 1,200-mile long eastern flank totals around 23,000 and includes border guards, gendarmes, and soldiers.
Given this new environment, observers of the Maghreb-Sahel increasingly question whether Algeria’s strict non-interventionist stance is tenable.
To be continued
Jalel Harchaoui is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geopolitics of Université de Paris, France. His doctoral research focuses on the international dimension of the Libyan conflict. A frequent commentator on Libya, Harchaoui has published widely, including in Foreign Affairs, Lawfare, Middle East Eye, and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Sada.