By Ferhat Polat
This policy outlook explores some of the critical elements driving Algeria’s foreign policy concerning the on-going conflict in Libya.
Despite the existence of a panoply of national security threats at its borders, ranging from the abundance of weapons, the presence of terrorist groups, and the interference of regional rivals, Algiers seems to be favouring the mediation route, expressing its willingness to facilitate dialogue between the Libyan protagonists.
While the civil war is threatening to create a spill over effect into the Algerian territory, several factors appear to neuter Algeria’s will for an all-out intervention. This policy outlook examines these multi-layered considerations and provides insight into some of the complex dynamics at play.
Algeria has suffered a great deal in the aftermath of Gaddafi’s overthrow. Libya’s vast desert border, populated by communities with a long history of smuggling, presents a significant challenge to Libya’s neighbours.
The abundance of weapons and ammunition following the 2011 war, and the ability of non-state actors to move and operate freely, have increased threat levels in the region.
Algeria initially opposed the NATO intervention of 2011 and called on the African Union to push for a diplomatic solution to Libya’s conflict.
Algiers’ historical experience under the French colonial era profoundly informs the Algerian view on non-interference in the affairs of foreign countries. “The principles of national sovereignty, non-intervention, diplomatic resolution of conflicts, and Arab solidarity are still important to the Algerian regime, even if they seem to matter less and less to others in the region”, Dr Jacob Mundy, Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies and Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at Colgate University, told TRT World Research Centre.
Algeria is deeply concerned by the lack of state-control in Libya and the rise of terrorism and smuggling cartels in fear that these phenomena could destabilise Algeria itself. Therefore, the Algerian government is committed to pursuing a long-term road map for stabilising Libya by encouraging Libyans to use diplomacy to end the civil war and return to state-building.
Algeria’s current Libyan policy consists of working with various groups in order to help stabilise the country. Thus, Algiers has supported UN-backed inclusive initiatives, including the Government of National Accord (GNA), as a solution to the conflict.
The Algerian authorities appear to believe that Haftar is incapable of bringing stability to Libya. Therefore, Algeria plays a vital role in the search for a political solution to the Libyan crisis.
Recently, Libyan Prime Minister Sarraj met with Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune to discuss the conflict in Libya. During the meeting, Tebboune called Tripoli “a red line no one should cross”.
Algeria has adopted the principle of finding a political solution to protect the unity of the Libyan people and the territorial integrity of the country.
What are Algeria’s Priorities in Libya
Libya continues to suffer from the interlinked political and economic crises, which have weakened state institutions by damaging its economy. As a result, rival militia groups, particularly in the East of Libya, continue to compete for power.
The weak surroundings of the state allowed these armed groups to sustain their activities through illegal sales of oil.
For instance, Trans-Saharan smuggling routes have evolved from passageways for the informal trade of illicit goods to conduits for the smuggling of weapons, drugs, fuel, counterfeit cigarettes, and even people. The criminal activities and corruption associated with trafficking undermine domestic stability in Libya.
Algeria is concerned about a chain reaction from Libya. Both countries share a 1,000 kilometre-long border. Therefore, insecurity in Libya can quickly spread to Algeria, and Algiers is particularly worried about the potential infiltration of terrorist groups, such as Daesh and Al-Qaeda.
In 2013, Algeria was the scene of a major terror attack which targeted the Tigantourine gas facility near Ain Amenas in the desert region. During the raid, the attackers took captive about 150 Algerians and dozens of foreigners.
The assailants also killed more than 40 staff, most of them foreigners. Reportedly, Khalid Abu Abbas, aka Mukhtar Belmukhtar, was the leader of this operation. He is originally Algerian and is the leader of an organisation called “Those who sign with blood”, which is affiliated with the Sahara-based terrorist organisation Al-Mourabitoun.
The latter has pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda and claimed responsibility for the attack. These groups have a long track record of waging terror in the region.
Al-Mourabitoun, in particular, has strong ties with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). During the Ain Amenas attack, these terrorists began their journey in northern Mali and travelled through Niger. They then stopped in Libya, north of Ghat, where they assembled with other perpetrators.
Subsequently, they launched the cross-border attack into Algerian territory. Algerian officials concluded that most of the weapons used by the militants in this attack were from Gaddafi’s stockpiles.
The death of 40 people prompted the Algerian government to take a more robust approach to protect its frontier from Libya’s spreading instability.
As a result, Algeria has begun to tighten its border with Libya by deploying thirty to forty thousand troops, tanks, armoured vehicles, and air support.
Moreover, Algeria faces another consequence of the political instability next door, namely a refuge influx. Such a refugee flow would include not just Libyans but also Sub-Saharan Africans and radical infiltrators.
In this context, Algeria has been spending $500 million on securing its Libyan border, and this figure has recently increased following the escalation of the conflict with more foreign intervention.
“Since the start of the revolution against Gadhafi, Algeria has been deeply affected by the instability in Libya. The Ain Amenas attack in January 2013 confirmed how Libya’s instability is considered a security issue for the authorities in Algiers. Moreover, the worsening crisis in Libya and Mali represented the breeding ground for the establishment in Algeria’s neighbourhood of powerful terrorist groups, which are considered a formidable threat to the entire region” Umberto Profazio, the Maghreb Analyst at NATO foundation, told TRT World Research Centre.
According to Professor Mundy, “Algeria’s main concern is border security, namely the spillover effect from the Libyan civil war, and the possibility of extremist groups using the Algerian territory for their insurgency. Algeria was engulfed in a civil conflict throughout the 1990s, and the ruling elites are determined not to see this situation repeating again. The 2012 crisis in northern Mali and the 2013 crisis in Ain Amenas (Algeria) revealed to the Algerian government that their worst fears had come true. In essence, terrorists from Libya and elsewhere had taken advantage of the collapse of the Gaddafi regime to attack other countries in the Maghreb and in the Sahel”.
In addition, for Professor Mundy, “the Ain Amenas attack was particularly important because it was the first time Saharan terror groups had targeted Algerian oil and gas production infrastructure in a significant way. There is also on-going armed activity along the Algerian-Tunisian border that further reinforces Algerian authorities sense of growing insecurity along their frontiers. Algeria is also uncomfortable with growing European and American counterterrorism and anti-migration activities in the Sahel, which they view as further external encroachment into their sphere of influence”.
to contiue in Part 2
Ferhat Polat is a Deputy Researcher at the TRT World Research Centre. He is a PhD researcher in North African Studies at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies in Exeter with a particular focus on Turkish Foreign Policy.