France and Algeria – Renewed Cooperation for Counterterrorism

June 30, 2015
France and Algeria – Renewed Cooperation for Counterterrorism
Christopher Griffin
Christopher Griffin Non-Resident Fellow Strategic Studies and Counterinsurgency

On 15 June, French President François Hollande made a brief official visit to Algeria to discuss Paris and Algiers’ coordination against terrorism in the Sahel region. Hollande claimed that the Franco-Algerian relationship is ‘exceptional’, and that a ‘real friendship’ exists between the two countries. While it is true that Franco-Algerian relations are at a high point, much of this rapprochement has to do with the personal relationship between Hollande and Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a fact often acknowledged by Hollande himself. The French President’s visit, while it heralds closer coordination in the fight against terrorism, does not indicate any sort of a greater reconciliation between the two countries.

At the same time as Hollande’s visit, U.S. sources reported the death of Mokhtar Belmokhtar in an American airstrike in Libya (his death remains unconfirmed at the time of writing). Belmokhtar was probably the commander of the January 2013 In Amenas oil refinery attack in southern Algeria, where 40 people died. While terrorism in Algeria did not disappear with the winding down of the civil war in the mid-2000s, the In Amenas attack was a reminder of the severe security problems facing the countries in the Sahel-Sahara region. Algeria’s counterterrorism capabilities were also questioned to large degree following the attack. The company Statoil, which was part of the joint venture running the In Amenas facility, stated in a report that ‘there is reason to question the extent of their reliance on Algerian military protection’. The Algerian military was responsible for the external security at the site and the detection and prevention of attacks by terrorists. Statoil blamed the Algerian government directly, saying that ‘it was only the Algerian military that could have prevented the attack on 16 January’, and stated that even during the civil war, oil and gas facilities were not attacked. While Statoil is determined to stay in Algeria, it was clear that the Algerian government’s protection was judged insufficient, despite the military resolution of the situation.

Algeria is a regional power, with 130,000 troops in their armed forces. Since the civil war, Algeria has favored a ‘hard’ approach to fighting terrorism, with large offensives aimed at eliminating the maximum number of fighters possible. The offensive strategy is linked with border control to stop drugs and weapons trafficking and to prevent southern Algeria from becoming a base for terrorist groups coming from Libya or Mali. To this end, Algeria has strengthened intelligence sharing and counterterrorism coordination with its neighbors. Effective regional coordination has been hampered by the continuing rivalry between Algeria and Morocco, however, as Morocco is not part of the Algerian-led Regional Command for Joint Counter Terrorism Operations (CEMOC). The absence of Morocco in the regional framework hampers Algerian coordination with both France and the U.S., as both countries are close allies with the Moroccan government. Despite this problem, the U.S. remains a close partner with Algeria in counterterrorism. Morocco also aided France in the operation in Mali in 2013.

French cooperation with Algeria has been hampered to the greatest extent by the memory of the 1954-1962 Algerian War of Independence. Continued contentions over the memory of the war contributed to tense relations between Algeria and France during Nicolas Sarkozy’s administration (2007-2012). The French government is also concerned with the influence of the Moroccan and Algerian governments in France, which is often manifest in disputes over the control of mosques in Paris and in the provinces.

Despite a history of tense relations between France and Algeria, the French intervention in Mali and the In Amenas attack appears to have significantly changed the relationship. Hollande visited Algeria on 20 December 2012, where, in a break with previous French governments, he denounced the violence of French colonialism and the Algerian War. A Franco-Algerian military cooperation treaty, which had been negotiated in 2008, was finally ratified by the French government in February 2013, even though the precise terms of the treaty have not been published. In summer 2013, a French Senate report stated that ‘Algeria was an essential partner for maintaining security in the Sahel’. Several reasons were given by the Senate to cooperate with Algeria in counterterrorism matters:

  • Algeria’s experience in fighting terrorists in the region, especially during the civil war period, together with intelligence on leaders still operating, including Belmokhtar;
  • Common objectives of France and Algeria in the fight against terrorism;
  • The need to control the borders of Libya to stop the terrorist groups from crossing into other countries in the region;
  • Algeria’s capacities to help train Libyan and Malian security forces;
  • The possibility for establishing better relations between France and Algeria;
  • The need for cooperation after the In Amenas attack;
  • The capacity of Algeria, as a regional power, to stabilize the Sahel.

Not cited in the document is the need to protect French citizens in the country, an issue brought to light with the murder of the French tourist Hervé Gourdel by a group affiliated with the Islamic State in late 2014.

These are all good reasons for France to cooperate with Algeria, but has the renewed partnership functioned since 2013?

Algeria helped France in the operations in Mali by closing its frontier to prevent the escape of terrorist groups to the north. A French parliamentary report in 2014, however, stated that Algeria has an ‘ambiguous role’ regarding the terrorist groups on the region, but also makes it clear that this view may not be justified by the facts. A fundamental suspicion remains in Paris regarding Algeria’s policies. France is also very worried about the stability of the Algerian regime, and the National Assembly report stated that Algeria’s ‘neighbors would benefit from a renewal of the Algerian political class’.

At the same time, Algeria emerged as an effective mediator in Mali in summer 2014, with negotiations in particular to bring the Touareg groups to a common agreement. The negotiations have led more rebel groups to sign peace agreements in Mali in June 2015.  French officers also pointed to the fact that Algeria was helping the French effectively to control the border zones in the Sahel in 2014. After the visit of France’s Defense Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, to Algiers on 20 May 2014, the first official Defense Ministry visit in ten years, French newspapers began to talk about a ‘military partnership’. Algeria subsequently moved a large part of its army to the south of the country, and coordinates closely with French forces on the other side of the border in Mali to pursue terrorist groups. In more surprising developments, the Times reported in May 2014 that a joint operation had been carried out in southern Libya by American, Algerian and French special forces. France and Algeria also began joint naval exercises in summer 2014, which continued in April 2015.

France also has economic reasons to improve relations to Algeria. France is the second-largest investor in Algeria, with 7,000 French companies in the country. For example, Renault opened a new factory in 2014 in Oran, employing 350 people and with the capacity to build 25,000 cars every year.

Franco-Algerian relations are very much at a high point in 2015, and have been improving since the In Amenas attack and France’s intervention in Mali. This rapprochement should not be seen reconciliation between the two countries, however, and while there is common interest in fighting terrorism, in many other areas, relations remain rocky. A further potential problem for future cooperation will be the stability of the Algerian regime. Hollande is closer to Algeria than his predecessors, it is true, but it is largely based on the French President’s personal relationship with the Bouteflika regime. A change in Algerian politics could be difficult for the French government to handle, as it is unclear as to whether or not the rest of the Algerian political class and other power brokers in the country (especially leading Algerian military officers) are interested in continued cooperation with France. Both countries, however, will have to adjust their policies in the years to come if they want to continue cooperating against terrorism as well as in other areas in the context of a post-Bouteflika Algeria.