Why Did Algeria Fire Its Top Spy?
It could be because of a cold war within the military and political elite
Algeria, one of the last secularist, socialist countries in the Arab world, has largely avoided the turmoil of the wider region. Despite conflicts with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and a now-defunct subgroup of Islamic State, the Algerian government has secured its cities and borders.
Which is why it’s curious Algerian Pres. Abdulaziz Bouteflika fired Gen. Mohamed “Toufik” Mediene, who headed the Department of Intelligence and Security, a.k.a. the DRS. As the mysterious leader of a shadowy intelligence agency, Toufik managed a career spanning a quarter of a century.
There’s little known about Mediene, and even photographs of the now-ex spy chief are hard to come by.
“The relationship between Bouteflika and the DRS has been the subject of much speculation among the Algerian public and outside observers,” analyst Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck wrote in World Politics Review. “Several observers interpreted these reshuffles as security purges and part of a cold war between the military and Bouteflika’s inner circle — made all the more intriguing given Bouteflika’s fragile health and the mystery over his successor.”
The DRS’ relationship with Bouteflika may matter less than its relationship with the Algerian People’s National Army, one of the spy agency’s many competitors. Unlike the DRS, which bungled rescuing hostages only two years ago, the military has succeeded in fighting terrorists across Algeria.
Ghanem-Yazbeck detailed Algeria’s counter-insurgency campaign at the Carnegie Middle East Center’s website:
The army has indeed increased its missions and security operations since the current conflict erupted in Libya in 2014. It has been relatively successful in securing Algeria’s borders against the flow of fighters from outside the country, and the Algerian military periodically arrests drug and arms traffickers and jihadists, especially in the south (in In Amenas and Djanet, near the Libyan border) and the east (in Tébessa and El Oued, near Tunisia).
For example, Abdelmalek Gouri, chief of the Algerian jihadist group Jund El Khalifa — which declared its allegiance to the Islamic State and was responsible for the death of French national Hervé Gourdel in 2014 — was killed by the PNA together with two of his men two months after Gourdel was decapitated. Gouri’s successor, Bashir Othman al-Assimi, and his organization of 25 men were eliminated four months later in a massive operation led by the People’s National Army in the city of Bouïra.
But the Algerian government wants to maintain a balance of power with its own security forces. If the military and police focus on controlling the population and compete with one another, Bouteflika will have fewer competitors.
We shouldn’t expect Algeria to transition into a liberal democracy any time soon. This last time it tried, in the 1990s, the country descended into the Maghreb’s worst civil war in decades. Tens of thousands of people died. Even so, another symbol of authoritarianism has lost his authority.