Abstract: Algeria is a rare and oft unacknowledged counterterrorism success story. After struggling with terrorism in the 1990s and 2000s, the last al-Qa`ida-related attack took place in 2016, and there have only been a handful of Islamic State-inspired attacks in recent years. Nevertheless, al-Qa`ida’s regional affiliate, al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), continues to urge its supporters not to abandon the Algerian fight. Although there is little likelihood that AQIM will be able to revive its former ‘fortunes’ in Algeria, giving up on Algeria would be to admit defeat and would strike at the very core of the group’s raison d’être.
On January 29, 2019, the United States’ Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) published its Worldwide Threat Assessment.1 The assessment addresses threats thematically and geographically. For example, there are sections on “online influence and election interference,” “transnational organized crime,” and “terrorism.” The section that assesses the threat posed by terrorism is illustrated with a color-coded map that indicates where al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State were active “as of 2018.”2 The map portrays Algeria as one of the countries in which both al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State are active despite Algeria never actually being mentioned by name in the Threat Assessment.
ODNI’s map notwithstanding, 2018 was the first year in more than two decades that Algeria did not suffer a single terrorist bombing.3 Al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) may be growing and becoming more active elsewhere in the Sahel, but it is struggling in Algeria and has been for some time. A series of AQIM communiqués over the last 30 months seems to suggest that the group is pleading for relevancy in Algeria. It can be argued that a dozen years after its foundation, AQIM is a shadow of its former self within Algeria’s borders. The regional group’s assets are dedicated elsewhere like Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, and Niger, which have recently provided more fertile ground for jihadi activity and where the likelihood of success is higher. It is no longer a viable violent extremist organization in Algeria.
There was once a time when al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb was a deadly menace in Algeria. From the December 2006 attack on a bus carrying expatriate oil sector workers outside of Algiers4 that won it Usama bin Ladin’s approval to use the al-Qa`ida name in the first place,5 to the 2007 attacks in Batna in advance of a visit by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika on a coast guard base in Dellys that killed 57 people6 and on a U.N. building in Algiers and the constitutional court that killed dozens more,7 AQIM demonstrated its lethality.
However, by 2010, that began to change. The pace of AQIM’s attacks in Algeria began to diminish. In part, this was possibly due to the opening of other areas of operation for AQIM, particularly in northern Mali.8 In part, it was due to the healing of political schisms in the Algerian security services that had resulted in disagreements about law enforcement and security priorities and incoherent counterterrorism policies from 1999 to 2010.9 By 2011, AQIM, like other jihadi organizations, was struggling to determine how the events of the Arab Spring would impact it and what role it would have in North Africa’s new political order.10 AQIM in Algeria sheltered in place, primarily a passive observer of the unrest unfolding around it. And it has remained largely so ever since. Despite frequent communiqués urging action, the last significant AQIM attack in Algeria was at the Krechba gas facility at In Salah in March 2016.a
In recent years, AQIM’s area of operations in Algeria has shrunk considerably and the group is constrained to areas south of Tizi Ouzou in the Kabylie region and possibly the Aurès Mountains in the east of the country. The areas’ geography poses significant counterterrorism problems. Because of the forested terrain, surveillance and the use of helicopter gunships and artillery is difficult. In addition, the steep slopes prevent the use of armored vehicles. Lastly, the region’s ravines and gullies mean that ground patrols are vulnerable to ambush.11 In fact, Algerian security services are well aware of the challenges of penetrating the mountains of Kabyle: Algerian fighters took refuge there from French during the Algerian war of independence.12
This is not to say that Algeria is now free of the threat of terrorism. There has been a smattering of Islamic State attacks, beginning with the September 2014 murder of a French tourist on Tikdja Mountain in southern Tizi Ouzou and culminating with a handful of larger attacks throughout 2017, including an April 2017 attempted bombing in Constantine, a June 2017 attack on a military patrol near Blida,13 and an August 2017 suicide bombing targeting a police station in Tiaret. There is no indication that these attacks were directed by the Islamic State, suggesting that they were instead inspired by the group.
Nonetheless, there was not a single terrorist bombing anywhere in Algeria in 2018, marking the country’s first year without a bombing in more than two decades.14 In fact, the last terrorist bombing was the aforementioned Islamic State attack in Tiaret in August 2017.15 This trend has continued in the first two months of 2019. This is a remarkable achievement. And it is in contrast to terrorist activity immediately to the east and to the west of Algeria. In Tunisia, the Islamic State-affiliated Jund al-Khilafa continues to carry out periodic attacks, including the beheading of a local as recently as February 2019 near Mt. Mghilla.16 To the west in Morocco, two tourists were murdered in December 2018 in what has been reported as an Islamic State-inspired attack.b As for Algeria, though, AQIM has not undertaken an attack there in three years.
Why Has Terrorism Declined in Algeria?
It is difficult to isolate any one single cause for AQIM’s demise in Algeria, and it is equally hard to determine which of the demise’s causes was most prominent. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Algeria’s security services’ reinvigorated counterterrorism measures have played a significant role. Algerians’ own personal experiences with the brutality and ravages of terrorism during the 1990s civil war (and ultimately its ineffectiveness as a vehicle for effectuating political change) has worked to limit AQIM’s appeal in Algeria. Lastly, the emergence of the Islamic State as an alternative to AQIM may have siphoned off AQIM’s pool of potential recruits.
Security Services’ Counterterrorism Measures
The simplest explanation for AQIM’s ineffectiveness in Algeria is that Algerian security services are dialed in to the threat and have honed their approach to countering it. According to the Algerian Ministry of Defense, Algerian security services “eliminated” more than 500 terrorists during the period from 2015 to 2018.17
In January 2019, the Algerian Ministry of Defense published National Popular Army (ANP) statistics for the year 2018 in the ministry’s monthly journal, El Djeich. The statistics show a robust and effective counterterrorism approach: 32 terrorists killed; 25 terrorists arrested; 132 terrorists surrendered; 170 support elements disrupted; and 22 members of terrorists’ families identified.18 In addition, the army seized more than 1,000 weapons of different types (assault rifles, mortars, grenades, IEDs, etc.) as well as other materiel (including 11 drones and seven GPSs.)19
Along at least some of its massive borders, Algeria has deployed long-range surveillance optronics with night-vision capabilities. In addition, Algeria has deployed air assets (primarily helicopters but also recently acquired drones) and ground troops to the border regions for surveillance, patrols, and incident response. Until recently, Algeria was also in negotiations with private defense manufacturers to acquire aerostat (stationary airborne) radar capabilities that would augment ground-based radar arrays already in place along the borders. For reasons that are unclear, aerostat discussions between the government and defense vendors have stalled but are likely to be revived in order to build out Algeria’s border surveillance capabilities.20
The cumulative effect of these measures is that it is difficult for terrorists to operate within Algeria, and it is difficult for terrorists outside Algeria to penetrate the country’s borders. Airborne surveillance has indicated that groups engaged in illicit activity (criminal organizations or violent non-state actors) have deliberately skirted Algeria’s borders when moving among Libya, Niger, and Mali.21 Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that Algeria is the largest country in Africa in terms of landmass, and its borders are long and remote, making them difficult to permanently police.
Memories of the Dark Decade
During terrorism’s worst years in Algeria from approximately 1993-1998, a period that Algerians refer to as “the Dark Decade,” more than 100,000 individuals were killed and thousands more traumatized by the ubiquitous violence. The Dark Decade undoubtedly continues to weigh heavily on everyday Algerians’ perception of jihadi groups of any stripe, including AQIM.
In fact, in 2017, AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel commented on the impact the Dark Decade had on AQIM and its efforts in Algeria, saying that “that particular phase … was very dark and painful in its own right, and also because of the negative imprints it left on the innocent victims of the crimes committed by the despotic regime or the deviant extremist remnants of [the Armed Islamic Group.]”22 Although Droukdel has claimed that AQIM’s predecessor, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), was established precisely to correct the wrongs committed by the Armed Islamic Group, he clearly acknowledged in his 2017 interview in Inspire magazine that the consequences of terrorism in Algeria in the 1990s had made it harder for AQIM to win supporters there.
The dynamics are the same in 2019. After two decades of fighting the state, Algeria’s political system is structurally unchanged from what it was in the 1990s, and the population is preparing for presidential elections in April 2019, the seventh such poll since terrorist organizations first began trying to topple Algeria’s political system. In short, it appears that very few Algerians believe in jihad as a means of changing their political circumstances.
The Islamic State as an Alternative
Another possible explanation for AQIM’s collapse in Algeria is that the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and then the appearance of Islamic State affiliates throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa depleted AQIM’s conventional recruiting pool. Faced with the Islamic State’s fury versus AQIM’s lackluster performance, aspiring jihadis in Algeria may have been drawn to join the former rather than the latter. If this is indeed the case, though, the Islamic State may have been drawing from an already small pool of potential recruits (reinforcing the aforementioned theory that enthusiasm for jihad is much lower in Algeria than in other North African countries.) Just months after its founding in 2014, the Islamic State chapter in Algeria reportedly had fewer than 30 fighters and that number has decreased since then to possibly fewer than 25.23 In addition, reportedly only between 7824-17025 Algerians left Algeria to fight alongside the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
AQIM Pleading the Case in Algeria
AQIM’s diminished capacity in Algeria does not mean, however, that the group is abandoning operations in Algeria or that it has left Algeria to look for lower-hanging fruit. To the contrary, AQIM has issued a series of communiqués over the last two and a half years urging members, followers, and sympathizers not to quit the Algerian fight and not to give up the Algerian cause.
In its communiqué claiming the March 2016 Krechba attack, AQIM said that it had undertaken the attack to prevent Algerians’ natural-resource wealth from being pilfered by foreign companies, and it tried to make the case that it was fighting for Algeria and Algerians’ interests.26
Nine months later, in January 2017, AQIM’s Droukdel again implored Algerians to fight the state.27 However, by the summer of that year, Droukdel had seemingly become desperate. In the summer 2017 issue of al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula’s magazine Inspire, Droukdel lamented jihad’s status in Algeria:
“…the Algerian front, which has been bogged down by a long-drawn war … suffers from a rarity – and at times almost complete absence – of those willing to support and assist, whether internally or externally. So this has had its impact (in Algeria) …”28
But while Droukdel may have been dispirited by jihad’s prospects in Algeria, his second-in-command and head of the organization’s Council of Dignitaries, Sheikh Abou Ubaidah Youcef Anabi, soldiered on. On October 30, 2018, Anabi urged Algerians to resist the state because it itself was resisting Islam in banning the niqab head covering from public schools.
On January 21, 2019, Anabi again called on Algerians to resist the Algerian state. In his communiqué, he underscored the need for AQIM not to give up on the Algerian front, beseeching Algerians to desert from the Algerian military and not to pay their taxes. Anabi’s comments also echoed AQIM’s statement issued after the 2016 Krechba attack that claimed the country’s natural-resource revenue was being mismanaged.29 In 2019, Anabi returned to this grievance, saying that under proper ‘Islamic’ governance, natural-resource revenue would be divided equitably among the believers.30
A month later, on February 18, 2019, al-Andalous, AQIM’s media arm, issued another communiqué, this time weighing in on the Algerian Ministry of Education’s decision to prohibit prayer in Algerian public schools.31 AQIM presented itself as the advocate for the “40 million Algerians who believe in Islam.”32
Why Does Algeria Preoccupy AQIM?
A critical question then is why AQIM is seemingly so preoccupied with Algeria if it has not been very effective there in recent years. The question is all the more puzzling because AQIM, under the umbrella of Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM), is meeting such success beyond Algeria’s southern borders.33 It would seem that Algeria is out of reach, so why does AQIM keep striving for it?
One possible explanation is that Algeria was the birthplace of both national jihad in the Maghreb and the transnational jihad associated first with al-Qa`ida and then later the Islamic State. Algeria is a central part of AQIM’s origins story, and for AQIM to forsake jihad in Algeria means acknowledging that it has been defeated from whence it came. In addition, jihadi groups are at their very core nostalgic, pining for a time that they imagine to once have been: the very notion of salafi jihad is to return to the past, or to recreate the past in the present. Arguably, AQIM is nostalgic for Algeria, for when the group was predominantly Arab, for when the group operated in its members’ homeland, for when the group was vibrant and feared.
The evolution of jihad in Algeria has been well-documented over the last three decades: the armed faction of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) known as the Army of Islamic Salvation (AIS) evolved into the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which in turn spawned the GSPC. The GSPC had to contend with an exhausted population, a lost sense of mission, and a program of national reconciliation that depleted its ranks, including its top leader Hassan Hattab.34 Enter Algerian native Abdelmalek Droukdel, the GSPC’s new leader, looking to breathe new life into an atrophied organization, which he did by transforming the group’s mission from solely Algerian to global salafi jihadi and rebranding the organization as al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb. In fact, in his Inspire interview, Droukdel himself recounts the evolution of jihad in Algeria, emphasizing its “Algerianess” from its origins.35
However, even as AQIM’s operations expanded beyond Algeria and its activities in Mali and Niger outpaced those in Algeria itself, AQIM core leadership, including Droukdel, remained in Algeria (from where he is presumably still posting communiqués36), never abandoning the group’s homeland even in spite of its new commitment to global jihad.37 Were the group to now abandon Algeria and retreat from the territory entirely, that would be tantamount to admitting that it has lost and that the Algerian state, which it fought against for at least the last 12 years as AQIM—and 21 years including its activities under the GSPC banner—has won. Even though by most measures AQIM has already lost in Algeria, it is loath to admit it, hence its preoccupation with the country despite its ineffectiveness there.
Even after AQIM began to expand outside of Algeria, its core leadership remained Algerian. The most famous of which was, of course, Mokhtar Belmokhtar who was initially known for running a lucrative kidnap-for-ransom racket and then became recognized internationally for the 2013 Tigantourine attack, which was only after he had quit AQIM. Another Algerian, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, fought alongside Belmokhtar. Abou Zeid was killed in 2013 during the early stages of Operation Serval, the French counterterrorism operation in Mali.38 Although there has been no confirmation from AQIM, it appears that Belmokhtar may have been killed in 2016.39 Another Algerian AQIM leader in the Sahara was Djamel Okacha (aka Yahya Abou el Hammam) who was reportedly killed by French forces in Mali in February 2019.40 Okacha had allegedly orchestrated the March 2016 attack on the Krechba Gas Facility at In Salah before shifting his focus to the Sahel.41 In addition to operational leadership, Algeria figured prominently in the group’s media outreach, which until his death in January 2018 was led by the Algerian Adel Seghiri (aka Abou Rouaha el Qassantini).42
AQIM arguably no longer operates as a group capable of carrying out terrorist attacks in Algeria, with the bulk of its activities taking place instead in the Sahel. In addition, the bulk of its leadership is no longer of Algerian origin. In March 2017, the group joined forces with two Malian jihadi groups, Ansar al-Din and the Masina Liberation Front, and formed the Jama‘at Nasr al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (The Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims), which is led by the Malian Iyad Ag Ghali.43 The head of the Masina Liberation Front, another JNIM member, Amadou Kouffa, is also Malian. The head of another AQIM battalion in Mali, Almansour Ag Kassam, was also Malian.44 It remains deadly, but not to the extent that it once was. It remains feared, but largely by local populations in remote areas. And it does attract some attention internationally, but not nearly as much as it used to. On the other hand, JNIM, the organization under which AQIM now operates in the Sahel is a deadly group, but its most lethal activities are carried out by other JNIM members, like the Masina Liberation Front.45 It is possible that the group’s remaining Algerian leadership (Droukdel and Anabi) holds out hope that a return to the Algerian front would restore it to its former glories.
Another possible reason for AQIM’s Algerian preoccupation is that Algeria is the ‘biggest kid in the schoolyard.’ As mentioned, Algeria is the largest country in Africa in terms of landmass. It is remarkably stable (despite political circumstances that have been uncertain for several years). And it has an enormous, well-equipped military. All of this is in contrast to Algeria’s neighbors, which are smaller, less stable, and not as well equipped. The adage is that the fastest way to make a name for oneself is to pick a fight with the biggest kid in the school yard. The strategy’s guile is that one does not even have to win the fight; just picking it in the first place may be enough to cement standing. For example, AQIM may be able to undertake attacks in Mali, the Ivory Coast, and Burkina Faso, but attacking them does not boost AQIM’s reputation. Were AQIM to return to Algeria and be able to carry out a significant attack, however, its reputation as a force to be reckoned with would be restored.
Results from the last year alone show that Algeria has made significant counterterrorism progress in the last decade. To be sure, this does not diminish the tragedy of outlier attacks that have occurred in the past and could potentially occur again. Nonetheless, it appears that even though Algeria remains a desirable target for AQIM, robust counterterrorism measures in conjunction with an unpersuaded population and correspondingly small pool of potential recruits prevents AQIM from transforming its memories and desires into action. The fact that Islamists of any stripe—jihadi or otherwise—have been conspicuously absent from the enormous demonstrations that have taken place in Algeria in February and March 2019, in conjunction with the complete absence of any Islamist rhetoric supporting the demonstrations, suggests that Algeria may be moving into a post-jihad phase.
On March 10, 2019, al-Andalous Media, disseminated a tape of Anabi again trying to insert AQIM into Algerian events by encouraging demonstrators in Algiers and other cities not to give up and to cause the Algerian government to fall in order to allow for the implementation of Islamic governance.46 But Anabi’s encouragement seems to have fallen on deaf ears, and the demonstrations remained free of Islamist or jihadi discourse. If, of course, Algeria’s political transition to a new presidency does not go smoothly, it could open the door to a potential terrorist revival, but any attacks would be unlikely to represent a structural change in favor of terrorism’s reemergence in the country. CTC
Geoff D. Porter is the president of North Africa Risk Consulting Inc. and a non-resident fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Follow @geoffdporter
[a] It is important to note that the catastrophic 2013 Tigantourine Gas Plant attack at In Amenas was not carried out by AQIM, but instead was orchestrated by a terrorist who had recently broken with AQIM and was apparently determined to demonstrate his new organization’s mettle. It is also important to note that the attack did not originate from inside of Algeria but exploited the deteriorated circumstances in northern Niger and southwestern Libya to launch the attack into Algeria. Geoff D. Porter, “Terrorist Outbidding: The In Amenas Attack,” CTC Sentinel 8:5 (2015).
[b] Curiously, despite the Islamic State-inspired double murder, the ODNI Threat Assessment map did not indicate that the Islamic State was active in Morocco.
 Camille Tawil, Brothers in Arms: The Story of Al-Qa’ida and the Arab Jihadists (London: Saqi, 2010), p. 191.
 Author conversation, Ali Tounsi, then Director General of National Security in Algeria, October 2007.
 Ismain, “600 TERRORISTES ABATTUS EN 3 ANS : La défaite d’Aqmi en Algérie,” Réflexion, February 27, 2019.
 “Bilan des opérations 2018 : Résultats probants dans la lutte antiterroriste,” El Djeich 666 (January 2019): p. 20.
 Personal communication, security source in Algeria, February 2019.
 Author conversation, Defense Attaché, U.S. Embassy, Algiers, May 2015.
 “Inspire Interview: Sheikh Abu Mus’ab Abdul Wadood,” Inspire, Summer 2017, p. 39.
 Geoff D. Porter, “Terrorism in North Africa: An Examination of the Threat,” Testimony before the House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Counterterrorism & Intelligence, March 29, 2017.
 Ibid., p. 36.
 Wassim Nasr, “#Algérie ds un audio/compil. de 37:32 Ch. Abou Oubaïda al-Aanabi du Comité dirigeant #AQMI #AlQaeda appelle les Algériens au jihad en prenant ex la lutte anti-coloniale contre la #France “pr détruire l’héritage croisé… conservé l’identité en rejetant la classe dirigeante,” Twitter, January 22, 2019.
 Ismain, “Un groupe d’Al-Qaïda menace l’Algérie et la Tunisie,” Réflexion, February 19, 2019, p. 4.
 Farid Alliot, “Algérie : Hassan Hattab et la raison d’État,” Jeune Afrique, October 23, 2017.
 “Inspire Interview: Sheikh Abu Mus’ab Abdul Wadood,” p. 34.
 “France Between the Curse of Plundering Wealth and the Flame of Protests,” FDD’s Long War Journal, December 11, 2018.
 M Azedine, “Il est l’un des deux terroristes abattus près de Jijel Le chef de la propagande d’Aqmi ne sévira plus,” Le Soir d’Algerie, February 1, 2018.
 “Letter dated 15 January 2019 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999), 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) concerning Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities addressed to the President of the Security Council,” United Nations Security Council, January 15, 2019, p. 12.
 Wassim Nasr, “#Algérie ds un audio/compli. de 20 minutes le ch. Youssef al-Aanabi #AQMI #AlQaeda commente les manifestations & la mobilisation populaire contre le gouv. & nie « toute implication du groupe en cas d’accusation du gouv,” Twitter, March 10, 2019.