Algeria: The “dur” who came in from the cold

This piece is a guest post from Kal, the author of The Moor Next Door, a Maghreb-focused blog.

Last week the Algerian daily El Watan reported that Gen. Bachir Tartag had been appointed to head of the Directorate for Internal Security (DSI) within Algeria’s main intelligence service, the Department of Intelligence and Security (Département de Renseignement et de la Sécurité, or DRS). This development received an unusual amount of attention from the Algerian (and to a lesser extent) regional press. The appointment is important because the DSI is the core sub-department of Algeria’s intelligence services and is responsible for, among other things, the country’s campaign against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and counter-intelligence. The appointment is notable because Gen. Tartag, as media reports have noted, has a storied past during Algeria’s civil war with Islamist militants and held several important posts within the DRS during the 1990s — he is also believed to be close to Algeria’s spy chief Gen. Mohamed ‘Tewfik’ Mediene, and is associated with the military’s hardline camp (El Watan refers to him as “un dur parmi les durs” in English “a hardliner among hardliners.”[i] Media reports reviewed here variously assert Gen. Tartag is being emplaced as a possible successor to the ageing Gen. Mediene, a return to a more hardline policy on the Islamist opposition, a response to the regional instability in light of the Arab Spring, as well as other possibilities. These press accounts are summarised and analysed below. Because so little can be known about the workings of Algeria’s military and intelligence command this post does not come down in favour of any particular theory or view of Gen. Tartag’s appointment but attempts to tease out what kind of audience the publicity around the move points toward and what trends it might relate to in Algeria’s political scene.

El Watan published a detailed article on 26 December discussing various reasons for Gen. Bachir Tartag’s (a.k.a., ‘Athman’; he also goes by ‘le Bombardier’) appointment to the top post in the DSI (most Englishlanguage and many international French language ports on this development cite the El Watan article). The official reason for previous counter-intelligence chief Gen. Abdelkader Kherfi’s (a.k.a., ‘Gen. Ahmed’; used interchangeably with ‘Kherfi’ in the article) departure is ill health, and reports say he was scheduled for a trip abroad for a major surgery this week (though it also notes some of its sources did not confirm this; Gen. Kherfi is over sixty years old), while Kalima DZ’s report says ‘contrary to some reports’ Gen. Kerfi was not removed for corruption but for ‘reasons of strategic change.’ El Watan writes he was dismissed as well for ‘the many setbacks suffered by the security services in the fight against AQIM.’ Maghreb Intelligence writes Gen. Tartag had been considered for a top Army post after his retirement in 2007 but that this was blocked by the ‘presidential clan’ because ‘President [Abdelaziz] Bouteflika did not want the military to have a shady reputation.’ It then goes on to mention the DRS chief Mediene’s ‘regular’ visits to the United States, ‘not for NBA games, which he loves, but for medical treatment’ and speculating Gen. Tartag’s appointment is a move to put in place a successor for the ageing and reportedly ill Mediene (‘who knows the countdown for him has begun’; ‘according to a former high ranking Algerian, he wants to lock in his successor’). It cites a ‘French diplomat in Paris’ as saying ‘he who controls the DSI controls the DRS and he thus controls Algeria.’ Le Matin’s 26 December report argues the appointment is ‘synonymous with a strategic shift in the strata of power.’ It shares El Watan’s view that Gen. Kherfi was removed due to recent setbacks, noting the kidnapping of European aid workers on 23 October in the Polisario-run Rabouni camp, located in Algeria, in particular as a motivation. It shares Maghreb intelligence’s backstory about Gen. Mediene wanting to appoint Gen. Tartag in 2007 but being blocked by the president (it actually says ‘Gen. Mhenna Djebbar or Athmane Tartag’; Gen. Djebbar heads the DRS’s Directorate for Central Security, or DCSA). It places Gen. Tartag in a group of ranking DRS officers it calls ‘“the Four Musketeers,” who make up the operational command of the DRS and have remained loyal to General Toufik Mediene.’ It says the head of external security (Directorate for Documentation and External Security, or DDSE) Gen. Rachid Lalali’s ‘position appears ambiguous with respect to this’ appointment, going on to say the security situation in the Sahel ‘has become a matter of internal security which will be handled by Gen. Tartag.’

El watan describes Gen. Kherfi’s background as ‘academic’ as compared to Gen. Tartag’s presentation as ‘a practical man with long experience in the fight against terrorism.’ Gen. Tartag was the interim head of DSI after the death of Gen. Smain Lamari in 2007, before Gen. Kherfi took over. Maghreb Intelligence reminds its readers of Gen. Tartag’s reputation during the Civil War for brutality and alleged excesses, including extrajudicial killings and torture and so on (saying he was known then ‘for his dubious methods and immoderate taste for violence’). Le Matin’s 23 December report puts the appointment in terms of a struggle between the Bouteflika and Mediene clans as to how to proceed with the reform process in Algeria, predicting an ‘Islamist-nationalist coalition’ after next spring’s elections and the DRS’s adaptation to the changing climate. Le Matin also mentions Gen. Tartag as having a reputation among his peers as ‘a notorious case’ or ‘a butcher who used to be close to the Janvieristes’ (the generals who organised the 1991-1992 coup d’etat). Until now he had been retired, and the report says he has close relations with Gen. Mhenna Djebbar of the DCSA and Gen. Rachid Lalali of the DDSE  and says the appointment is less to do with terrorism than ‘laying golden goose eggs.’ Kalima DZ writes about the regime wanting to reinforce itself by reinforcing the DRS in case of a scenario where there is major upheaval and the regular Army sides with an opposition trend or where desertions and defections undermine regime cohesion. The regime is concerned the regular army (still a conscript force) could end up as in Syria, where regular soldiers have defected in large numbers or as inTunisia, where the regular military refused to execute orders, turning against the deep state.  The appointment of a hardliner like Gen. Tartag thus allows the regime to ‘reinforce the safe side, i.e., the DRS and better control the state apparatus and society.’ Kalima DZ’s report also notes, like El Watan’s, notes Gen. Kherfi ‘did not know how to, or could not, prevent the proliferation of riots, strikes, rallies and the media and the return to the field of radical opposition’. It says Gen. Tartag’s appointment ‘clearly announces the return to repression and barbouzardes  methods’ (or ‘dirty work’ by the intelligence services). It anticipates Gen. Tartag will respond more harshly and more speedily to events like the 2010-2011 winter riots  than his predecessor, that while elsewhere ‘wise men’ are trying to push reform and change, ‘the Algerian generals have decided to raise a dam against the tide of history.’

The El Watan article presents his appointment as an effort by the President and intelligence head Mediene to ‘eradicate the last foci of [AQIM] that still exist in the north of the country and to prevent the possible proliferation of terrorism to the borders with Libya, Niger and Mali, particularly  following the important geopolitical upheaval coming out of North Africa.’ It then goes on to point to the flow of weapons out of Libya into the hands of ‘jihadists’ after the war and cites army sources as saying the military border patrols ‘regularly intercepts shipments of arms from Libya and Mali.’ Finally, it notes that Gen. Tartag’s appointment, in light of the rise of Islamist-led governments in Tunisia, Libya and Morocco, would better prepare Algeria to defend itself in case the religious elements among Algeria’s neighbors try ‘to lend a hand to their “brothers” in Algeria and complete the circle of the Arab Spring.’ It then says the DSI is the ‘backbone’ of the DRS and handles efforts against espionage, internal subversion and ‘is considered the main contact for foreign secret services on issues related to terrorism.’

What this all means

The politics of the Algerian military and DRS are opaque and obscure to outsiders (and Algerians, for that matter), and analysis of their machinations is as good as speculation due to the lack of hard information. The press accounts mentioned above refer to Gen. Tartag’s reputation from the civil war as a hardliner as a signal of the regime’s — or at least the deep state’s — intention to adopt a firm stance in a time of regional instability and internal uncertainty, both in terms of succession and the direction of politics generally. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is believed to be ill (possibly suffering from cancer) while DRS-chief Gen. Mohamed Mediene, who is widely regarded as the next most powerful person in the country, also lacks a widely recognized protégé. Reports characterising Gen. Tartag as being promoted as a possible successor to the leadership of Gen. Mediene’s camp within the regime point to rumors of Gen. Mediene also suffering from an unnamed illness. Rumors that the government’s reform program, announced in the early spring, has taken longer than anticipated over the last year point to Bouteflika’s deteriorating health as a causal factor; other rumours claimed, as in some of the reports mentioned above, that Gen. Mediene was suffering from an unknown illness, sometimes mentioning a heart attack and trip abroad for treatment (these are discussed less frequently than rumours about President Bouteflika’s health and are much more difficult to assess let alone verify). Both men are in their seventies. Gen. Tartag is younger than Gen. Mediene and Gen. Kherfi, who is also said to suffer from an unnamed illness, as mentioned in the El Watan report. The notion he has been promoted to extend the legacy of the military hardline whose political and cultural legacy goes back to the January 1992 experience does appear reasonable in this context.

The appointment of Tartag points to a number of trends in Algeria’s internal and regional position. 2011 saw an uptick in the number of terrorist incidents in Algeria, including a prominent attack on the Académie militaire inter-armes at Chercell (AMIA-Cherchell) in August and the October kidnappings at Tindouf. Furthermore, the war in Libya has produced an increased level of smuggling and trafficking activity on the border, which, the Algerians claim, has been to the benefit of AQIM activities in northern Algeria. At a formal level Gen. Tartag’s return signals the return of one of Algeria’s more notorious hardliners, part of a group known as the eradicateurs, who ran the offensive against the Islamist armed groups and militias during the 1990s. This goes with the refrain in several Algerian reports that Gen. Tartag is seen to be tasked with in essence cleaning up the situation as what where previously external problems have become increasingly internal ones. A more aggressive and hardline internal security disposition thus goes along with evidence of a more assertive policy on the frontiers. In the last month Algeria has stepped up its counter-terrorism cooperation with border states, sending trainers and advisors to Mauritania and Mali and announcing joint patrols with Niger. Its previous posture was generally restricted to internal counter-terror efforts and indirect support to neighbouring countries who tend to rely on foreign (especially European and American) security and military cooperation. The new appointment thus looks like a component of this wider shift.

Algeria’s internal politics are also a point of some uncertainty. Though Algeria has not seen a full on protest movement aimed at overthrowing its regime, it has faced many strikes and organised protests by unions and students. Algeria’s core political and military leadership is ageing and the government has no formal succession posture as yet. The mention of the regime  preparing itself for the possibility of unrest or for increased political activity by Algerian Islamists in the lead up to the May 2012 parliamentary election point to a hardening of views in the government. In some reports the narrative about Algeria being encircled by the Arab Spring and or, as it was put in En-Nahar recently ‘surrounded by Islamists to the east and terrorists to the south’, appears to have been received from government or military sources. Among the DSI’s responsibilities are, according to the accounts of Algerian military defectors including Samraoui and Abdelkader Tigha, monitoring domestic dissent and political subversion as well as fighting terrorism. This suggests the move may also be intended to send a message to Algeria’s internal political opposition.

That Gen. Tartag’s appointment has been covered as heavily as it has in over the last week itself indicates the government hopes to project a message to reassure hardliners within the military and their sympathisers as the government announces its limited reform platform. El Watan’s article on the story relies heavily on military and (anonymous) official sources and its concluding paragraphs appear to point designed to highlight Gen. Tartag’s reputation for firmness and the necessity for such qualities in the context of rising Islamist power and deteriorating security.   In the last two months leaders of Algeria’s legal Islamist parties have announced their intention to run on reformist platforms in Algeria’s spring 2012 parliamentary election and leaders of the banned Islamist Salvation Front (FIS) have issued statements on their intention to pressure the government to recognise their party through international bodies such as the United Nations. This has caused some secular and pro-military Algerians to worry about the direction of the country’s politics, as pointed out by Andrew Lebovich in his study of AQIM attacks in northern Algeria in August. The reference in the El Watan piece to Islamist parties in Libya, Morocco and Tunisia helping Algerian Islamist groups subvert the regime speaks to a fear among some in the political class anxious over perceived official accommodation for the cultural and social conservatives and Islamists in under Bouteflika. The relative publicity around Gen. Tartag’s appointment may be meant as a sign to such elite hardliners that the regime intends to control the Islamist trend and contain circumstances that might open space to the Islamist trend.

[i] Gen. Tartag’s background is especially notorious in the external opposition, mainly in Europe, where Army and DRS defectors have accused him of atrocities. In the early 1990s Tartag was in the DCSA and the Principal Centre for Military Investigation (CPMI), where former DRS Colonel and defector Col. Mohamed Samraoui has claimed he was one of ‘a very small number of DRS officials carefully selected well before the coup’ in 1991-1992 to deal with the infiltration and manipulation of Islamist groups and militias, including ‘fuelling these groups’ “natural” violence’ (Samraoui, Chronique des années de sang, Paris, 2003, pp.149). The CPMI’s main responsibility was monitoring members of the military. Samraoui, like some of the recent news reports, claims Tartag had been removed from service in 2001 so the army chiefs would be able to distance themselves involvement in alleged atrocities committed by subordinates (he also accuses him of running death squads). That he was allowed to serve as interim DSI head and his permanent appointment was vetoed by the president has been attributed to similar motivations. By press accounts Gen. Tartag has remained in the proximity of Gen. Mediene during his retirement.