There has been a set back in the Algerian counter-terror offensive, after five soldiers were killed today (14 February) in a bomb explosion in Tebessa, near the Tunisian border. A large-scale sweeping operation was launched after the incident, in an area that appears to be affected by the presence of militant groups capable of crossing the borders into Tunisia and Libya.
Meanwhile, the Algerian military continues to closely monitor the southern borders, in light of the insurgent movements reported there in the past few weeks, and the deteriorating security climate in Mali and Niger. In the deep south, two wanted AQIM insurgents surrendered to the army in Tamanrasset this week as security forces seized Kalashnikov machine guns. Sweeping operations in Batna, Medea, Bouira, Tipaza, Tebessa, Tamanrasset and M’Sila, allowed the discovery of 28 insurgent hideouts and eleven homemade bombs, and the seizure of several machine guns.
In the northwester border region of Tlemcen, a 13-member cell reported to be loyal to the Islamic State has been dismantled by the security forces in Tlemcen. The cell approached young Algerians, urging them to join IS in Syria and Libya. Security sources indicated that the suspects arranged trips to Turkey for would-be insurgents. A search is underway to locate other members. Moreover, in Bouira, six terrorism supporters were captured, and are now being questioned by the authorities.
The Tebessa attack proves that the terror threat at the Tunisian border is severe. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is being blamed for it, as it has become the most active group in this region. Large-scale army operations will be taking place along the Tunisian border, on the Algerian side, in the next few weeks. Despite the predominant position of al-Qaeda in Algeria, the dismantling of an IS cell in Tlemcen also proves that this insurgency organization still has organized support and recruitment groups active in the country. Although this cell was not involved in terrorism locally, it recruited Algerian nationals and arranged trips to the Middle East and Libya, where they would undergo military training, possibly to return to Algeria and form groups loyal to IS. The capture of 13 members of this cell will allow the authorities to gather intelligence on other networks in the country. Finally, the surrender of the AQIM members in Tamanrasset continues, which suggests that the amnesty program for Islamic militants is still being used, even when it comes to Algerian insurgents based abroad.
These security issues are taking place within a difficult socio-political climate. There is still uncertainty over the next presidential election, with neither President Bouteflika formalizing his candidacy, nor a consensus on another political figure to replace him as emerged yet. There appears to be a vacuum which is being prevented from being filled. To make matters worse, the Presidency has reportedly ordered sanctions against anyone supporting a still-undeclared candidacy of Abdelaziz Bouteflika in the 2019 presidential elections, in a move to discourage attempts to pressure the President into revealing his future plans. Only one year ahead of the elections, no clear contenders have emerged in case the outgoing president decides not to run. Given the social, political and economic issues affecting Algeria, this situation is fueling concern among the population. In the upcoming weeks, high-ranking officials who might be interested in running for president are likely to leave the government to focus on their campaign. Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia may be one of them.