Sunday, April 14, 2013

CRS Report on Algeria

CRS Report for Congress
Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress

Algeria: Current Issues

Alexis Arieff
Analyst in African Affairs
January 18, 2013

Congressional Research Service
Algeria: Current Issues
Congressional Research Service
The hostage crisis that began when terrorists seized a gas compound with foreign (including U.S.)
workers in southeastern Algeria on January 16, 2013, highlights the challenges the United States
faces in advancing and protecting its interests inan increasingly volatile region. It may also point
to the potential limits of the U.S.-Algerian security relationship. The terrorist group that seized
the hostages is ostensibly a breakaway faction of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a
regional network and U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization with roots in Algeria’s
1990s civil conflict. AQIM’s leadership appears to be primarily based in Algeria and across the
southern border in Mali, although the group’s internal cohesion and ultimate aims have often
been debated. AQIM attacks have ranged from bombings in Algeria to kidnappings (usually
small-scale and for ransom) across the region. It is also involved in an insurgency in northern
Mali that is the target of French military operations launched on January 11, 2013.

As a regional economic and military power with past experience in combating armed extremists,
Algeria has attempted to lead a regional approach to counterterrorism in North-West Africa.
These efforts have had mixed results, as have long-term U.S. capacity-building programs focused
on Algeria’s poorer West African neighbors. At the same time, any U.S. unilateral action in
response to regional security threats could present significant risks and opportunity costs.
U.S.-Algerian ties have grown over the past decade as the United States has increasingly come to
view Algeria as a key partner in countering Al Qaeda-linked groups in North and West Africa.
Algeria is also a significant source of petroleum for the United States and of natural gas for
Europe, and therefore a destination for U.S. investment. Congress appropriates and oversees
small amounts of bilateral development assistance and receives notification of arms sales, and
Algerian security forces benefit from U.S. cooperation programs.

Algeria’s political system is dominated by a strong presidency and security apparatus. The
country’s macroeconomic situation is stable due to high global oil and gas prices, which have
allowed Algeria to amass large foreign reserves. Yet Algeria’s wealth has not necessarily trickled
down, and the pressures of unemployment, high food prices, and housing shortages weigh on
many families. Public unrest over political and economic grievances has at times been evident,
though other factors appear to have dampened enthusiasm for dramatic political change. It is
unclear whether reforms initiated in 2011 amid the “Arab Spring” have the potential to alter the
deeper power dynamics within the opaque politico-military elite networks that Algerians refer to as 
Le Pouvoir (the powers-that-be).

Algeria’s foreign policy has often conflicted with that of the United States. Strains in ties with
neighboring Morocco continue, due to the unresolved status of the Western Sahara and a rivalry
for regional influence, although signs of a thaw emerged in 2011. Relations with former colonial
power France remain complex and volatile. The legacy of Algeria’s anti-colonial struggle
contributes to Algerian leaders’ desire to prevent direct foreign intervention, their residual
skepticism of French and NATO intentions, and Algeria’s positions on regional affairs, including
a non-interventionist stance toward the uprising in Syria and an ambivalent approach to external
military intervention in Mali.

No comments: