In a report published by an Algerian blog on the success of Algeria counter-terrorist operation titled “Algeria toughens internal pursuit of jihadist terrorism” the report stated that the Algerian Ministry of National Defence puts the number of terrorists neutralised at 20 and 371 arrested. However, our attention was drawn to the claim by an Algerian-Born Terrorist Meraghni El-Hadj Ali, alias Akil, to have recently Contacted Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) In Nigeria, near the borders of Niger and Chad.
IMAGEN/MINISTERIO DE DEFENSA NACIONAL DE ARGELIA – Algerian Ministry of National Defence counter-terrorism operation
Algeria’s role in the security of the Maghreb and the Sahel was relegated to the background after the signing of the Algiers Agreements in 2015. Algeria’s mediation proved decisive in unblocking a ceasefire in neighbouring Mali between the weakened government in Bamako and the Coordination of Azawad Movements, an alliance of separatist groups that had no qualms about associating with the Islamist insurgency. But the rise of Daesh in Iraq and Syria and the subsequent large-scale resurgence of jihadist groups in the Sahel region caught the North African giant unawares.
Algeria, which shares a 3,000-kilometre border with Mauritania, Mali and Niger, all of which are to varying degrees affected by this threat, has been a direct witness to the erosion of the Sahel countries in recent years as a result of successive social, political and economic crises, which have contributed to the worrying security crisis. The strengthening of the jihadist insurgency has weakened states and, at the same time, destabilised their regional neighbours internally, which have seen an exponential growth of fundamentalist currents.
The North African country has a track record of success in combating Islamic fundamentalism. During the civil war that fractured Algeria in the 1990s, the National People’s Army managed to defeat several Islamist militias, including the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), the terrorist organisation that would later become al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), now based in Mali and active in the Sahel.
“Long hailed as a key actor for peace and stability in the region, Algeria has been notably much less engaged in the Sahel,” writes analyst Kamissa Camara in The Middle East Institute (MEI). “As a result, its visibility and influence as a key actor have gradually faded”.
But Algeria’s disengagement in its troubled ‘backyard’ does not coincide with its domestic counter-terrorism activities. The Ministry of National Defence issued a report at the beginning of the year, which gave figures on the fight against terrorism, smuggling and illegal emigration over the past year. According to the official figures, the National People’s Army neutralised around 20 terrorists in the various operations carried out in 2022, 11 more than the previous year.
“2022 was distinguished by great results in the fight against terrorism, smuggling, arms trafficking, drug trafficking and organised crime, through the neutralisation and arrest of a significant number of terrorists, the dismantling of several support networks and the destruction of a large number of bunkers and shelters used as hideouts by terrorist groups,” reads the communiqué from the ministry headed by General Saïd Chengriha, chief of staff and strongman of the army.
The Algerian armed forces also reportedly arrested 14 other terrorists in these operations. But the military activity did not stop there. According to the Ministry of National Defence, the military arrested 371 people accused of acting as “support elements for terrorist groups”, a large number for which the authorities do not provide further details.
Algerian television on Tuesday broadcast the confession and subsequent message of repentance of Meraghni El-Hadj Ali, alias Akil, an Algerian-born terrorist who joined Ahrar al-Sham, a coalition of Salafist units linked to Jabhat al-Nusra, the spearhead of the jihadist insurgency against the government of Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war.
El-Hadj, born in 1986 in El Oued, a province located in the east of the country, between the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert, near the border with Tunisia, had settled in Algiers after his experience in Syria to plan terrorist acts against “eminent personalities to get maximum media coverage” when he was caught by the authorities for his activities on the social network Facebook.
Akil, his face visibly haggard, admitted in his testimony to recent contacts with the so-called Islamic State in West Africa, better known as Boko Haram, which is active in north-eastern Nigeria, near the borders with Niger and Chad. The Algerian claimed to have pledged allegiance to the terrorist organisation’s leadership in a video in which he also detailed his plans to “strike oil fields in the south of the country and attack senior state officials”. Months later, he claims to be deeply remorseful.