hostage crisis that began when terrorists seized a gas compound with foreign
(including U.S.) workers in southeastern Algeria on January 15, 2013,
highlights the challenges the United States faces in advancing and
protecting its interests in an 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 focus 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.
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. See also CRS Report R42664, Crisis in Mali; and
CRS Report RS20962, Western Sahara.
Date of Report: January 18, 2013
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