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Friday, February 1, 2013

Algeria: Current Issues

Alexis Arieff
Analyst in African Affairs

The 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. 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. See also CRS Report R42664, Crisis in Mali; and CRS Report RS20962, Western Sahara.

Date of Report: January 18, 2013
Number of Pages: 20
Order Number: RS21532
Price: $29.95

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