On January 29, 2019, the United States' Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) published its Worldwide Threat Assessment. (1) The assessment addresses threats thematically and geographically. For example, there are sections on "online influence and election interference," "transnational organized crime," and "terrorism." The section that assesses the threat posed by terrorism is illustrated with a color-coded map that indicates where al-Qa 'ida and the Islamic State were active "as of 2018." (2) The map portrays Algeria as one of the countries in which both al-Qa 'ida and the Islamic State are active despite Algeria never actually being mentioned by name in the Threat Assessment.
ODNI's map notwithstanding, 2018 was the first year in more than two decades that Algeria did not suffer a single terrorist bombing. (3) Al-Qa 'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) may be growing and becoming more active elsewhere in the Sahel, but it is struggling in Algeria and has been for some time. A series of AQIM communiques over the last 30 months seems to suggest that the group is pleading for relevancy in Algeria. It can be argued that a dozen years after its foundation, AQIM is a shadow of its former self within Algeria's borders. The regional group's assets are dedicated elsewhere like Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, and Niger, which have recently provided more fertile ground for jihadi activity and where the likelihood of success is higher. It is no longer a viable violent extremist organization in Algeria.
There was once a time when al-Qa 'ida in the Islamic Maghreb was a deadly menace in Algeria. From the December 2006 attack on a bus carrying expatriate oil sector workers outside of Algiers (4) that won it Usama bin Ladin's approval to use the al-Qa 'ida name in the first place, (5) to the 2007 attacks in Batna in advance of a visit by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika on a coast guard base in Dellys that killed 57 people (6) and on a U.N. building in Algiers and the constitutional court that killed dozens more, (7) AQIM demonstrated its lethality.
However, by 2010, that began to change. The pace of AQIM's attacks in Algeria began to diminish. In part, this was possibly due to the opening of other areas of operation for AQIM, particularly in northern Mali. (8) In part, it was due to the healing of political schisms in the Algerian security services that had resulted in disagreements about law enforcement and security priorities and incoherent counterterrorism policies from 1999 to 2010. (9) By 2011, AQIM, like other jihadi organizations, was struggling to determine how the events of the Arab Spring would impact it and what role it would have in North Africa's new political order. (10) AQIM in Algeria sheltered in place, primarily a passive observer of the unrest unfolding around it. And it has remained largely so ever since. Despite frequent communiques urging action, the last significant AQIM attack in Algeria was at the Krechba gas facility at In Salah in March 20l6. (a)
In recent years, AQIM's area of operations in Algeria has shrunk considerably and the group is constrained to areas south of Tizi Ouzou in the Kabylie region and possibly the Aures Mountains in the east of the country. The areas' geography poses significant counterterrorism problems. Because of the forested terrain, surveillance and the use of helicopter gunships and artillery is difficult. In addition, the steep slopes prevent the use of armored vehicles. Lastly, the region's ravines and gullies mean that ground patrols are vulnerable to ambush. (11) In fact, Algerian security services are well aware of the challenges of penetrating the mountains of Kabyle: Algerian fighters took refuge there from French during the Algerian war of independence. (12)
This is not to say that Algeria is now free of the threat of terrorism. There has been a smattering of Islamic State attacks, beginning with the September 2014 murder of a French tourist on Tikdja Mountain in southern Tizi Ouzou and culminating with a handful of larger attacks throughout 2017, including an April 2017 attempted bombing in Constantine, a June 2017 attack on a military patrol near Blida, (13) and an August 2017 suicide bombing targeting a police station in Tiaret. There is no indication that these attacks were directed by the Islamic State, suggesting that they were instead inspired by the group.
Nonetheless, there was not a single terrorist bombing anywhere in Algeria in 2018, marking the country's first year without a bombing in more than two decades. (14) In fact, the last terrorist bombing was the aforementioned Islamic State attack in Tiaret in August 2017. (15) This trend has continued in the first two months of 2019. This is a remarkable achievement. And it is in contrast to terrorist activity immediately to the east and to the west of Algeria. In Tunisia, the Islamic State-affiliated Jund al-Khilafa continues to carry out periodic attacks, including the beheading of a local as recently as February 2019 near Mt. Mghilla. (16) To the west in Morocco, two tourists were murdered in December 2018 in what has been reported as an Islamic State-inspired attack. (b) As for Algeria, though, AQIM has not undertaken an attack there in three years.
Why Has Terrorism Declined in Algeria?
It is difficult to isolate any one single cause for AQIM's demise in Algeria, and it is equally hard to determine which of the demise's causes was most prominent. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Algeria's security services' reinvigorated counterterrorism measures have played a significant role. Algerians' own personal experiences with the brutality and ravages of terrorism during the 1990s civil war (and ultimately its ineffectiveness as a vehicle for effectuating political change) has worked to limit AQIM's appeal in Algeria. Lastly, the emergence of the...