This essay is part of the Middle East-Asia Project (MAP) series on “'Civilianizing' the State in the Middle East and Asia Pacific Regions.” The series explores the past and ongoing processes of Security Sector Reform (SSR) in Asia-Pacific countries and examines the steps already taken and still needed in the MENA region. Read More …

After achieving independence in 1962, Algeria enjoyed immense prestige — second only to Vietnam in the third-worldist historiography of sacrifice. Algeria had frustrated one of the world’s major military powers. The film the Battle of Algiers defines, for many, the little they know about that struggle. Those fighting for Algeria’s independence invented modern guerrilla warfare. In fact, the word “asymmetrical,” so fashionable in military and security jargon today, acquired its meaning in the streets of the old city of Algiers in 1956.

Today, Algeria today possesses a number of assets that endow it with the potential to be a regional power and to serve as an anchor of stability. It is the largest country in the Arab world, Africa and the Mediterranean basin. It has the third-largest oil reserves in Africa, and the world’s tenth-largest gas reserves. It has a strong, modern military. It is a demographic power, with a population exceeding 40 million.[1] Furthermore, Algeria has been spared the widespread civil unrest and violent upheaval that has plagued much of the Middle East and North Africa since the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011.

After Algerian security forces succeeded in crushing the decade-long Islamist insurgency and in the context of rising regional instability, American and European officials came to regard Algeria as being a potentially valuable security partner in the Maghreb and the Sahel. However, Algeria’s military doctrine must be updated for this partnership to truly flourish — and for Algeria itself to thrive.

Historical Context Matters

Since achieving sovereignty, Algeria’s foreign and security policy has been more interventionist than its successive leaders have acknowledged and less antagonistic toward the West than perhaps is fully understood. In fact, Algeria is still perceived in Europe and the United States as having been a Soviet Union ally and a champion of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) at a time when (in the 1960s and 1970s) the latter was considered a terrorist organization in the West. To be sure, Algeria’s position regarding the future of the Spanish colony of Western Sahara brought it into open conflict with Morocco, a staunch ally of Western interests in Africa. And taking hard-line positions in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and calling for a “New World Order” likewise set Algeria at odds with the West.

Yet, to regard Algeria’s relations with the West during the Cold War as unflinchingly adversarial would be a gross mischaracterization. After all, Algeria developed its key oil and gas industries with loans from Western governments and banks, and exported all its hydrocarbons to Europe and America. Algeria then, and since, has scrupulously honored its gas contracts with Western customers — unlike Russia. At times, Algeria played a critical role in defusing crises involving Western interests in the Middle East, such as helping gain the release of U.S. hostages held in Tehran in 1979-81, which was a diplomatic feat of the first order.

Algeria was never a Russian ally. In 1960, Nikita Khrushchev explained to General Charles de Gaulle that he favored Algeria remaining in the French sphere of influence after independence rather than fall into the American one. As the FLN and its more powerful twin, the Armée de Libération Nationale (ALN) sought weapons and diplomatic support in their fight against France after 1954, they did not find much solace in the U.S.S.R. Moscow did not recognize the Gouvernement Provisoire de la République Algérienne (GPRA) until October 1960, two years after its establishment. Furthermore, the only Soviet weapons ever delivered to the ALN were four helicopters, in spare pieces, to an Algerian-run camp ALN in western Morocco in March 1962. At that time, Algeria was still legally part of France (though not a colony) and therefore of NATO.

The KGB, for its part, had a different view of the matter. It trained many officers of the Le ministère de l’Armement et des Liaisons générales (MALG), the embryonic military security unit within the ALN which was in charge of arms procurement as well as intelligence and internal security. The first group of Algerian officers trained by the KGB, known as Le Tapis Rouge dates from 1960. Some are still active.[2] Moreover, the spirit of the KGB still haunts the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS). The Securite Militaire (SM) — the forerunner of the DRS) — and the KGB cooperated closely. But these links never translated into an alliance. From 1967 through most of the subsequent decade, Moscow tried but failed to convince Algeria to let it use the immense naval base at Mers el Kebir in western Algeria and station Soviet troops on its territory.[3]

After Colonel Houari Boumedienne ousted Ben Bella in 1965, Algeria became more markedly nonaligned but at the same time played a very active role in support of national liberation movements. The provision of assistance to the African National Congress (ANC) and the training of guerrilla fighters in their struggles against Portugal in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau became a hallmark of the country’s foreign policy.[4] Algeria also provided strong support to the PLO as well as considerable help to the Polisario Front.[5] Meanwhile, relations with neighboring Morocco remained glacial until a five-year thaw ensued in the mid-1980s. Initiated by President Chadli Bendjedid, the rapprochement led to the opening of the Algeria-Morocco border and construction of the Maghreb-Europe gas pipeline, which carries Algerian gas to Spain and Portugal. The pipeline project was strongly supported by U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who warned the members of the European Economic Community (later, the European Union, or E.U.) against overdependence on Russian gas supplies — though to little avail.[6] The Europeans argued that other sources, such as Algeria, were no more reliable than Soviet gas.[7]

Meanwhile, however, relations with the United States developed apace, as American companies played a key role, along with their British and later Japanese counterparts, in developing the country’s oil and gas resources. The first ever commercial gas liquefaction plant in the world was built by Shell in Arzew and completed in 1964, with the first cargo of liquefied natural gas (LNG) going to Canvey Island in the Thames estuary in October 1964.[8] Although the hydrocarbons and other sectors of the country’s ambitious development effort were funded from domestic savings, Western banks and large Exim- or Coface-backed guarantees played an important role. The bulk of Algeria’s foreign trade — exports of hydrocarbons and imports of machines and foodstuffs — was conducted with Western nations, where most of the country’s postgraduate students went to study.

The 1970s and 1980s were the halcyon days of Algerian diplomacy. In 1974, Algeria helped oust the apartheid regime of South Africa from the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). The next year, Algeria was instrumental in the PLO obtaining UNGA observer status and succeeded in brokering an agreement between Iran and Iraq to settle their border disputes. As previously mentioned, Algeria successfully negotiated the release of American diplomats held as hostages in Tehran.

Indeed, Algeria has always sought to remain neutral in regional conflicts and, when possible, to serve as an intermediary. This explains Algeria’s refusal, for example, to break off relations with Pyongyang following North Korea’s nuclear test in September 2016, despite strong pressure to do so from the United States and South Korea.[9]

The Armée Nationale Populaire (ANP) sought to diversify its weapons purchases. By the late 1980s, after years of negotiations with France, Russia and the United States, the ANP opted to buy American air defense equipment and radar systems.[10] During the civil war in the 1990s, pitting Islamists against the regime, the West imposed an arms embargo against Algeria.[11] The embargo stimulated the flow of contraband, with medium-sized weapons originating from the Balkans smuggled into the country through Italy by the Mafia.[12]

Since then, Algeria’s military spending has ballooned, as the country has embarked on a major effort to upgrade its defense capabilities. In 2007, Algeria converted its $7 billion debt with Russia into an arms purchase of similar value.[13] Algeria has thus become the second-leading customer for Russia weapons (after India) and the largest overall purchaser of weapons on the continent.[14] However, these massive arms purchases are problematic for several reasons. First, the transactions have been conducted in a manner that has allowed many officers to enrich themselves. Second, this buying spree has stocked the Algerian armed forces with more weapons than are realistically needed for defense purposes. Third, Algeria has received little, if any return on these purchases in the way of technology transfer.  

Framing a New Defense Doctrine

Algeria’s defense doctrine is outdated — better suited to a Cold War-era security environment than to meeting the security challenges the country faces in the early 21st century. While it is imperative that Algeria proceed to update its defense doctrine, this will require progress in tackling three key problems.

The first problem is the rigid yet atrophied structure of power which took root following independence — a structure resting on a tripod consisting of the army, the security forces and the ruling Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), the latter a party which never acquired and ideology or an organization comparable to its equivalent in the Soviet Union. Added to these three elements was a powerful oil and gas monopoly (Sonatrech, created in 1964), as well as a fine diplomatic tool, which played the role of the exquisite velvet glove concealing a hand of steel. This power structure lacked a proper institutional mechanism of accountability, such as a parliament with substantial oversight authority. Houari Boumedienne understood the pitfalls of this lack of checks and balances in the system. Arguably his greatest shortcoming was his failure was to grasp that the policy of nationalizing foreign trade enacted in the early 1970s would encourage corruption. Boumedienne died (in 1977), before being able to enact the necessary reforms. This structure needs to be reorganized in a manner that comports with the requirements of modern warfare and that addresses current challenges such as cyber threats and economic insecurity — challenges that cannot be met as long as the military refuse to allow the middle classes to partake in the debate on the country’s future.

Over the years, a number of powerful private groups have arisen which are challenging the status quo. However, the Algerian government typically has responded to these pressures and demands by showering subsidies on consumers when the price of oil is high and suddenly making deep cuts when it falls. The Jurassic park nature of the country’s banking system is also a major handicap. Until the military accepts that bold economic reforms to modernize the Algerian economy will strengthen the economy, the weak performance of the non-oil sector, the cronyism which too often characterizes those private sector entrepreneurs who are close to the rulers, the flight of capital, the difficulty of creating real jobs in industry will continue apace.

The economic and political reforms initiated by Presidents Chadli Bendjedid and Prime Minister Mouloud Hamrouche (1989-1991) were blocked by the military, which used the emergence of the Islamic Salvation Front to sow fear among the middle classes, causing them to support a repressive policy that provoked a civil war which resulted in up to 100,000 deaths.[15] Arab rulers across the Middle East have used similar strategies with the same disastrous consequences. An economy which continues to be a victim of the “oil curse” does not offer a solid bedrock for domestic stability, a bold foreign policy, or greater influence in the North West African region.

A second problem is the continuation of formal adherence to the principle of non-intervention when, in practice, it has been honored in the breach. There are numerous instances of Algerian military intervention, as when Houari Boumedienne sent troops to Egypt to defend the Nasser regime in 1967 and again in 1973.[16] Algerian troops helped to protect West Saharans who fled advancing Moroccan troops in the Western Sahara in the winter of 1975-1976. Algerian troops and security forces have intervened in Tunisia since 2011, with the full agreement of Tunisian political and military leaders, in an effort to combat radical Islamic groups.[17] Algerian troops have also intervened in Mali and in Libya to protect Algeria’s borders.[18] Algerian forces directly intervened in Libya, awash with weapons since the fall of the Gaddafi regime, following a terrorist attack on the gas field of Tigentourine at In Amenas.[19]

Nevertheless, Algeria remains reluctant to send troops abroad because it fears their being turned into auxiliaries of a major power. The consequence of President Abdul-Aziz Bouteflika’s physical absence from the political scene due to ill health makes Algeria even more reluctant to do so. No one in Algeria today can take a decision of such importance. The chief of staff of the Armée National Populaire has the role of a manager, but has no legal or political obligation to render any account to the people through the Chamber of Deputies or the Senate, which are little more than echo chambers. The chief of staff has never publicly outlined a strategy, a policy framework on defense. One can only conclude that non-intervention abroad is a fig leaf which hides the inertia that prevails in the top echelons of power in Algeria today.

A third problem stems from marked differences between the DRS and the army high command in their attitudes toward foreign counterparts. The Algerian army has always been reluctant to engage in any form of joint military exercise that might suggest its idea or modus operandi is being challenged. This lack of accountability goes hand-in-hand with a fierce nationalism which simply tolerates no debate on ideas, weapons, and tactics with members of other armed forces. As more and more Algerian officers are trained abroad to handle weapons bought in the U.S., Germany and Italy, it is difficult to imagine that senior Algerian military leaders will be able to resist for much longer exchanging ideas with their peers.

In sharp contrast to the army high command, the DRS, like its forerunner the SM, has worked with foreign counterparts for decades. This culture of exchange and cooperation has ranged from helping to resolve hijacking crises in the 1970s and 1980s, to assisting the U.S. in the fight against al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The crisis that, in September 2015 led to the dismissal of the powerful head of the DRS, General Tewfik Mediène, has not affected this broader culture.[20]

Algeria’s institutions need to be recast if the country is to be in a position to fully assume the role of an important regional power. The authority and respective roles of the army, the DRS, and the civilian leadership must be defined more clearly. A necessary, and long overdue initial step would be the appointment of a Minister of Defense — a post that Abdelaziz Bouteflika has arrogated to himself since becoming president in 1999. Whoever is appointed needs to be appointed for a fixed period and not simply be sacked on whim. Parliament and its various commissions, notably of foreign affairs and defense, need to be given oversight authority and the means and latitude to perform this function. Among other things, these commissions should have the authority to vet strategies presented by the government. Back in 1989, the army had to decide whether or not it wished to include the middle class in the decision-making process and to encourage the insertion of Algeria into the global economy.[21] A generation later, it faces the same question.

These reforms will not necessarily turn Algeria into a Western-style democracy, nor need that be their aim. However, their adoption will help ensure clear lines of responsibility and allow Algeria to project its power and influence more effectively. Whatever the quality of the DRS, the army or the country’s diplomacy, a major effort at clarifying Algeria’s strategic aims seems imperative for what is the largest country in Africa. Algerian leaders need to engage more with foreign partners and explain to the country’s 40 million citizens what the country’s regional strategy is. This will ensure greater transparency and overall stability.

Note: This essay is drawn from a paper presented at a CIDOB-NATO seminar on Russia’s Strategy on NATO’s eastern and southern flanks, Barcelona, January 26-17, 2017.


[1] U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, “Algeria,” World Factbook, accessed May 29, 2017,….

[2] Cherif Abdedaïm, Abdelhafid Boussouf le révolutionnaire aux pas de velour, Edition ANEP 2012

[3] Maurice Flory and Bruno Etienne, Annuaire de l’Afrque du Nord (Paris: Editions du CNRS, 1966).

[4] Sid Ahmed Souiah, Algérie: itinéraire de 50 ans d’indépendance (Paris: L’Harmattan 2012

[5] Erik Jensen, Western Sahara: Anatomy of a Stalemate (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2005).

[6] U.S. Ambassador (ret.) Allan Wendt, “Reagan’s warning was on the mark,” letter to the Financial Times, May 2, 2014.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Rod Bishop, “Canvey Island Made History,”, July 14, 2010, accessed May 29, 2017,

[9] U.N. Security Council Resolution 2321, November 30, 2016, accessed May 29, 2017,

[10] Fayçal Metaoui, “Americains et Algeriens Preoccupes Par La Lutte Contre Le Terrorism,EL Watan, November 5, 2001.

[11] Yahia Zoubir, Global Security Watch–The Maghreb (New York: Praeger, 2013).

[12] Francis Ghilès, interview with senior Algerian Security official. Algiers, September 2015.

[13] Cherif Ouazani, “Notre ami Vladimir,” Jeune Afrique, March 21, 2006.

[14] Julio Cesar Aguilar, “L’Algérie premier importateur d’armes en Afrique,” Agence France Presse (AFP), February 22, 2017.

[15] International Centre for Transnational Justice, March 2, 2013.

[16] Khaled Nezzar, Sur le front égyptien (Algiers: Editions Alpha, 2002).

[17] Mohamed Faouzi Gaidi, “L’armée algérienne intervient en Tunisie,” El Watan, August 24, 2014.

[18] Francis Ghilès, “C’est en modernisant son armée que l’Algérie acquiert un plus grand rôle regional,” Cidob, February 2015; and Francis Ghilès and William Lawrence, “How to save the Sahel,” Cidob, July 2012.

[19] Francis Ghilès, “Algerian gas’ challenge alter the attack on In Amenas,” Cidob, February 2013.

[20] Lyes Laribi, Du MALG au DRS Histoire des services secrets algériens (Geneva: Editions Hoggar, 2011).

[21] Francis Ghilès “L’Armée Algérienne a t elle une politique économique?” Pouvoirs, Autumn 1998.



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