Security Sector Reform in Algeria: Curbing the Department of Intelligence and Security

Recent reports out of Algeria suggest President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s intends to push through a series of constitutional reforms that will weaken the country’s Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS). Led by General Mohamed “Toufik” Mediene, the DRS is known to be extremely opaque and maintains significant control and influence over the country’s political system. According to Amnesty International, there exists “no publicly available official information on its mandate, powers or internal organization.” The International Business Times writes, “ruled by the dominant Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) … Algerian domestic and foreign policy has actually been dictated by the government’s super-secret state intelligence agency.” While recent coverage of Algeria has centered around uncertainty over whether or not Bouteflika will pursue a fourth term, the possibility that the Algerian president might push reforms to significantly weaken the security service’s influence and therefore marginalize one of the world’s most powerful intelligence chiefs is a significant development.

The DRS and its predecessor organizations have been heavily involved in the Algerian state since its struggle for independence from France, which it achieved in 1962. The DRS underwent its most recent institutional evolution in the 1990s, adopting its current name and expanding its largest department, the Directorate of Counter-Espionage and Internal Security (DCE). The role of the DRS and the DCE throughout the Algerian Civil War is disputed; the official narrative holds that the intelligence agency’s infiltration of Islamic armed movements sought to bring the insurgency to an end, but others claim that infiltration was used to manipulate the insurgency for the benefit of the state security apparatus. Research by journalists and academics echo these concerns, concluding that the DRS actually helped Islamic armed groups to “create the largely false impression that Islamic extremists posed a threat to the country’s stability and security – thereby justifying the intelligence network’s very existence.”

General Mediène has served as the head of the organization for 23 years. He was originally trained by the KGB, and emerged as an intelligence leader during the DRS’s controversial involvement in the Algerian Civil War. He is reputed to be both megalomaniacal and extremely secretive, preying on the “personal weaknesses of others” to exercise control over the upper echelons of the Algerian government. Thus far, it remains unclear how Mediène will react to Bouteflika’s efforts to deprive the DRS of political influence. Analysts believe that Bouteflika’s plan is to engineer the succession of his brother Said Bouteflika. Given Mediène’s reputation for knowing the “dirty secrets of top government officials as well as where bodies are buried,” his response could be affected by his knowledge of Said’s history.

What constitutional changes might Bouteflika pursue in order to limit Mediène’s role as a perceived kingmaker? This is a difficult question to answer given the uncertainty surrounding what legal constraints the DRS operates under domestically. Amar Saidani, the current FLN chairman, posited that reforms should “set clear definitions on the roles of the security agency and the army.” The current Algerian constitution makes scant reference to the military and none whatsoever to any sort of intelligence service, though it does permit the president to appoint “civilian and military posts of the State.” So far, the only significant step taken by Bouteflika to curb his rival’s power has involved placing the DRS under the supervision of Army Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Salah, a strong ally of the president.

Any attempt to limit the power of the DRS would be a positive step towards security sector reform for Algeria, combatting the fact that “the real power and its continuity still lie at the top of the security agencies.” In Fiscal Year 2013, the United States provided an estimated USD 2.8 million in security assistance to Algeria through the Countering Terrorism Fellowship Program, International Military Education and Training (IMET), Nonproliferation, Anti-Terrorism, Demining, and Related Programs (NADR), and Regional Centers for Security Studies. Beyond this, however, very little information is publically available about which actors within Algeria are actually receiving funding. As the Algerian government announces reforms ahead of a potential power struggle, it is important for U.S. policymakers to ascertain critical background knowledge about exactly who security assistance is empowering within a complex and divided system.

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