The surprise attack on the Sonatrach-BP-Statoil gas facility at In Amenas in the southern Algerian province of Illizi on January 16 is a unique and unprecedented event: not only does it represent the first direct attack on hydrocarbons production facilities in Algeria since the islamist insurgency broke out 21 years ago, it is without a doubt the worst terrorist incident at an oil or gas installation anywhere in the world in the history of the industry. With Minister of Communication Mohand Oussaïd Belaïd now casting it as “Algeria’s 9/11”, it is worth considering how the In Amenas siege might affect relations and the balance of power between the key members of the country’s leadership – President Bouteflika, intelligence chief Mohamed ‘Tewfik’ Médiène and the heads of the army – all the more so in light of earlier claims that Tewfik had been unsettled to see Western powers dealing primarily with CoS Lt-Gen. Ahmed Gaïd-Saleh rather than him when discussing how to handle crisis in northern Mali, to which of course the In Amenas attack is linked.
The public blame game following the In Amenas attack has naturally been more muted than it might have been in a fully functioning democracy, with the result that indicators as to how the incident is affecting relations at the top are partial, fragmentary, and to some extent contradictory. On the one hand, while local and international news media (and the Algerian Defence Ministry’s own website) have tended to highlight the role of the army’s special forces in putting an end to the In Amenas hostage crisis, a source close to the commanders of the DRS intelligence and security service tells us that President Bouteflika from the outset entrusted control over operations to the DRS, which kept the President informed throughout. This would seem to imply that, behind the scenes, Tewfik has the upper hand over the military chiefs, while at the same time holding onto an important card in his relationship with Bouteflika insofar as he is entrusted with the task of channelling critical information to the President.
On the other hand, the Algerian press has in general been very supportive of the army’s role, with most media strongly defending both the refusal to negotiate with the armed group that had seized control of the site and the uncompromising military assault that put an end to the siege, and to the extent that there has been any questioning in the Algerian media, it has tended largely to focus on how the attack could have happened in the first place – the unspoken charge being that In Amenas could only have occurred because of a catastrophic intelligence failure. In this vein, leading Arabic-language daily Al-Khabar (Jan. 21) claims that President Bouteflika had ordered an investigation into how AQMI was able to take over the In Amenas facility. This of course lays the blame implicitly at the door of the DRS. Meanwhile, a source at the Presidency has been hinting that Tewfik is no longer the pivotal figure he once was. If this is so, it may be the result of a longer-term decline in power rather than a direct consequence of the In Amenas episode, but insinuations about his services’ lack of efficacy in defending the country’s vital infrastructures against terrorist attack will do nothing to enhance Tewfik’s standing.
At the same time, there has been open criticism, especially in the Algerian French-language and online media, of Bouteflika’s role, or rather his absence, during and after the In Amenas crisis. Having received Malian Prime Minister Diango Cissoko on Jan. 14, two days before AQMI’s attack on the In Amenas facility, Bouteflika disappeared from public view for a full fortnight, reappearing on Jan. 28 to welcome the Spanish Defence Minister. Bouteflika’s failure to address the nation at the height or in the immediate aftermath of the crisis was seen as a sign of “contempt” for the people by some press commentators, while others suggested that the President had not been seen or heard because he was in Geneva for medical treatment. This latter explanation – a recurrent rumour – appears to be untrue: a senior civil servant at the Presidency tells us that Bouteflika is “in good health” and had not of late been noticeably absent from the El Mouradia presidential palace. Indeed, however much criticism might be piled upon him beyond the walls of El Mouradia, within the inner workings of the Algerian political system Bouteflika still seems to be in control.
Above all, the President appears to have the upper hand with regard to the upcoming presidential contest – more so, it would seem, than intelligence chief Tewfik, who had previously been held to be the king-maker. One source at the Presidency suggests, almost off-handedly, that the current most likely candidate to take over from Bouteflika in 2014 is Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal – a long-standing and reliable supporter of Bouteflika who is also understood to be close to Tewfik, but who has not hitherto been thought of as having either the ambition or the stature to become President. At the same time, however, the option of Bouteflika himself standing for a fourth successive term of office has still not be been definitively rul
ed out, and it seems unlikely that any firm decision will be possible at least until the dust has settled from In Amenas, and possibly not before there is clearer visibility with regard to the implications for Algeria of the broader conflict in northern Mali.