The lull in political conflict that Algeria has witnessed since May 2014 eventually terminated in January. Last month, the country saw the number of political conflict events triple the levels of the previous period (see Figure 1). Riots and protests have rapidly spread across the country, involving rural, isolated areas in the south as well as the coastal regions and the capital city (see Figure 2). The government’s decision to go ahead with the exploitation of shale gas in the Ahnet basin sparked a wave of unrest in the wilaya (province) of Tamanghasset, a desert region in southern Algeria.
The epicentre of the protests was the oasis town of In Salah, where demonstrations and sit-ins have occurred almost on a daily basis since the end of December. Shortly after, the unrest spread to the towns of Tamanrasset, Adrar, Oran, Ouargla and Algiers, where people took to the streets to express solidarity with the inhabitants of In Salah (Tamlali, 2015). Although the protests unfolded peacefully and without major incidents, Algerian authorities have been worried about the possible escalation of the uprising. In the face of the mounting pressure, the government-owned company in charge of the drillings, Sonatrach, promised to put $70 billion of investment over a 20-year period and to create 50,000 new jobs (Rondeleux, 2015). On January 27th, President Bouteflika confirmed that the exploitation of shale gas is a national priority, but that drillings are not yet on the agenda (Algeria Press Service, 2015). However, these reassurances did not convince the local population and demonstrations in Southern Algeria continued.
The Algerian government sees the exploitation of shale gas as part of a long-term energy security strategy to cope with the decline in oil and gas reserves. A recent report published by the United States Energy Information Administration (2013) indicates that Algeria has the third-largest recoverable shale gas reserves in the world, accounting for almost one-tenth of the global estimated resources. According to these estimates, Algerian largest shale gas basins are located in the southern regions of Tindouf, Adrar, Tamanghasset and Illizi. As the national oil reserves are due to drain away by 2037, the government will likely go ahead with fracking despite the scepticism of its population (Jeune Afrique, 2015a).
But behind the demonstrations against fracking lies a more complex reality. The protests reflect the negative sentiment that permeates Algerian society, which faces rampaging corruption and a difficult socio-economic situation, especially in the rural and peripheral areas. Given this widespread malaise, the government’s decision to exploit shale gas reserves in the Tamanghasset province exacerbated pre-existing tensions and sparked a wave of unrest that spread quickly to other areas. Nevertheless, the peaceful and disciplined unfolding of the protests seems to indicate a popular preference for radical but non-violent reform rather than full-scale revolution. Although a large-scale uprising is unlikely to emerge in Algeria soon, abrupt political changes, such as an aggravation of President Bouteflika’s health problems, may precipitate the situation.
In addition to the upsurge in protesting over the last month, Algeria has recently witnessed a rise in the number of armed clashes between Islamist militants and security forces. Between September and December, ACLED recorded 28 battles involving militant groups and military units across the country, with almost 50 related fatalities (see Figure 2). Since September, more than 3,000 soldiers have been deployed in Northern Algeria to track down the militants that kidnapped and beheaded a French hiker in the Kabylie region (Jeune Afrique, 2015b). The assassination was carried out by Jund al-Khilafah (“The Soldiers of the Caliphate”), a former faction of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) that in September pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). These developments notwithstanding, claims that the caliphate “is at the gates of North Africa” appear to be overrated (Lefèvre, 2014): since the beginning of the military offensive in the North, the army has killed the head of Jund al-Khilafah, Abdelmalek Gouri, and inflicted heavy losses on militant groups, severely restricting their operational capacities (Africa Research Bulletin 2015).
Additionally, the security forces recently conducted anti-smuggling operations along the borders with Mali and Libya in order to prevent arms from penetrating on the Algerian territory. In November, a senior AQIM militant was arrested and ten combatants killed in two military operations near Bordj Badji Mokhtar, on the border with Mali (Xinhua, 2014a, 2014b). In January alone, the army arrested some 50 smugglers in the country’s south, seizing all-terrain vehicles, fuel and arms (AllAfrica, 2015a, 2015b). Algerian authorities have long been aware of the potential dangers of arms smuggling in the Saharan region and have therefore enhanced the repressive activity (Strazzari and Tholens, 2014).
Although the claims that a caliphate is on the rise in North Africa, and that Algeria is on the verge of a major uprising do not reflect reality, the evolution of political violence domestically deserves attention. The infiltration of militant groups across the borders with Mali and Libya and the deterioration of the socio-political situation may have negative effects on the country’s fragile stability.
Africa Research Bulletin, 2015. ALGERIA: ‘Soldiers of the Caliphate’ Leader Killed. Africa Research Bulletin: Political, Social and Cultural Series, 51, pp. 20391A–20391B. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-825X.2015.06056.x/full [Accessed 4 February 2015].
Algeria Press Service, 2015. Exploitation of shale gas not yet on agenda, says President Bouteflika. January 27. Available at: http://www.aps.dz/en/economy/5846-exploitation-of-shale-gas-not-yet-on-agenda,-says-president-bouteflika [Accessed 4 February 2015].
AllAfrica, 2015a. Algeria: 44 Smugglers Arrested By Army Forces in Algeria Extreme South. January 8. Available at: http://allafrica.com/stories/201501121701.html [Accessed 4 February 2015].
AllAfrica, 2015b. Algeria: Three Smugglers Arrested, Three All-Terrain Vehicles Seized in Bordj Badji Mokhtar, in Guezam. Available at: http://allafrica.com/stories/201501300792.html [Accessed 4 February 2015].
Lefèvre, R., 2014. Is the Islamic State on the Rise in North Africa?. The Journal of North African Studies, 19(5), pp. 852-856. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/13629387.2014.977617 [Accessed 4 February 2015].
Jeune Afrique, 2015a. Algérie: l’opposition au gaz de schiste persiste malgré les assurances du gouvernement. January 23. Available at: http://economie.jeuneafrique.com/entreprises/entreprises/energie/23951-algerie-lopposition-au-gaz-de-schiste-persiste-malgre-les-assurances-du-gouvernement.html [Accessed 4 February 2015].
Jeune Afrique, 2015b. Algérie: le corps du Français Hervé Gourdel a été retrouvé en Kabylie. January 15. Available at: http://www.jeuneafrique.com/Article/ARTJAWEB20150115141728/ [Accessed 4 February 2015].
Rondeleux, C., 2015. Le sud de l’Algérie vent debout contre le gaz de schiste. Jeune Afrique, January 15. Available at: http://economie.jeuneafrique.com/entreprises/entreprises/energie/23908-le-sud-de-lalgerie-vent-debout-contre-le-gaz-de-schiste.html [Accessed 4 February 2015].
Strazzari, F. and Tholens, S., 2014. ‘Tesco for Terrorists’ Reconsidered: Arms and Conflict Dynamics in Libya and in the Sahara-Sahel Region. European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research, 20(3), pp 343-360. Available at: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10610-014-9233-y# [Accessed 4 February 2015].
Tamlali, Y., 2015. Southern Algeria protests fracking plans. Al-Monitor, 30 January. Available at: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/security/2015/01/algeria-south-shale-gas-exploitation.html [Accessed 4 February 2015].
United States Energy Information Administration, 2013. Technically Recoverable Shale Oil and Shale Gas Resources: An Assessment of 137 Shale Formations in 41 Countries Outside the United States. 13 June. Available at: http://www.eia.gov/analysis/studies/worldshalegas/pdf/fullreport.pdf [Accessed 3 February 2015].
Xinhua, 2014a. Algerian army arrest senior AQMI militant. November 10. Available at: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/africa/2014-11/10/c_133776884.htm [Accessed 4 February 2015].
Xinhua, 2014b. Algerian troops kill 7 militants in operations near border. November 17. Available at: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/africa/2014-11/17/c_133793628.htm [Accessed 4 February 2015].