Algeria hostage crisis could weaken veteran spymaster

The Guardian - Jan 25, 2013

Article of Ian Black, Middle East editor of The Guardian, that includes the opinions of Francis Ghilès, Senior Research Fellow of CIDOB, about the DRS, the Algerian state intelligence service.

>> View the article in The Guardian website


More cock-up than dirty trick, In Amenas raises questions about competence of Tewfik Mediene and brutal security apparatus.

If anyone in Algeria knows the full story of what happened at the In Amenas gas facility in the Sahara it is General Mohamed "Tewfik" Mediene. And he, characteristically, is not talking.

As the echoes of the hostage drama reverberate across north Africa, the mysterious head of the DRS intelligence agency is leading the effort to hunt down the jihadists who orchestrated the raid.

His deputy, General Bashir Tartag, commanded the assault that ended the most high-profile terrorist incident to take place on Algerian soil, threatening vital gas exports to the west. Tartag, known as "Le Bombardier", also has a reputation for brutality and ambition.

Mediene, 73 and in poor health, has stayed in the shadows. Described as "the God of Algiers", the spymaster is the most powerful man in the country after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika – and perhaps a candidate to succeed him; some say he is even more powerful.

"Algeria has long been governed, alternately more and less behind the scenes, by varying groups of men known collectively as 'le pouvoir' [the power]," US diplomats said in a 2007 cable released by WikiLeaks. "It has become increasingly clear that the "pouvoir" now consists primarily of Mediene and Bouteflika."

The 75-year-old president was absent throughout the crisis, undergoing medical treatment in Geneva. Mediene and the army, say well-placed sources, kept him out of the picture because they were angry that his agreement to let French planes fly over Algeria to attack Islamist rebels in Mali was leaked from Paris.

The Algerian regime is famously opaque. Photographs of Mediene are rare – duringat official ceremonies cameras systematically avoid his face. "Mediene meets other security chiefs. The French, the Americans, the Russians, probably the Saudis and maybe the Egyptians. But only the big boys," says a European analyst.

Born in Kabylie in 1939, Mediene served in the French colonial army and deserted after the start of the FLN revolt in 1954. Trained by the KGB, he was promoted after the 1988 riots and became head of the DRS in 1990 – which probably makes him the longest-serving head of any intelligence agency in the world.

Mediene was a tough and influential figure at a crucial moment in 1992 when the military cancelled elections that Islamists were poised to win, triggering a bloody civil war that claimed about 150,000 lives over the next few years. He was with the hardline "eradicateurs", not the "conciliateurs" who backed negotiations.

Under his command the DRS infiltrated armed groups and was accused of committing massacres to discredit its enemies – some of whom later morphed into al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Allegations of torture were rife.

"Their operating manual was straight KGB," says Jeremy Keenan, an Algeria expert at London University. "That means creating your own terrorists, setting up parallel trade unions so nobody knows what's going on, and then atomise them. It's the most stunning form of control. Mediene is absolutely ruthless."

It is a backhanded tribute to Mediene's formidable reputation that some have suggested the In Amenas attack was another DRS dirty trick designed to "prove" the danger of jihadi extremism. Details about the raid remain confused and there is concern about the way that it was handled by the Algerian authorities. But there is no evidence that it was not a genuine terrorist incident. It looks much more like a cock-up than a conspiracy.

"The DRS is a powerful agency in Algeria but it is wrong to think that it can control everything," says Francis Ghiles, a Maghreb analyst at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs. "This was a major failure for Algerian security. They would not have been complicit in something like this. Mediene's whole raison d'etre is to make Algeria secure."

In Amenas may well turn out to have weakened the veteran security chief.

"Bouteflika got rid of a lot of people who opposed him but he has not been able to stop the DRS," says George Joffe, a consultant on Algeria.

"Tartag has been rather badly damaged. The system over which he and Mediene preside has been shown to be incompetent at a time that the succession to Bouteflika has not been resolved. People know there was a level of incompetence that is frightening and a level of brutality that was probably unnecessary. That raises questions about the competence of the DRS."