Le Pouvoir and Algeria's war on terror

Jan. 22, 2013 at 2:52 PM   |   Comments

ALGIERS, Algeria, Jan. 22 (UPI) -- The Algerian military's take-no-prisoners response to the jihadist seizure of a major natural gas complex in the southern desert and the bloodbath that ensued underlines how the military controls the energy-rich North African state and will brook no challenge.

The man behind the military's power is Lt. Gen. Mohamed "Toufik" Mediene, the director of Department du renseignement et de la securite, or DRS, Algeria's Intelligence and Security Department.

The widely feared DRS is the core of what Algerians call "Le Pouvoir" -- the Power -- the cabal of generals who rule the country behind the front of an elected government.

Algeria is, in fact, the last dictatorship in North Africa following the downfall of absolute rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya amid the pro-democracy uprising that have swept the Arab world since January 2011.

Discontent is simmering and bold jihadist attacks could ignite trouble.

Mediene, the most powerful man in Algeria, has headed the DRS since September 1990, making him the world's longest serving intelligence chief. He's widely known as "the God of Algeria," although his critics say he's used assassination, intimidation and dirty tricks to achieve his political objectives.

He's even accused of secretly controlling the very Islamist militants he's fighting.

For the last few years he's been locked in a political struggle with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a veteran of the 1954-62 independence war against the French.

Bouteflika was elected in April 1999 with the backing of Mediene. But now, after three five-year terms and in poor health, Bouteflika wants his younger brother, Said, to succeed him in the 2014 presidential election.

"The prospect of such a dynastic succession was not what the DRS had in mind when it gave the green light for Bouteflika's third term" in April 2009, Aljazeera recently observed.

Mediene is a product of the KGB. He trained at the Soviet intelligence service's schools in Russia after Algeria's war of independence, then began a steady rise to power.

He's rarely seen in public. Indeed, there's supposed to be only one photo of him in existence, and that appears to have been taken years ago. He's reportedly eliminated his rivals ruthlessly.

In January 1992, the military staged a coup and the generals annulled a parliamentary election the Islamists were slated to win, an event that foresaw the so-called Arab Spring of the last two years.

The generals appointed their own president, Liamine Zeroual. He soon decided that Mediene was becoming too powerful.

Jeremy Keegan of London's School of Oriental and African Studies observed that the president twice tried to replace Mediene with his closest advisers.

One died in a "road accident." The other he got rid of by using the DRS to destroy his reputation and businesses, leaving him a broken man.

During the ferocious civil war that followed the generals' crackdown to block the Islamists taking political power, Mediene played a major role in allegedly using dirty tricks to defeat the militants fighting the regime.

"He organized civilian massacres on a massive scale," Keegan wrote.

Mediene infiltrated DRS agents into the Islamist groups, particularly the infamous Armed Islamic Group, known as by the French acronym GIA.

The GIA, which years later metamorphosed into al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, and others carried out the massacres that eventually so discredited the Islamist cause in the eyes of their countrymen, John R. Schindler, professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, said.

"Simply put, the GIA was the creation of the DRS ... Much of the GIA's leadership consisted of DRS agents, who drove the group into the dead end of mass murder," Schindler wrote in The National Interest.

"Most of its major operations were the handiwork of the DRS, including the 1995 wave of bombings in France ... Some of the most notorious massacres of civilians were perpetrated by military special units masquerading as mujahedin, or by GIA squads under DRS control.

"Having driven the GIA into the ground by the late 1990, the DRS has continued to infiltrate and influence Islamist groups in the country," Schindler observed.

Whether the DRS is secretly running AQIM isn't clear. Much of what happened during the four-day gas complex siege, carried out entirely by Algeria's military, remains murky.

But Schindler notes the DRS's "recent record suggests that its influence over any Algerian extremist group is considerable."

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