Algeria unseen: how the secret service kept the country hostage
To maintain their grip on power, the DRS is accused of carrying out large-scale violence, which includes rampant killings and assassinations, and has a history of undermining the country's civilian governments.
Mohammed Samroui, Algeria’s highest ranking officer to defect from the once-feared Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS) is certain that the outgoing president Abdelaziz Bouteflika has "missed the opportunity to leave power with honour".
After six weeks of peaceful protests, which began on February 22 of this year, Algerians have used the street as their negotiating table to object to Bouteflika’s fifth term bid, call for Bouteflika’s resignation and the removal of the whole system, known as 'Le Pouvoir' or 'the power'.
"History will be ruthless in remembering him,” says Samroui, while speaking to TRT World.
After 20 years in power, and six weeks of mass protests, which began on February 22, Bouteflika succumbed to pressure and resigned on April 2.
And so 2019 will be remembered in Algeria’s history books as the year the street became the negotiation table of the people, fed up with a system of power that robbed them of so much. New territory to many observers, Algeria’s complex and often opaque ruling system has been the centre of much speculation, particularly with regards to the military and the now-defunct DRS.
The secret service in Algeria was believed to hold the reigns of power for decades until it was dissolved in 2016 and its head for 25 years, General Mohammed ‘Toufik’ Mediene - who referred to himself as the ‘God of Algeria’ - was forced to retire.
Samroui, a former colonel in the DRS, defected from the organisation in 1996, after serving 22 years, and was a founding member and spokesperson of the Algerian Free Officers Movement (MAOL) from 2002 to 2005, and of the Algerian political movement, Rachad.
“I realised I was not serving Algeria or the Algerian people but a ‘mafia’. Consequently, my conceptions of security and my moral values did not correspond with the company I was in,” he explained.
The country was plunged into a brutal decade-long civil war in 1991, after the military prevented the second round of elections that would have seen the Islamic Salvation Front win a majority following the introduction of a multiparty system by President Chadli Bendjedid.
“As young officers, we were expecting a new start for a new Algeria,” said Dr Haroune Hassine, a former captain in the DRS, who defected in 1995 who became a founding member of MAOL. According to Hassine, the first victims of the DRS were its opponents. “The DRS started by eliminating all the officers, by killing them or sending them into early retirement. The DRS created terrorism.”
All-out war broke-out between armed groups and the army, with civilians bearing the worst of the depraved violence. Subsequent investigations concluded that many of the massacres were conducted by KGB-trained DRS agents, who adopted the tactic of infiltration to carry out the killings disguised as militants. “All the killings, all the arrests and the first terror attacks were in fact conducted by the DRS,” Hassine added. He now lives in exile in the UK and has had to bear the consequences of his work including receiving 17 threats on his life.
For Samroui, the killings were a ‘sick game’.
“I would have understood if the enemy was alien, but killing Algerians was genocide for me,” he said. Samroui is currently exiled in Germany and works as an engineer in a local German company. Since his exile, he has faced numerous threats allegedly from Algerian authorities.
“I was arrested in Spain in 2007 for 'attacking the morale of the army' and 'supporting terrorists' and a request made for me to be extradited to Algeria because I am the highest ranking-deserter of the Algerian army,” he told TRT World.
From intelligence to power
It was in September 1958, following the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (GPRA) that the first Algerian military intelligence services came into being as the Ministry of General Liaisons and Communications (MLGC). From 1960, the better known Ministry of Armaments and General Liaison (MALG) Algerian intelligence structure operated during the war.
The intelligence service developed over time into Military Security (SM), Prevention and Security Branch, Central Directorate of Army Security, and the DRS, which was dissolved in January 2016 and replaced by the Department of Security Services (DSS).
“It is a transitional structure that will never have the size of the DRS,” Samroui said. “There is no common measure between the DRS and the DSS; the latter is subject to the decisions of the presidential clan, while the DRS was a major player in politics.”
According to Saphia Arezki, an Algerian historian, there no longer exists a single and unified intelligence structure in Algeria, but rather one that is composed of ‘three branches under the umbrella of the DSS’, namely the Internal Security Directorate (ISD), the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDSE) and the Technical Intelligence Directorate (TRD).
Due to the lack of presidential control, Toufik as head was able to attain such power that the DRS became a state within a state, taking care of ‘the dirty work’ and ensuring figures in power were those that followed their line of dominance.
“The DRS became like a monster; the generals could do what they want and have what they want,” Hassine recounts. “I knew a guy in 1998 who massacred a family in Boufarik because he wanted their farm.”
According to Samroui the DRS was vital in creating a system in Algeria that maintained dominance and power through its network of business interests. Generals like Mostefa Belloucif, Liamine Zeroual and Kamel Abderahim were retired to pave way for ‘Deserters of the French Army’ Mohamed Touati, Mohamed Lamari, Larbi Belkheir, and Khaled Nezzar.
It was the presidency of Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 1999 that would begin to alter the degree of their control. Despite the later turn in relations between Bouteflika and the DRS, Hassine believes that Bouteflika would never have been president had it not been for the DRS.
Bouteflika attempted to shift governance away from the power of the military and DRS in a bid to concentrate power within civilian hands. “Bouteflika, since his days as foreign minister was never comfortable with the idea of having secret agents in all governments institutions,” Dr Youcef Bouandel, a Professor of Political Sciences at Qatar University, told TRT World.
By 2013, it was not only Bouteflika who would be incapacitated - much of the DRS had been weakened. “General Toufik was practically at the head of an empty shell. I am convinced that it is he who dug the grave of the DRS,” Samroui said.
The year holds particular significance for Hassine in other ways; in 2013, a compromising video was secured by the dissident MAOL showing Bouteflika’s alleged mistress. They threatened to go public if Bouteflika did not step down. However, before they could make good on their threat, Bouteflika suffered a debilitating stroke.
“I received a call from one of my brothers saying ‘you’ll never believe it but you gave Bouteflika a stroke’. He became weakened and his brother took control. Since then the army started looking into dissolving the DRS.”
Bouteflika was able to cleverly isolate the DRS figures one by one. “First by ousting Larbi Belkheir...then ejecting general Mohamed Lamari, who had supported the candidacy of Bouteflika’s rival, Ali Benflis, in 2004,” explained Samroui. Close allies to Toufik, like Bachir ‘Athmane’ Tartag and General Hassan, were fired by the presidency in order to consolidate Bouteflika’s power. “With Toufik’s trusted lieutenants out of service and some of his department’s powers revoked, he became weak and it was easy to retire him,” Bouandel added.
The downfall of the DRS and Toufik was due to a variety of factors according to Bouandel, including his exposure to corruption within the inner circle of the president and “the operation in Tiguentourine Ain Amenas [against the 30 militants who seized the Algerian natural gas complex] carried out without the consent of the presidency”. Hassine believes the operation was linked to a French effort to further consolidate their control of the country. “In 2013, the French secret service wanted to take control of one of the most important protection units in Algeria. It was discovered later that the DRS helped the French with this hostage situation to take control of the protection unit.”
The rocky road ahead
Responding to the question on whether Toufik has been using the popular mobilisation as an opportunity to plot a return to influence, Samroui emphasises that “Toufik is outdated”.
“He’s retired now. He does not control anything directly and is under strict control and eye of the army. He’s trying to play a role [in the movement] though and take revenge.”
The military is mandated by the constitution to maintain peace and stability for the people who it serves as the National People's Army (APN). The evocation of Article 102 of the constitution, which dismisses the president, by Chief of Staff General Ahmed Gaid Salah proved to be the final nail in Bouteflika’s presidential coffin.
“There was always a fight between Bouteflika and the army,” Hassine explained. “Bouteflika promised Mina El Kebir in Oran to the Americans which the army was not happy about. Bouteflika gave the green light for the French aviation to use Algeria for its Mali operations which the army again was very angry about.”
The last time the military interfered directly in politics a brutal civil war ensued, a memory that has been manipulated by the power clans to deter Algerians from actively seeking redress for their grievances. “The uprising now is not an uprising done by our generation, it is done by your generation because your generation didn’t see or feel the fear,” Hassine said, referring to the Algerian youth who took to streets in large numbers calling for Bouteflika's removal.
Moving forward, while the army will be looking to oversee the transition, they will also be careful to limit their direct involvement in order to not antagonise the people, while also ensuring to maintain their position as state patron. "The army is at the heart of current political issues and its political omnipresence and power are the result of history and the numerous crises that the FLN experienced between 1954 and 1962, after national independence and to the present day,” said Amar Mohand-Amer, an Algerian historian and researcher at The National Research Council.
“Today, the Hirak [popular mobilisation] wants to constitute the institutions of the new Algeria where the army would occupy a classic role [protection of borders and other constitutional missions].” Hassine and MAOL are now trying to find the best solution to come out of the ‘crisis’.
“People are waiting for something which is plausible, workable and acceptable,” said Mohand-Amer. They are not the only ones anticipating the changes in Algeria. Former coloniser France has observed the last few weeks with concern. “The French are trying to be smooth because they know they’re risking a lot. If something bad happens, Paris will explode,” Hassine said.
For Hassine, the main problem is not France but the UAE, which has woven strong financial links with the clans in power in Algeria and will be favouring a military head like Salah to influence the transition as they continue their rewiring of “the entire region trying to prevent another Arab Spring”.
“Only two countries are standing: Turkey and Algeria. People like Erdogan, they want a president like him,” Hassine said.
“You cannot imagine the price I have paid. But when you see the result, it’s worth it.”
*This article was originally published on TRT World's Magazine Section.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.