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ALGERIA: WikiLeaks documents reveal close collaboration with U.S. against Al Qaeda

December 3, 2010 |  9:40 am

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Algeria is now considered America's closest ally in the fight against Al Qaeda in North Africa, an unlikely partnership that emerged following years of strained relations, leaked US diplomatic cables obtained by Babylon & Beyond show.

The documents show extensive intelligence, security and, increasingly, economic cooperation between the two states, despite Algeria's violent history, oppressive government and ongoing tensions over its placement on the American Transportation Security Administration's enhanced screening watch list in January 2010.

A detailed timeline of "major anti-terrorism successes" of 2008 including the killing or capture of at least 19 militant figures, several major illegal weapons cache discoveries and a thwarted assassination attempt on then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she visited Algeria in September of that year.

"It is worth remembering that no country is more important than Algeria in the fight against Al Qaeda in the Sahel and Maghreb," the American ambassador to Algiers, David D. Pearce, wrote in a Jan. 6, 2010, cable.

Pearce’s comments were recorded following a meeting with an official from the Algerian foreign affairs ministry who relayed Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s “profound dismay” at Algeria’s inclusion on the TSA’s list, especially in light of its continued cooperation with the U.S. on security issues.

Pearce went on to recommend a high-level public overture in order to smooth over relations and protect American interests, which, according to a separate cable, included politically sensitive security contracts for a fingerprint identification system and military radios.

"Our commercial interests are rapidly expanding beyond the hydrocarbons sector," read a Jan. 12, 2010, cable. The U.S. imported $19 billion of Algerian oil and natural gas in 2008, according to the same cable. “[The] contracts have significant implications for U.S. commercial interests.”

The document also mentions contracts for gas-powered turbines and Boeing aircraft totaling in the billions.

The U.S. and Algeria have been working together to target Al Qaeda in the lands of the Islamic Maghreb, the local branch of the international militant group formed from reconstituted elements of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, one of several Islamist groups that fought the government during the Algerian civil war that ravaged the country for more than a decade.

Bouteflika managed to establish a tenuous peace in 2002 through a combination of brute force and amnesty for former fighters. He was the first Algerian president to visit the U.S. in 2001, but has been criticized as an authoritarian leader and recently had the constitution amended to allow him to run and win a third term.

Since adopting the Al Qaeda brand name in 2007, the group has been able to attract new recruits and funding while taking refuge along Algeria's vast and largely ungovernable southwestern border. While the U.S. noted Algeria's vital role in stemming the flow of fighters to Iraq, the documents also revealed frustration with what the cable described as Algerian reticence to share intelligence on militant groups operating within the country, blaming intelligence forces for failing to pass along information that could have prevented the deadly December 2007 bombing that targeted United Nations offices in Algiers.

According to the leaked documents, the U.S. not only provides substantial material support and training, it also maintains an active CIA base and conducts its own air surveillance on Al Qaeda cells inside Algerian territory via the U.S. Africa Command.

The CIA's presence in Algeria was first publicly acknowledged in 2009 following allegations that an American agent drugged and raped two Algerian women.

In a Feb. 1, 2009, cable posted on the website of the Lebanese Al Akhbar newspaper, American diplomats acknowledge the role of the Algerian state in suppressing local press coverage of the scandal.

Just two days after the story broke, it "had all but disappeared from the press," the cable read. "The almost complete absence of the story in the government press outlets indicates the government prefers to see the story die down."

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photo: Rescuers help a man injured in a Dec. 11, 2007, blast in the Algerian capital, for which the group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility. Credit: Associated Press

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