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'God of Algeria' Spy Chief Axed as President Moves to Restructure Intel Services

General Mohamed Mediene had been running the country's intelligence service since November 1990, and was one of the last serving generals who fomented the coup to annul the January 1992 general election, which led to civil war.
September 14, 2015, 9:05pm
Image via Mohamed Amine BOUKHOULDA / Wikimedia Commons

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has replaced his long-standing intelligence chief as part of a recent campaign to restructure the country's Intelligence and Security Department (Le Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS)).

General Mohamed Mediene — better known as "General Toufik" — had served 25 years as head of the DRS, Algeria's once all-powerful intelligence apparatus.

"The DRS has had its heyday," said Luis Martinez, a research fellow at the Center for International Studies and Research (CERI) and author of a book on Algeria's civil war. "The presidency has gradually taken away the DRS's power and given it to the army. What we're witnessing in Algeria is a power shift in favor of the army."

Toufik, 76, had been running the DRS since November 1990, shortly before the start of a decade-long civil war that pitted government forces against Islamist rebel groups. He was one of the last serving "Januarists" — the name given to the generals who fomented the coup to annul the January 1992 general election, which Algeria's Islamist FIS party was on track to win after a landslide victory in the first round.

The cancellation of the electoral process heralded a brutal civil conflict that killed more than 200,000.

Born in Petite Kabylie — a region in the mountainous area of Northern Algeria — General Toufik fought with the National Liberation Army during the Algerian War of Independence, which lasted from 1954 to 1962. Shortly after the country gained independence in 1962, he took up training at a KGB school in the USSR.

Known as "the God of Algeria," Toufik had never appeared in public until Sunday, when Algerian television channel Echourrouk News broadcast footage of him talking to other military officials.

"He cultivated mystery," said Martinez. "The DRS encouraged rumors that its men were everywhere […] And the mystery surrounding General Toufik bolstered its all-powerfulness."

Des images du général — TSA Algérie (@TSAlgerie)September 13, 2015

Toufik was replaced by General Athmane Tartag — better known as General Bachir — who also served as Bouteflika's security advisor and was once Toufik's deputy at the DSR. Some observers believe Toufik was not fired by the president at all, but instead carefully orchestrated his own retirement, picking a successor he trusted.

Martinez described Toufik's sacking as a "symbolic" gesture.

"Bouteflika and his advisors want to leave a positive mark on politics, even though the country's economic situation is catastrophic, with oil prices collapsing," he said.

Martinez warned against the common misconception that Algerian politics are "impassioned and clan-based," and described the changeover of power as a "peaceful outcome" to the general's firing. "For Toufik, being replaced by his own deputy is hardly ignominious," he noted.

In February 2014, General Toufik came under attack from Amar Saâdani, the general secretary of the ruling National Liberation Front party, who criticized the head of the DRS for his mishandling of several cases.

In an interview with Algerian news site Tout sur l'Algérie, Saâdani said Toufik "should have resigned" over the his agency's "multiple failures," including the assassination of seven French Cistercian monks in 1996. The monks were abducted from the monastery of Notre-Dame de l'Atlas in Tibhirine, near the town of Medea, 50 miles southwest of Algeria's capital Algiers, on the night of March 27, 1996. Their severed heads were found on May 30 on the side of a road in the Medea province. Questions surrounding the role of the Algerian secret service in the killing of the monks remain unanswered today.

Related: Official Version of Events Leading to 1996 Beheading of French Monks Challenged

"During the 2014 presidential campaign, the DRS did not actively support the campaign for Bouteflika's fourth term in office," explained Martinez. "For the first time, we witnessed a breakdown of communication between both camps."

Toufik's firing is just the latest move in a two-year campaign to restructure the DSR. In late 2013, the president 'retired' Abdelkader Aït-Ouarab — known as General Hassan — who served for two decades as Algeria's counterterrorism chief and was one of Toufik's advisors.

In July 2015, the government got rid of three security chiefs, including the heads of internal security and counter-intelligence, and the chief of presidential security.

"In the space of two years, the presidency has achieved the incredible feat of completely overhauling the structure of the DRS," reported Algerian daily El Watan last week, just days before the agency's chief was sacked.

Martinez believes that the DRS has not adapted to the security challenges facing Algeria today, including the Islamist militant threat in the southern Sahel region.

"Security services function better in situations of chaos. The DRS played a vital role in the nineties, when it was defending the regime. But today, the threat to Algeria is located at the country's borders, and the army is in the best position to defend it.

Related: Algeria Says 22 Militants Killed in Raid Were Plotting to Attack the Country's Capital

Follow Lucie Aubourg on Twitter @LucieAbrg

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