Algeria, CBRN terrorism and WMD non-proliferation

NESA Center Alumni Publication
by Dr. Arslan Chikhaoui
Executive Chairman, Nord-Sud Ventures Consultancy Center

7 December 2020 – Five days ago, the Algerian Government considered the creation of a National Committee to assess the risks of three malicious threats: the financing of both Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) proliferation and terrorism, and of money laundering. This regulatory and technical tool will allow Algeria to reach international standards as part of the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) signed in 1995, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) signed in 1975, the Chemical Weapons Convention signed in 1995, as well as to implement the recommendations of the International Financial Action Group (IFAG). This committee is responsible, in particular, for developing the strategy to combat these three threats. This is in addition to the Algerian President’s decision to set up, on 13 June 2020, the National Agency for Health Security dedicated to strategic watch and warning in health security. All of these approaches contribute to raising awareness amongst policymakers and civil society on CBRN threats.

Algeria’s position on nuclear disarmament and Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) proliferation should be understood in the context of, on the one hand, the country’s commitment to both nuclear non-proliferation and the struggle against CBRN terrorism in North Africa and Sahel region, and, on the other hand, its development of a civil nuclear program. Algeria’s policy is supportive of a WMD Free Zone in the MENA and Sahel regions as well as in the Mediterranean.

As a state of the MENA and Sahel regions, Algeria is openly committed to the fight against the acquisition and dissemination of WMD’s. This position is tied to a number of historical and political reasons: Algeria has suffered, and continues to suffer, from the effects of the French nuclear tests in 1962-1963 in the Algerian Sahara (Aïn Necker and Aïn Salah in particular), and from anti-personnel landmines disseminated by the French colonial administration since 1956 along the Challe and Morice Lines. In addition, though not covered by WMD conventions, Algerians suffered attacks with incendiary weapons (napalm) during their war of independence (1954-1962). During the 1990s, Violent Extremist Organisations (VEOs) tried to use biological weapons against population and infrastructure centers through the poisoning of water towers and dams in east Algiers.

The Algerian energy business has a number of vulnerabilities to terrorist attacks: the country’s hydrocarbon infrastructure – such as its West and East petrochemical zones, its oil and gas fields in the South (Sahara), as well as its oil and gas pipelines network – is a particular cause of concern due to the concentration of facilities. For these reasons, Algerian public opinion and Algerian authorities have consistently been aware of the importance of protection and the fight against these types of terrorist threats.

Awareness of the malicious threats of non-state actors’ terrorism linked to CBRN weapons started in the early 1990s. According to open sources, the first attempted attack in Algeria in 1994 was aimed at contaminating the drinking water reservoirs using the botulinum toxin. This was followed by the dismantling of the VEO network led by an Algerian terrorist planning a ricin toxin attack in the London Underground in January 2003, and further arrests throughout Europe. Furthermore, several reports indicate that Al Qaida affiliates have made multiple attempts to manufacture poison, gas, biological agents, and radioactive materials, and that they have training camps specialized in biological and chemical fields, particularly in the Sahel area.

Algerian Authorities have had to remain alert about CBRN terrorism, precisely because Algeria has faced these numerous problems. However, compared to those created in the nuclear field, national controls of sensitive biological and chemical materials are weak, primarily due to the priority given to fighting conventional terrorism. Although there is already a compulsory health quality control provided by specialized national and international agencies regulating the import and export of food products and pharmaceuticals, the building of preventive, scientific, and judicial capacities to fight the threat of chemical and biological proliferation to VEO networks need to evolve. With growth of the industry coming only recently, Algeria has not yet developed full comprehensive regulations to prevent possible terrorist acquisition of biological and chemical weapons. This situation is being addressed by the Government for capacity-building in this area – setting laws and regulations for biological agents, particularly concerning regulating the implementation of import, export, holding, purchase, and transport of pathogenic agents and toxins.

The new bio-terrorist threat, described as a third generation threat, is currently addressed. Algeria believes that the response must be a coordinated one and consequently mobilize a wide range of human and material resources and involving several key ministerial and security departments. Authorities have undertaken the protection of water distribution networks by strengthening site security and intruder monitoring, while also setting botulinum toxin detection tests and strengthening the physical protection and security of the pharmaceutical production sites and biological laboratories. Moreover, in late September 2010, Algeria set up a Regional Intelligence Centre bringing together the countries of the region to fight against terrorism in all its forms, including CBRN trafficking.

To conclude, it is clear that a WMD Free Zone in the MENA and Sahel regions is not only in the interest of Algeria, but through its actions it supports such an idea. Algeria has already signed and ratified the Treaty of Pelindaba, establishing a nuclear weapons free zone on the African continent, and since 2009 has participated in the creation of the African Committee on Nuclear Energy Compliance and Verification Mechanisms of this treaty. Furthermore, Algeria is compliant with and committed to UNSCR 1540, according to which it is working on domestic legislation governing all aspects of WMD proliferation. Establishing a MENA and Sahel WMD Free Zone is a principle shared by policymakers and Algeria supports any initiative that would seek to extend such a zone to include the North African and Sahel regions if this were deemed to be useful by all states.

As far as there is a concern about CBRN threats, Algeria is seeking to develop international and regional cooperation on the following:

  • Setting up the necessary legislation and regulation to prevent and fight nuclear, biological, and chemical risks and accidents according to standard CBRN defence;
  • Exchange of experiences in terms of combating CBRN terrorism;
  • Crisis management and capacity building in response to a potential CBRN terrorist attack;
  • Raising awareness of the importance of the 3 S’s (Safety, Security, Safeguards);
  • Setting up global CBRN forensic analysis and response capabilities.

Algeria is aware that the MENA and Sahel regions present a complex political environment for controlling CBRN weapons. However, it is trusted that a common ground for productive exchange and cooperation exists. It is therefore the case that Algeria supports the regional dialogue potential of the proposed Helsinki Conference, and as a MENA and Mediterranean state would willingly participate to fulfil the zone’s promise of regional security and safety. Science diplomacy as a legacy of the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) remains key to raise awareness on WMD threats and on the importance of the 3 S’s, and on non-proliferation.

The views presented in this article are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.