Espionage in Algiers: End of the road for mechanic turned French spy

Ali Zanjebel gets seven years for passing on intelligence from contacts at Algiers port and airport

A picture taken on July 24, 2014 shows the entrance of Houari-Boumediene International Airport in Algiers. An Air Algerie plane with around 120 people on board including French and Spanish nationals went missing during a flight from Burkina Faso to Algiers, company sources and officials said. AFP PHOTO/FAROUK BATICHE (Photo by FAROUK BATICHE / AFP)
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It is a plot that could rival that of any Le Carre novel.

In a case of everyday business-turned spy thriller, a court in Algiers sentenced a motorcycle mechanic to seven years imprisonment on Wednesday for giving classified information to French intelligence services.

Ali "Ginger" Zanjebel’s story begins in 2010, when he returned to Algiers from France. The Franco-Algerian was detained on arrival at the airport under an international arrest warrant. It was here that he first appears to have encountered the airport's chief police inspector, named within Algerian media as L Gilali.

The unspecified charges against Zanjebel were later dismissed. But the relationship with Gilali endured.

Zanjebel set up and ran a motorcycle repair shop in Algiers where, through Gilali, he first encountered an official from the French Embassy identified only as "Rudolph", the Algerian Ennahar online website reported.

Over the course of several meetings, Rudolph not only purchased a motorcycle from Zanjebel, but persuaded him to help in freeing a car that had been impounded by Algerian customs, a task Zanjebel was able to complete.

Over the course of August 2017, Rudolph was to introduce Zanjebel to several officials at the French Embassy, principally an intelligence officer referred to as "Stephen" and another intelligence official purporting to serve as a technical administrator, "Kamal Belhadi" who – in Le Carre fashion – would go on to serve as Zanjebel's handler.

A general view shows the port in Algiers at sunrise on December 6, 2017. (Photo by LUDOVIC MARIN / AFP)
By the time he was arrested, Ali Zanjebel had expanded his information network to officials at the Algiers port. AFP

Over the following months, Zanjebel would meet with Mr Belhadi at the latter's French Embassy home in the relatively affluent district of Hydra in Algiers. It was here, the court heard, that Zanjebel was able to relay information gained from Gilali and another unnamed airport official on the status of various Algerians, a number of whom lived in France.

Pleading not guilty, Zanjebel characterised these meetings as simply friends catching up. The court disagreed.

2017 appears to have been a pivotal year for Zanjebel. It was during this year that, concurrent to his flourishing relationships at the French Embassy, he was named in a pending trial in France for money laundering and drug trafficking. It was this that brought him on to the radar of the Algerian authorities, who placed him under legal supervision, though this appears unrelated to his arrest the following year.

It was not just conversations. Zanjebel sent countless numbers of electronic files to his handler on matters such as the dismissal of the head of National Security, Major General Abdelghani Hamel (imprisoned for corruption) in June 2018 and the dismissal of the chief of border security at the airport, Lahcen Hassaine.

The volume of the files held by Zanjebel was such that the court later claimed there was too much data for it to be downloaded.

Alongside his work with airport officials, the court heard how Zanjebel managed to establish a network at the port. Returning to the location where he was first able to liberate Rudolph's car, he was able to develop sources such as H Nafeh, the head of the police service responsible for monitoring ships and their crews. It was from the port police that Zanjebel was able to glean intelligence on several criminal rings active within Algeria and working against French interests, not least a network trafficking in stolen French medical equipment and a counterfeiting ring specialising in visas and passports.

All of this Zanjebel was able to accomplish in return for promises of expedited visas for the Algerian officials proving the information.

However, during 2018 his contacts with the embassy drew the suspicion of Algerian authorities, culminating in his arrest and the end of the road for this latter-day Karla.

Both Zanjebel and Gilali were sentenced to seven years imprisonment at the Criminal Court of First Instance in Dar El Beida on Wednesday. A customs official also received a three-year sentence, while an intern at the airport received an 18-month sentence.

Perhaps understandably, the case has received little official comment in France. During the Algerian war of independence against France, French intelligence services were routinely thought responsible for targeted killings, clandestine operations and acts of sabotage against both the Algerian forces and their lawyers.