Horseman in el-Oued, Algeria (Photo by Opusbey, available at Flickr)

October 01, 2009

Theater of Jihad: Algeria

History: Inhabited by Berbers, the indigenous peoples of North Africa, for millennia, Algeria became Islamized following the Arab conquest in the seventh century. Modern Algerian history, though, is often traced back to the mid-twentieth century, when, after more than a hundred years of French colonial rule, Algeria obtained its independence in 1962 following nearly a decade of insurgency. The National Salvation Front (FLN), the leader of the national resistance during the eight year struggle against France, dominated Algeria’s political landscape in the post-liberation period, and has remained the primary political force ever since. 

In 1965, a coup launched by defense minister Houari Boumédienne deposed Algeria’s first post-liberation president, Ahmed Ben Bella, cementing the military’s considerable influence over Algerian politics, a phenomenon that has also continued until present day. Boumédienne’s death in 1978 led to the ascension of Col. Chadli Bendjedid as president, who, amid growing disenchantment with the FLN’s monopoly on power, promulgated a new constitution in 1989 that allowed for the creation of different political entities. One of the parties that emerged as a result of the new constitution was the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), whose success in the first round of national elections in 1991 prompted the military’s intervention for fear of an Islamist takeover. The military’s subsequent crackdown on the FIS led to retaliatory attacks on Algerian state interests, ultimately culminating in an insurgency that claimed over 100,000 lives during its peak (1992-1998). An amnesty program begun under current President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has taken much of the wind out of the insurgency’s sails, but has by no means ended the bloodshed between Islamists and the state. 

Demographics: As of 2009, Algeria’s population is estimated at 34.2 million people; roughly 90% of the populace lives off just 12% of the country’s land mass. The country is 99% Muslim (Sunni), with the balance of the population comprised of small Christian communities. Ethnically, almost all Algerians are of Arab, Berber, or mixed Arab-Berber lineage—those who exclusively consider themselves to be Berber are indeed Muslim, but do not embrace any Arab cultural heritage. Many of these individuals reside in Kabylie, a mountainous region east of the capital Algiers. Over the last decade, Berbers have often accused the government there of actively suppressing their quest for autonomy. Algeria also contains a European population, although it accounts for less than 1% of the total populace. 

Politics: Algerian politics have been dominated by tensions between militant Islamists and the secular government in Algiers since the early 1990s, when the Islamic Salvation Front’s gains at the ballot box during the opening round of national elections caused the military to annul the Islamists’ impending victory and cancel subsequent voting. The move ushered in a bloody civil war that has continued until today, albeit at a considerably lower level. In 1999, Abdelaziz Bouteflika was elected to the presidency with the backing of the military, vowing to end years of internecine bloodshed. He secured a landslide re-election victory in 2004, and through a constitutional amendment in 2008 that lifted the two-term limit on holding the office of the presidency, handily won a third term in 2009. 

Today, while Algeria is nominally a constitutional republic and participatory democracy, the Algerian armed forces retain significant influence in the political realm, a legacy of the country’s first coup after independence. Since 2004, however, Bouteflika has succeeded in shifting the balance of power from the military to the executive as a result of weakening opposition factions within the former. Although over 40 political parties are active in national politics, the FLN is still one of just a few parties of consequence in the country today. The FLN controls 23 percent of the seats in the 380-member parliament—legislative elections were last conducted in 2007—followed by the National Rally for Democracy (10 percent) and an independent bloc (9 percent). Islamist parties and candidates with grassroots support are still banned from running in elections. 

Culture: Algerian culture, although heavily influenced by Islam (particularly in gender relations), is also informed by the country’s recent colonial past. Algerian literature, for instance, combines Arabic, French, and European influences, as does the country’s architecture. Algerian culture is likewise animated by a centuries-old distrust between Arabs and Berbers, who, despite adopting the tenets of Islam over the centuries, remain culturally distinct from their Arab compatriots. Indeed, while Berbers have migrated at a considerable clip to the country’s urban centers—generally an admixture of Western influence and Arabic tradition (for example, men tend to wear European-style garb, while older women wear more traditional clothing)—they often remain resistant to assimilation. More urbane Algerians tend to look down upon Berbers and other semi-nomadic peoples as belonging to inferior social strata. In the country’s rural areas, time-honored mores and social customs still predominate without any Western influence. 


While Al Qaeda officially announced its entry into the Algerian theater in September 2006 when Ayman al-Zawahiri declared the formation of a “blessed union” with the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, the organization’s history in the conflict-ridden country dates to the beginning of the Algerian civil war fifteen years earlier. Initially, the fighting that erupted between Islamists and the Algerian government in 1991 following the military’s preemption of an Islamist electoral victory drew widespread support and succor from Islamic radicals the world over, including Zawahiri and other Al Qaeda members. Then a fledgling organization based out of Sudan, Osama bin Laden’s network sent men and materiel to the Islamist guerillas in Algeria, viewing the conflict there as a golden opportunity to topple the secular, military-backed regime in Algiers in favor of an Islamic government. 

However, the tactics of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), the military wing of the Islamic Salvation Front—the political party denied victory in the 1991 national elections—would soon temper the zeal of Al Qaeda and likeminded groups, who believed their indiscriminate slaughtering of innocent Muslims was counterproductive. When the GIA allegedly dismissed bin Laden’s request to pledge fealty to Al Qaeda and change their modus operandi, the group became increasingly ostracized in extremist circles. Their shunning would ultimately lead to the rise of the Salafist Group in 1998 which, while committed to reducing civilian casualties, struggled to solicit the same kind of support the GIA had first attracted from abroad.  

The Salafist Group’s fortunes would begin to change in the immediate aftermath of 9-11 when Al Qaeda, bloodied but unbowed by the loss of its sanctuary in Afghanistan, began looking for new safe havens. For Al Qaeda, Algeria appeared to fit the bill, enough so that bin Laden reportedly directed a senior Al Qaeda emissary to visit the country and initiate discussions with the movement. The talks, however, did not produce any immediate results; the Salafist Group was still deemed to be interested solely in Algeria, not international jihad. Endorsements of Al Qaeda’s vision came in 2002 and 2005, but Osama bin Laden offered just a lukewarm response to the Salafist Group’s overtures, only calling the group “our brothers” without any other reference to Algeria. 

However, Al Qaeda soon recognized that forging an alliance with the group would prove mutually advantageous for both. From Al Qaeda’s perspective, an alliance would offer the organization an operational foothold in North Africa and the Sahelian corridor, an opportunity to tap into the Salafist Group’s European networks, and a pipeline for fresh recruits for ongoing jihads in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the Salafist Group, securing the Al Qaeda stamp of approval would give it the ideological bona fides desperately sought by Algerian Islamists after years of international ostracism. Perhaps more importantly, the group realized that with its domestic insurgency against the Algerian government flagging, espousing a purely national cause would no longer suffice in radical circles.   

Yet, the merger between the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat and Al Qaeda central—resulting in the umbrella group known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM)—has, three years after its creation, not gone entirely as planned. The union caused a schism within the Salafist Group between those extremists interested only in pursuing an Algerian agenda and those bent on seeking global jihad. Worse, the AQIM creation has suffered from a problem in which new militants are lured to the movement with the promise of martyrdom in Iraq, yet ultimately employed in suicide operations in Algeria. Though AQIM has conducted a number of spectacular attacks in the country in recent years, it is no stretch to suggest that today, because of AQIM’s seeming identity crisis, Algeria has become something of a liability for the global jihadist movement.