London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Talk of security has made a striking return to the Algerian arena, highlighting fears of the advent of terrorism something the country is unaccustomed to. This raises questions regarding the efficacy of the reconciliation policy, which is firmly adopted by Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in counteracting new threats such as these.
After consulting the opinions and views of security officials and experts who are studying this issue, Asharq Al-Awsat found that militant activities are following a new course that is impacted by climates other than the local one, and that the number of militants refusing to repent is approximately 300.
However, this figure is subject to increase by virtue of new recruitment factors that have emerged in Algeria over the past few years. Meanwhile, the number of those who have renounced their former ways is 8,000 since 1999 [Islamist militants who surrender are granted a presidential pardon under President Bouteflika’s policy].
Many agree that the recent escalation is primarily linked to the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) joining forces with the al Qaeda organization, which is notoriously led by Bin Laden, at the beginning of this year.
Suleiman Shenin, the director of ‘al Raed’ research center (based in Algeria) told Asharq Al-Awsat that the fact that Algerian militants were resorting to suicide bombing operations denotes “the unmistakable mark and signs of being affiliated to al Qaeda and a pledge of loyalty [to the organization].” He added that the GSPC wanted to use these new operations to demonstrate that “it had unequivocally become affiliated to al Qaeda.”
The Algerian researcher pointed out that the so-called jurisprudents of these Algerian militant groups were reluctant to issue fatwas to vindicate the suicide operations (despite issuing fatwas for other operations), but that “due to their adherence to al Qaeda’s fatwas, such groups have come to rely on this type of operation,” he said.
Regarding the last wave of violence in Algeria, researchers believe it to be most likely due to the ‘direct impact’ of the repercussions of the situation in Iraq, and Afghanistan to a lesser extent, over Algerian youth.
Director-General of the Brussels-based European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center (ESISC), Claude Moniquet told Asharq Al-Awsat that “Today, there is a very clear al Qaeda influence in North Africa.”
“Ten years ago, there were violent operations in Algeria; however there were no cases of suicide bombing operations. This proves beyond a doubt that there are some [individuals] returning from Iraq to recruit suicide bombers,” said Moniquet. He added that after a long period of relative calm, terrorism has become ‘active’ again in Algeria recently.
One of the clear indicators of the gravity and escalation of the situation in Algeria is that the perpetrators of the recent terrorist acts are very young. The attacks near the mosque in Batna were executed by children, some of whom were younger than 15 years age. This means that to a large extent, most of them did not witness the years of violence in Algeria in the early nineties.
An observer closely monitoring the situation in Algeria said, “Most of these [suicide bombers] are young, mainly in their twenties and thirties. They never used to listen to the authorities in their country when the political and security emergency broke out, but they now listen to Bin Laden and the calls of jihad in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Moreover, he pointed out that these youth, “were more affected by this situation” [i.e. al Qaeda’s call] than they were by the roots of the Algerian crisis.
Experts, both Algerian and otherwise believe that this matter requires amending the national reconciliation policy so that it may take into account these new realities.
According to Moniquet, the bomb attacks in Batna (6 September 2007, 22 killed), and at the naval barracks in Dellys (8 September 2007, 30 killed) have shown that the reconciliation policy is “incapable of putting an end to the violence”. He added that this was “a cause for concern”.
Meanwhile, Shenin sees that the “failures” in the reconciliation project “are related to the general situation.” For example, he pointed out that the militants who renounce their former ways still find it difficult to obtain their civil and political rights. He added that, “sometimes facilitations that they are incapable of fulfilling are required of them.” This is a reference to demands that they collaborate with undercover security agents, and attempt to persuade their comrades to turn themselves in.
Shenin added that those ‘who repent’ become reluctant to collaborate with the authorities when they realize that the authorities are not adhering to their end of the deal and are not delivering the pledges made regarding the reinstatement of their civil rights.
One of the reformed militants who was pardoned in 2000 agreed to speak to Asharq Al-Awsat on condition of anonymity. He had previously told Asharq Al-Awsat that prior to his renunciation of terrorism, he had received guarantees from the authorities that he would obtain housing and work, in addition to a pardon from the death sentence that was issued against him in 1994 following his escape from prison.
“Only one of these promises was fulfilled,” he said, “I was pardoned from execution, but as for work and housing, I am still suffering from unemployment and I still live in my father’s house.”
He also revealed that he was confronting difficulties trying to enroll his son into school since he does not possess a marriage contract to prove that he is his son. “I was married in one of the enclaves in the mountains where the group I was affiliated to were based. I had a son and named him Abdel Jabar. When I abandoned the mountains and returned to normal life, my son was two years old,” he said.
The reformed militant also revealed that 21 of his contemporaries had set up families during their militant years and confirmed that they had all had children under the same circumstances.
Generally speaking, it seems that the social situation is the factor behind the recruitment of extremists, whereas in the 90s the political aspect was the chief reason behind it. Long-term unemployment afflicts even university graduates, some of whom resort to illegal immigration and board ‘death ships’.
All these factors work all too easily to encourage repentant militants to return to their former ways and seek their former comrades. According to a researcher specializing in militant action, “when militants used to reside in the mountains they never faced a problem of providing for themselves, however upon returning to their families they find themselves acutely confronted with this problem.
Regarding the inherent ‘deficiencies’ in the national reconciliation policy, observers uphold that the legal and administrative dimensions are dealt with, while the most critical dimension; the ideological, is neglected. When a militant surrenders to the authorities and is later released and allowed to return to his family, in most cases he still continues to adhere to the same mode of thought and values that prompted him to rebel against his society and state in the first place. Many who renounce violence do so as more of a tactic than out of conviction that their former practices had been morally and legally unacceptable. From this standpoint, the rehabilitation programs for reformed terrorists in Saudi are worthy of examination and reflection.
But the calls for introducing amendments to the reconciliation policy are lagging due to the blatant contradictions between the different parties; however the reconciliation project is widely supported by the majority of Algerians. This is based on the consideration that 6,000 militants have renounced terrorism since 1999 (as part of the civil harmony law), 2,000 of which repented over the past two years (as part of the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation). And yet, another controversy has erupted again with the emergence of new trends; namely, suicide bombing operations and the recruitment of adolescents to execute them.
There are no specific figures for the number of militants who rejected the calls for reconciliation; however a prominent security official informed Asharq Al-Awsat that the figure is approximately 600. When asked as to their geographical distribution, he indicated that they were concentrated in six provinces, four of which lie east of the capital (Boumerdès, Tizi Ouzou, Bijaya and Jijel), and two in the south (Ilizi and Tamanrasset).
A security official working very closely on issues related to militants stated that there is a desire among some to abandon their activities and return to their families and society, however he considers 50 percent to be “hopeless cases” rejecting all things related to national reconciliation.
Despite its adamancy to extend an arm to militants, the Algerian authority has recently proposed a new security plan that targets leadership figures among the armed groups in particular. Bouteflika’s speech on June 5, 2007, marking the occasion of the country’s liberation contained an explicit call for the security forces to intensify their operations against terrorists.
The security official who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity said, “For the first time in 10 years, the state’s regime is adopting a confrontational tone,” with the militants. However, he stressed that the state’s fight against terrorism is “impartial” and “within the boundaries of human rights.”
And yet, there are growing concerns amidst Algerian officials regarding the emergence of a ‘political rhetoric’ among militants, particularly following the concentration of their activities in the north of the country, which is predominantly inhabited by tribes. Additionally, in the wake of the most recent attacks, political talk has come to the forefront pertaining to the link between the events and “a power struggle and axis within the authority.”
Shenin commented: “Perhaps the militants intended, or equally did not intend, for others to interpret matters this way,” regarding the recent events. He added that Algerian militant groups, “have become somewhat politicized and have learnt to exploit the contradictions that exist within the regime.”
Another indication of politicization lies in al Qaeda’s choice of the tribal areas as its principal stronghold. Shenin states that the geographical location “was not a random or spontaneous choice” but that it was rather “the result of a meticulous consideration of the region and the knowledge that it can adapt to it better than other areas in the state.”
Despite the complexities of the security debate in Algeria, it still appears to be absent from the discussions of the political circles. According to a partisan official affiliated to an Algerian political party, the Algerian authorities, “only deal with the (security) debate when it crops up and soon lose interest later.” He stressed that “the security issue needs to be prioritized.”
Some observers believe that the progress achieved on the reconciliation front has been impacted by the situation in Iraq. They point out the similarities between the suicide operations carried out in Algeria lately and those executed by al Qaeda in Iraq, in addition to the recruitment of Algerian youth to join the militant forces in Iraq to fight against the US forces. However, many of these recruits have been arrested in neighboring countries and have been deported back to their country. “Their deportation and arrest is regarded as cooperation and loyalty to the Americans,” Shenin said.
According to experts interviewed by Asharq Al-Awsat, confronted by these new security threats, the national reconciliation efforts remain rational and persuasive. There is a necessity to introduce amendments to the policy that can expand upon the economic, development and ideological levels. President Bouteflika has displayed signs that he is strongly adhering to this approach, “I will not for a single moment renounce the political project built on national reconciliation and security for all Algerians,” he said in a televised appearance immediately after the attacks that had intended to target his convoy. These efforts towards reconciliation coincide with an openness in the state, whilst development plans have been allocated approximately US $100 billion dollars.