Algiers, Asharq Al-Awsat- The largest armed militant Islamic group in Algeria will renounce violence and give up its arms if the government met its three demands, former leader Hassan Hattab revealed last Friday.
In his first interview with the media, the Former head of the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) spoke to Asharq al Awsat and indicated he was still awaiting “concrete actions” from the authorities, following the referendum on the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation.
He urged President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to refrain from accusing the armed men who rose up in protest against the “coup” of terrorism, in a reference to the army intervening to cancel the parliamentary elections which the Islamist won in 1991. He also called on his followers to “halt violent activities and remain in their positions and continue to make demands.”
Also known as Abu Hamza, Hattab said he expected the authorities to “stop accusing my brothers in arms with terrorism, extend equal treatment to all and end double standards.”
Referring to himself in the plural, the ex-militant leader added, “We are waiting for Sheikh Ali Benhaj [the second in command in the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS)] to be released and given a role in the national reconciliation process.” Hattab called for the banned FIS to resume its political activities and “not to be held responsible for the violent crisis” of the last decade.
Asharq al Awsat met the founder of the GSPC in a non-descript house located 100km east of the capital Algiers where he has been active for several years.
Since the end of September, Hattab has been meeting with his followers who broke away from the group following his resignation.
During the meeting, he wore traditional Afghan garb and turban and held a laptop continuously by his side. He appeared in a hurry as he answered questions briefly and requested that Asharq al Awsat not pressure him to give lengthy replies, since “an important matter is waiting for me”, in reference to his efforts to convince his followers to lay down arms.
After breaking away from the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), Hattab formed the GSPS in 1998 with others who became disillusioned with the GIA accusing it of “deviating from lawful jihad”.
Married with children, the 38-year-old is currently coordinating with the security services to convince fighters to halt violent attacks and turn their backs to extremist elements in the GIA who have refused to stop terrorist acts.
Commenting on his twelve years as an armed Islamic fighter, Hattab blamed the government for “repeatedly breaking its promises. It forced us to continue armed fighting.”
As for recent attempts at reconciliation, “a number of elements have encouraged us, especially the call by a number of Islamic scholars to put down arms and work with other sections of Algeria society, as well as changes in internal policies and the people increasingly demanding peace. Together, all these events have convinced us that continuing along the path we chose in the 1990s in futile.”
Asked about the circumstances surrounding his resignation as head of the Salafi Group, almost two years ago, Hattab said, “I willingly renounced the leadership in September 200. No one forced to take this step after the dialogue for national reconciliation opened a new chapter in my life. My resignation signaled the start of my efforts to reconcile the people of Algeria without marginalizing any section of society.”
He accuses his successor, Nabil Sharaoui, killed by the army in the summer of 2004, of ordering the assassination of a young imam in the capital, nicknamed Abu Hafs and known for working with the armed forces to convince fighters to halt their terrorist attacks. “I remember repeatedly meeting Abu Fahs throughout 2000 in hideouts for the GSPC. In our last meeting, we disagreed after he presented us with an offer for a ceasefire but I never wanted him dead. When other members decided to murder him, I objected vehemently objected”, Hattab said. “Only after I left the group, did these extremist members seized the chance and carried out their plans.”
Hattab stated that the majority of fighters belonging to the GSPC wanted to join the national reconciliation process but “leaving the mountains [where their hideouts are located] is directly linked to their demands being met. It requires all sides to work together to ensure these conditions are met”, in an indication of the three demands he had made earlier in the interview: refraining from accusing GSPC members of terrorism, releasing Benhaj and the FIS resuming its activities.
The former head of the GSPC categorically denied any relationship between his militant group and Osama bin Laden. “Since its inception and until the day of my resignation, the GSPC had no links whatsoever to al Qaeda.” The current leader Abdel Malik Daroqebel had pledged allegiance to al Qaeda and revealed that contact with its leaders had taken lace through the internet.
Declining to discuss the internal politics of SG and the number of fighters loyal to it (estimated at 800 by the Interior Minister) as well as answer questions on an attempt to kill him by ex- followers in 2004, Hattab pointed out, “The current situation does not allow me to answer these questions. I am on the verge of an important action and every word I say matters.”