Algiers, Asharq Al-Awsat – “Only one promise was fulfilled, and it was the annulment of the death sentence,” said Abdullah Dahmani, a former Islamist militant who renounced violence. Despite the difficult social and economic conditions that he is experiencing, promises made by the government to secure him a job and a house have yet to materialize.
Many former Islamist militants who have renounced violence and surrendered their weapons, benefiting from a presidential pardon, continue to face a host of social problems and have yet to be successfully re-integrated into Algerian society. The government is having difficulties in its drive to convince armed groups to lay down their arms and renounce terrorism because the fate of their former comrades does not encourage them to return to a normal life where unemployment, poverty and social stigma abound.
Abdullah is one of many who gave up violence in 2000, following security procedures, which exempted him from judicial follow up. This ended 10 years of armed activity.
In an interview with Asharq Al Awsat in Boumaati market located in eastern Algiers, Abdullah Dahmani said he had received a pledge from the authorities to arrange a house and job for him, in addition to annulling the death sentence against him following his prison escape in 1994. “But, six years on, I am still unemployed and live at home with my parents.” The former member of the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) said he was facing difficulties in registering his son at school because he did not have a marriage certificate to prove that he was the child’s father.
“I got married in the stronghold of the group I used to belong to, in the mountains. I had a boy, who I named Abdul Jabbar. When I left to re-join society, he was two years old.” He added that 21 other militants got married and had children in similar circumstances and are suffering from the same problem.
In order to make ends meet, Dahmani wakes up every morning and heads to Boumaati market where he sells school books and instruments, often beside other former Islamist militants who have renounced violence, also suffering from grinding poverty.
Another former militant, Yakni Abdul Wadoud, said he had laid down his weapons in 1999 and “since then I have been working as a street seller without the adequate documentation, and my goods have been confiscated on more than one occasion because I don’t have a permit.” Like other former fighters, Abdul Wadoud said he was promised a house, a job and a passport but “none of these have been presented. I was prohibited from traveling at the airport once because my name was still registered on a most-wanted list, due to being sentenced in absentia in the early 1990s, despite gaining a presidential pardon. When I sought to travel to Saudi Arabia to perform the Umrah [lesser pilgrimage], I had to enlist the help of a senior official, in order to cross the border without any problems. Even now, my name remains on the list of those banned from traveling.”
Asharq Al Awsat asked Abdul Wadoud if his circumstances made him contemplate returning to militancy but he said, “No, never. Peace is a gift from God. No matter how difficult life appears to be, one cannot compare it to the circumstances we went through during our armed activities.” Because of the huge number of former militants who frequent Boumaati market everyday, inhabitants of the area have nicknamed it “the neighborhood of repentance,” as they stand on its streets, selling whatever they can from women’s clothes to kitchen utensils and even fruit and vegetables. Their activities are closely monitored by the security services, with patrols watching the neighborhood at all times.
Those former militants are, for the most part, from east, west or central Algeria and other poor areas, motivated by chronic unemployment to travel to the capital in the hope of finding work. Some end up working as market traders, others in construction and others as shoe traders. In the majority of cases, men leave their wives and children behind and return to visit them once a week.
One former Islamist militant said this did not encourage other armed fighters to renounce terrorism. “I have been contacted by many former comrades, through their families. They have expressed their readiness to leave their hideouts in the mountains and have inquired about the situation and asked whether it was worth laying down their weapons. Every time I am asked this question, I answer that my standard of living and that of many others is dire and that we have not received all our rights. But I also tell them that armed confrontation has reached a dead end and that, sooner or later, they will have to respond to calls to return to society’s folds.”
On the other hand, repentant militants who have become informers for the security services lead a more comfortable life. They provide vital assistance to the authorities as they try to convince armed militants to give up their weapons and renounce terrorism. They act as the police’s eyes and ears in villages and cities and continuously observe Islamist militants who often leave their hideouts to see their families or attack a certain target. In return, they receive certain favors such as personal documents or funds to open a small business.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a former militant turned informer in Baglia (60 km east of Algiers), said, “The place I am currently residing in is full of the families of armed militants. I used to be one of them but I left in 2002, after I listened to a tape in which a sheikh prohibited the killing of members of the police and the army, using evidence from Sharia and citing the Quran.”
The tape caused controversy and forced militant leaders to increase their control over Islamist militants, and warned that any fighter, who contacted the authorities, in order to arrange for his surrender, would be killed.
In fact, the GSPS leadership did not hesitate to execute this threat and in March 2005, Abu Musab Abdul Wadood, the group’s emir, ordered one of his aides to travel to the neighborhood, in Al Wadi, to assassinate Abdul Karim Kaddouri, a former militant The police investigation showed that the Kaddouri’s active participation in the national reconciliation angered the emir.
The above analysis demonstrates that no effective end to the violence can come about from a presidential pardon. It requires a reprieve from the entire society, with its different groups, in order to pave the way for social and economic assimilation… and first and foremost, moral integration.