DELLYS, Algeria (Reuters) – In this Algerian town on a rocky outcrop sticking into the Mediterranean Sea, al Qaeda recruiters find work for idle hands.
Local officials say that Islamist insurgents, fighting a lingering conflict with Algeria’s security forces, are targeting the town’s small army of unemployed young men and persuading some of them to join their ranks.
If before in this long-running conflict people were motivated to join the insurgency mainly by ideology or religious fervor, now money is the biggest recruiting tool.
It is a phenomenon which presents a challenge to the authorities not just in Dellys, a town of 30,000 people about 100 km (60 miles) east of the capital, but across Algeria.
After over a decade of fighting the militants have been reduced to a dwindling hard core but analysts say that if the government does not get to grips with widespread unemployment, that could hand the rebels an opportunity to carry on the fight.
“As long as the youth find no jobs and no occupation, al Qaeda will continue to hire new recruits,” said Hamid Ghoumrassa, a security analyst with the El Khabar newspaper.
Dellys used to be an insurgent stronghold. At the height of the violence in the 1990s the militants killed tens of people every week here, often beheading them.
Since then the killings have subsided dramatically, but the militants have not disappeared — as demonstrated by a spate of attacks in the area over the past few weeks.
Asked where the insurgents find their recruits, an official in the Dellys mayor’s office replied: “Look around you.”
Young men are everywhere on the town’s streets. Some sell cigarettes. Others just sit for hours on street corners.
They are a reflection of the national unemployment figures: officially 10.2 percent are jobless, and 73.4 percent of the unemployed are below 30 years of age. Independent estimates put the overall unemployment figures much higher.
Jobless men are such a common sight that Algerians have a phrase for them: “hittistes,” derived from the Arabic word for a wall, because they spend their days leaning against walls.
“Unemployment is used by al Qaeda to attract the youth and if possible hire new militants,” said the official, who did not want to be named as he is not authorized to speak to the media.
He said the tactic employed by militant recruiters is to first identify a vulnerable person, usually young and male. They then send an SMS to his mobile telephone saying: “By joining us you will solve your problems,” according to the official.
They follow that up by sending the potential recruit links to Internet sites where they can view pictures and video of militant attacks, fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan or speeches by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Sometimes, they will give the would-be militant a one-off grant to help his family, he said. If the young man signs up to join the insurgents, his family will receive more cash.
A young man arrested earlier this month in the Dellys region for aiding the militants was being paid 10,000 Algerian dinars ($134) a month, said a local resident.
“His job was to supply food and watch security forces’ movements in the city,” the resident told Reuters.
The local militants have been providing reminders in the past few weeks that they are still a threat.
An army unit was attacked on May 14 in the nearby village of Baghlia. Two soldiers were killed in an attack two days later in the village of Si Mustafa, also a few kilometers from Dellys.
This month, four people including two paramilitary police officers were killed in a bomb attack on their barracks in a nearby village.
The mayor of Dellys, Rabah Zerouali, has tried to fight the unemployment that makes the town a fertile recruiting ground.
A former banker who was elected as an independent, he has re-surfaced roads, cleaned up the city, built a refuse dump and opened a cultural center and a gymnasium.
His ambitious to-do list includes building a bus station and a library, and finishing renovation of the old town, or casbah.
But he says the flow of money from central government has dried up, even though energy exporter Algeria has over $150 billion in foreign reserves and plans to spend $286 billion on economic development between now and 2014. [ID:nAHM456979]
Algerian media say a series of corruption scandals in the capital is delaying distribution of the cash nationwide.
At a public meeting in Dellys’ new cultural center, Zerouali told an audience of about 500 townspeople: “For 2010, we did not receive money yet … We hope the money will come soon.”
The mayor then invited people in the audience to express their views. “You are doing alright, but it is not enough,” said one elderly man. “What we are looking for is jobs for our kids.”