Islamism in the Saharan Sahel: The Algerian Dimension

The surge in international interest in the Saharan Sahel region of Africa following the French-led intervention in Mali and especially the attack on the In Amenas gas facility in southern Algeria by armed Islamists has drawn attention to the links between these incidents and the conflict in Algeria in the 1990s.

The surge in international interest in the Saharan Sahel region of Africa following the French-led intervention in Mali and especially the attack on the In Amenas gas facility in southern Algeria by armed Islamists has drawn attention to the links between these incidents and the conflict in Algeria in the 1990s.

The struggle by the armed Islamist groups against the Algerian regime in the 1990s had few external links beyond fundraising among the Algerian diaspora in Europe. The decline and increasingly local and economic focus of the remaining groups inside the country, however, contributed to Algerian Islamists in exile strengthening their links with similarly exiled Islamists from other states and the forging of ideological connections between the struggle in Algeria and those in Palestine, Kashmir and Chechnya. It was therefore in the diaspora that the links between Algerians and groups such as Al Qaeda began to grow, building on existing connections between those Algerians that had served in the Arab mujahidin in Afghanistan alongside figures such as Osama Bin Laden in the 1980s. Although supportive of the campaign of the armed groups against the regime, Bin Laden and his followers were angered and alienated by the growing extremism and takfirist ideology of the mainstream of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the resultant violence against ordinary Algerians and even other Islamists. When elements of the GIA became similarly unhappy and broke away in 1998 to continue the armed struggle against the regime rather than Algerian society more generally, forming the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), links were established with Bin Laden and his group. Although initially intent on focusing on the domestic struggle against the regime, it was argued that a diminishing presence and influence in Algeria increased the attractiveness to the GSPC of establishing external links with organisations such as Al Qaeda, especially after a change in leadership in 2003. In January 2007 the GSPC announced that it had renamed itself ‘Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’ (AQIM).

Although internal developments within the armed groups remained as opaque as during the 1990s, there was both a qualitative and a quantitative increase in the violence officially attributed to the armed Islamist groups from the beginning of 2007, coinciding with the announcement of the GSPC’s formal affiliation with Al Qaeda. These constituted a series of large-scale bombings targeting important locations in Algiers in April 2007 and again the following December. Several of these were suicide operations, which marked a departure for the Algerian Islamists and appeared indicative of the influence of Al Qaeda. The new AQIM also appeared to extend its activities beyond the populated north of Algeria into other regions and into neighbouring states. There were growing reports of activities by armed Islamists in the vast Saharan south of the country, notably involving the kidnapping of foreigners for ransom. For some observers, these new developments were in reality the result of the manipulations and internal politics of the regime, with figures in the upper echelons seeking to use the violence against each other politically in the same manner as they had been alleged to have used it during the 1990s. Others asserted that the upsurge of violence, particularly in the south, was a deliberate ploy on the part of the Algerian intelligence services, the DRS, to attract Western and especially US support for the regime. Yet others saw the kidnappings in the south to be more likely the product of mere criminality in a region where smuggling and banditry had long been common. Whatever the respective truths of these theories, it did appear by the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century that genuine Islamists had come to be increasingly involved in activities in the Saharan south, perhaps being drawn to the area through the publicity given to the supposed presence of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb there. But as Camille Tawil has observed, despite these activities, ‘nothing could disguise the fact that AQIM was a shadow of its Algerian forebears.’

At the international level, the Algerian regime was clearly keen to use these events to its own advantage. Algeria had responded enthusiastically to the US’s call for cooperation in what it called the ‘War on Terror’ following the attacks of September 11 2001.  President Bouteflika flew to Washington to meet with President Bush in November 2001 despite having made a similar visit only four months earlier. There he pledged his support for the US campaign against international Islamist terrorism, arguing that Algeria was ‘well-placed to share in the current pain and suffering of the American people.’ Explicitly linking the violence in Algeria with the 11 September attacks, he said that ‘Terrorism is one and indivisible. If we are going to combat terrorism, we must do it together.’ Bouteflika’s offer of support was warmly welcomed from a US administration anxious to learn from the experiences of other states in combating Islamist violence and the years that followed saw a dramatic improvement and intensification in relations between the two states: Donald Rumsfeld the US Defense Secretary stating, ‘It’s instructive for us to realize that the struggle we’re in is not unlike the struggle that the people of Algeria went through.’ Besides learning from Algeria, the US was also anxious to help the country eradicate what remained of the armed Islamist resistance to the regime inside the country. There was a fear that grew throughout the 2000s that Algeria, and the Maghreb more generally, might become a new theatre of operations for Al Qaeda, particularly in the south of the region and into the Sahel, following its effective ejection from Afghanistan. In 2004, the Department of Defense established the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative in co-operation with Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco as well as a number of states in the Sahel and West Africa to help control what were thought to be dangerously empty areas that could provide ‘safe havens’ for terrorists. The extent to which these dangers were well-founded was unclear and there were persistent suspicions that the threat had been overstated by Maghreb states to gain valuable external support for their struggle against domestic enemies and to reduce pressures for political reform and improvements in human rights. It was even argued that the very idea of an Al Qaeda presence in the Maghreb-Sahel region was a deliberate invention of the Algerian intelligence services, the DRS, that extended to acts of terrorism and the kidnapping of foreign tourists in the region.

David Cameron’s visit to Algiers on 30 January and his call for cooperation against terrorism must be seen in this context. The British prime minister’s declaration that ‘Both Britain and Algeria are countries that have suffered from terrorism and we understand each other’s suffering. … What we have agreed is a strengthened partnership that looks at how we combat terrorism and how we improve security of this region’ was a near-exact echo of Bouteflika’s message to President Bush over a decade earlier. Once again it appeared that the Algerian regime was using diplomatic contact to bolster international support for itself and also deflect any criticism about the lack of reform and democracy in the country, newly highlighted by the substantial changes occurring among Algeria’s neighbours. What David Cameron and Britain gained from the visit, beyond an opportunity for the prime minister to appear statesman-like and proactive to the British public in the wake of the In Amenas attack, is far less clear.


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