Militant Islamism

Algeria – A Member of the "Axis of Good"?

The Algerian government has repeatedly demanded that the EU place two Algerian Islamist groups on its list of terrorist organizations. The EU has consented, but so far nothing has happened. A report by Bernhard Schmid

photo: AP
To this day widely divergent political theories circulate about who is responsible for the massacres committed in the Algerian civil war

​​Algerian authorities saw the attacks of September 11, 2001 as a confirmation of their own fears. For years they warned about the dangers of armed radical Islamists. Now the Algerian government wishes to be rewarded for its previous efforts in the "war against terrorism," for example, with the lifting of existing restrictions on sales of weapon and armament technology. As a matter of fact, cooperation with leading Western countries, especially the United States and France, has intensified in these areas.

Dissonances with the EU

A matter of contention for the Algerian government is that the European Union has not yet placed the two most significant armed Islamist groups in Algeria on its list of "terrorist persons and organizations."

These two groups are the Armed Islamic Group (Groupes islamiques armés, GIA) on the one hand, and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (Groupe salafiste pour la prédication et le combat, GSPC) on the other.
In the recent past Algerian authorities have issued repeated requests that the European Union place both these organizations on the EU-wide list of "terrorists." Algerian Foreign Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem renewed the request to the EU during the summit meeting of his country with the European Union's "Troika" on November 3, 2003.

The request was repeated in the aftermath of the attacks of March 11, 2004, in the Spanish capital city, Madrid, which were attributed to a Moroccan armed Islamist group. Shortly after, the EU is said to have consented, as the Algerian newspaper Liberté reported at the end of March 2004.

Until then the European Union alleged that the "situation in Algerian was too confusing" to be able to assess the terrorist threat stemming from these groups.

But Algerian government officials recently complained at the conference in Riyadh that despite the promise and being offered "closer cooperation in the war against terror," the GIA and GSPC have not yet appeared on the European Union's Black List.

Responsibility for the civil war massacres

The story behind this political and diplomatic tug-of-war is of a twofold nature: On the one hand a discourse has prevailed among certain French government and authority officials, particularly in the 1990s, that questioned the complicity of the GIA in the massacres perpetrated on civilians in Algeria. Some went even so far as to question the very existence of the GIA.

Nevertheless it goes without saying that these speculations do not correspond to actual events in Algeria. They were advanced too soon and too quickly, and while collective massacres were still on the rise in rural areas in Algeria.

Instead they must be viewed against the backdrop of the political and diplomatic fronts that have emerged since the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) victory in the parliamentary elections in December 1991 and the subsequent "cancellation of the election process" after the first round.

At the time two fractions existed within the Algerian elite and in the military. One fraction aspired to share power with the Islamists, whereby they hoped the Islamists – in the process of achieving the "moralization" of society they strove for – would be authoritarian in enforcing a "social peace" and would make use of the existing elite.

The other fraction rejected the idea of sharing power, since it regarded the Islamists as an unpredictable factor which could endanger its own political fief.

Similar dividing lines existed in the political leadership of those countries with strong interests in Algeria, and therefore eager to wield the greatest influence over the fate of the country. These countries were first and foremost France and the United States.

Pro-military or compromise with the Islamists?

It can be said, even if it is a slight generalization, that the majority of the conservative right in France placed their bets on military leadership in Algeria, or more specifically, on the fraction which asserted itself early on and rejected the idea of sharing power.

The Mitterand socialists, as well as a minority within the bourgeois parties (grouped around the then Foreign Minister Alain Juppé) advocated working out a compromise with the Islamists and some form of power sharing.

This conflict dragged on through the 1990s until the de facto end of the civil war in 1999. At the same time the fractions opposing the strategy of the majority in the Algerian military command and advocating government participation for FIS Islamists claimed that the fraction in power in Algiers was mostly or solely responsible for the violence.

Accusations that the Islamists themselves had acted brutally toward the civil population were largely dismissed as government propaganda. Party supporters of the Algerian army in Europe argued in a similarly one-sided fashion. This ideological conflict came to a head when the collective massacres escalated after 1996. Those who tended to assume the sole responsibility of the segment of the Algerian elite who were unwilling to cooperate with the Islamists still doubted the complicity or the existence of the GIA. Instead representatives of this thesis spoke either of armed groups "infiltrated by agents and controlled by the regime" or even of the "army's death squadrons."

From 1997 to the beginning of this century, this fraction wielded a not insignificant influence on foreign policy, especially under the government of Lionel Josepin, and on certain newspapers and magazines (such as Libération, for instance).

At the same time French interests were well served in encouraging this orientation, for in the second half of the 1990s French influence in Algeria was clearly on the wane compared to that of the United States.

In addition, the price of crude oil before 1999 was very low, and Algeria was thus heavily dependent on favorable credit conditions in Western countries.

In this situation the threat of discrediting the Algerian state internationally – which meant claiming that the government (and not the GIA) might have organized the massacres – became an effective means of applying pressure.

But since the year 2000 to 2001 this means of exerting pressure has seldom been used. Since the attacks of September 11, it appears to be strategically "inopportune" to doubt the complicity of radical islamists in the murders committed in Algeria.

Violence equals al-Qaeda

A new political phenomenon, however, has created some confusion. The Algerian regime, in the meantime, has been investigating the violence in rural areas in a very instrumental manner. The name al-Qaeda is quickly implicated in any act of violence.

The kidnapping of tourists in the Algerian Sahara in the spring and summer of 2003 was immediately attributed to the GSPC and the terrorist network al-Qaeda. Yet the international terrorist organization's complicity is highly unlikely.

Most likely the kidnappings were carried out by groups of bandits who recruit their members from the desert nomad tribes.

The kidnappings in 2003 do not appear to have been spurred by ideological motives, but primarily or solely by financial motives.

But the Algerian regime has learned how to position itself favorably in the post-September 11 world order. According to the motto: he who is loud in warning against al-Qaeda automatically belongs to the "Axis of Good."

Interim balance

What tentative conclusion can be made from these developments?

So far the European Union has given no explicit reason why the GIA and the GSPC have not yet been placed on its list of "terrorists" despite repeated requests from Algiers. Instead the EU has confined itself to doing nothing while repeatedly assuring the Algerian government that it will comply with its request with regard to the two armed organizations.

Behind this, on both sides, are politically and strategically motivated methods of dealing with acts of violence, and their causes or perpetrators.

Instead of really investigating who is responsible for the escalating violence and massacres perpetrated on the civil population, each side is trying to attribute the blame for murder and other acts according to their respective political interests.

Perhaps the question about the danger potential of GIA and GSPC will "take care" of itself in the near future. According to information released by the Algerian Ministry of the Interior, since the beginning of 2005 both armed groups have been largely wiped out.

Bernhard Schmid

© 2005

Translation from German: Nancy Joyce

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