Radical Islamism in Algeria

The Men Who Benefited from the Civil War

While most of the armed Islamist groups in Algeria have been crushed, an amnesty has guaranteed many penitents exemption from punishment. But these laws have not been well received by all parts of the Algerian population. Bernhard Schmid reports

photo: AP
Exemption from punishment for "penitent" terrorists? Massacred civilians in the Algerian city of Berrouaghia, February 2001

​​The new year began with news that made the vast majority of Algerians heave a heartfelt sigh of relief: the Armed Islamic Groups (Groupes islamiques armés, GIA) - the mention of whom was enough to instil fear and terror into the hearts of people, especially those living in the area surrounding the capital, Algiers - are as good as crushed, thereby ending one of the bloodiest chapters in Algeria's history.

Thus, on 3 January this year, a sober statement from the Algerian Ministry of the Interior summed up an operation that has been conducted pretty much under a cloak of secrecy over the past two months.

The state targets armed Islamists

In early November, the state security forces succeeded for the first time in capturing a "national Emir" (commander) of the GIA alive. They apprehended Boudiafi Nouereddine, also known as "Noureddine PRG", in Bab Ezzouar, a suburb of Algiers.

This gave the security forces the means to root out a few sleeper cells in the capital. Thanks to the information provided by the "Emir" during interrogation, other hide-outs were uncovered in searches, which in turn allowed the police and the army to inflict another wound on the rest of the organisation.

Barely 14 days at the helm of the GIA, the new "Emir" Chaâbane Younès, alias "Lyès", was shot dead on 1 December near the West Algerian city of Chlef. The man who was with him at the time, "Abu Bakr", laid down his arms and surrendered.

Because the GIA’s struggle, which also included a comprehensive campaign of terror against the civilian population, quickly proved counterproductive for the strategically minded, political Islamist wing, there were several schisms and regroupings. At least part of the Islamic Salvation Movement (Front islamique du salut, FIS), which was banned in March 1992, initially supported the GIA.

Internal power struggles and collapse

A former FIS commander, Mohammed Saïd, was even national leader of the GIA for the year starting May 1994. But he was deposed internally because many GIA members were very sceptical of activists from the FIS.

In the summer of 1994, party activists formed a military organisation: the armed wing of the FIS and called themselves the Islamic Salvation Army (Armée islamique du salut, AIS).

The AIS focussed more on taking political power and changed its tactics accordingly: it tried to avoid the horrendous attacks on civilians like the ones perpetrated by the GIA in its early days. Instead they decided to concentrate more on fighting the police, the army, and implacable political opponents.

In the summer of 1997, the AIS realised that the sharp increase in massacres, for which the GIA mainly assumed responsibility, was increasingly ruining their changes of bringing about a change in government. The reason being that the population was horrified by the violent Islamists and was turning its back on them.

In response to this development, the leadership of the AIS negotiated a ceasefire with the army, which officially came into force on 1 October 1997. A GIA splinter group was also founded in 1999: the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (Groupe salafiste pour la prédication et le combat, GSPC), which was headed by the former paratrooper Hassan Hattab.

The founders of the GSPC also accused the remaining GIA groups of having torpedoed any last chances of getting a foot in the political door by committing unrestrained bloody acts of terror. The new guerrilla group eventually withdrew to the mountain forests in North East Algeria, primarily in the Berber-speaking region of Kabylei.

If the Algerian authorities are to be believed, the entire national leadership of the GPSC was killed in a military operation in Kabylei in June 2004. Today, the GSPC has around 300 armed fighters to its name.

Following the most recent attacks on the remnants of the GIA, this organisation only has about thirty armed members left in the countryside around Algiers.

Amnesty for "the penitent"

The new president of Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, pledged to tackle the problem of the armed Islamist groups swiftly. After his inauguration in April 1999, an amnesty law was passed.

The Civil Concord Act ("concorde civile") of 13 July 1999 was valid for six months. According to the law, any "penitents" from the ranks of the armed groups that gave up the fight before 13 January 2000 would be able to benefit from the amnesty. After that, military force would once again be used against the remaining armed groups.

For the numerous Islamist groups, on the other hand, the law stipulated other methods: Article 41 of the Act stated that a collective general amnesty (which would include full exemption from criminal prosecution and the retention of political civil rights) would be given to members of a group that gave up their struggle against the state and were "authorized to take part in the fight against terrorism within the framework of the state".

The generally held opinion was that this referred to the AIS. As a result, for months there was speculation as to whether the AIS would retain its structure and even be integrated into the Algerian army as an independent organisation in exchange for being allowed to fight against the remnants of the GIA.

But it was never to be: the AIS disbanded on 13 January 2000 and was not replaced by another organisation. Instead of retaining the Islamic Salvation Army as a political structure, its members - and above all the families of its leaders - were offered individual support.

The men who benefited from the civil war

There was initially a lot of speculation about whether the "Emir" of the AIS, Madani Mezrag, would be sent into exile in Saudi Arabia. But Mezrag was eventually guaranteed a mineral water factory - a lucrative business in Algeria. In exchange, he was asked to demonstrate gratitude to the government in the future.

Before the president was re-elected, Mezrag publicly and actively expressed his support for Bouteflika in April 2004. The members of other Islamist organisations received a less preferential treatment than those of the AIS: They were subjected to a "probationary period" that will last somewhere between three and twelve years. During this time, they will have neither an active, nor a passive right to vote.

Nor were they offered a general amnesty. The idea was that the individual members of these armed groups would be brought before an administrative board instead of a court.

All formerly armed Islamists who were not personally responsible for murder or bomb attacks in public places were guaranteed exemption from punishment.

De facto, however, nothing was made known about sentences that would be passed on any of the Islamists that laid down their arms as part of the "concorde civile". That may have something to do with the difficulties involved in finding out which members were responsible for which acts, especially those committed by the GIA.

According to data made available by the authorities, a total of 6,000 former armed Islamists availed of the offer of amnesty in 1999 and 2000. Officially, they became known as "the penitent" (Repentis). But this term was not accepted by all of the Islamists.

Penitence for political gain?

One former leader of a local GIA group from the region around Médéa, Ali Benyahia, said in a French television documentary: "We are not penitent, because we don't think that we made a mistake."

Some of the supposed "dropouts" from armed Islamist groups used the offer of amnesty mainly to go legal for a while and in order to recruit new activists. This is born out by the fact that from 2000 to 2002 there were several cases of young sympathisers joining the armed groups.

Other "penitents", on the other hand, saw the futility of their struggle and really did use the offer of amnesty to return to civil life.

However, the material privileges that at least some of the "penitents" received caused social envy and met with political opposition. To facilitate their reintegration, they received financial support and help in finding a job.

In a country that recorded a peak official unemployment rate of 30 percent in 2000 and which still does not have a working unemployment benefit system, this is incomprehensible for many people.

Resistance to the amnesty

There was definite resistance to the offer of amnesty: part of the army and former communists, which have always seen themselves as the main opposition to the Islamists, warned against a "capitulation of the state" and a "first step towards political compromise with the Islamists".

Moreover, some terrorist victims’ associations opposed the very general nature of the amnesty that was offered to members of the armed groups, especially those that were responsible for criminal acts such as massacres. With the support of some of the press they joined forces to set up the National Committee Against Forgetting and Betrayal (Comité national contre l’oubli et la trahison, CNOT).

Their effectiveness was, however, limited because the government and parts of the population, which was obviously looking forward to a swift conclusion to the civil war that began to end in 1999 and wanted to put the horror behind them at last.

Shortly after his re-election to the presidency in April 2004, Bouteflika announced another limited amnesty. This offer was taken up by about 100 members of what remained of the GIA and GSPC.

In his widely respected speech on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the start of the Algerian War of Liberation against France, Bouteflika spoke out in favour of a general amnesty for all armed groups in the civil war.

This amnesty would be aimed at all former "combatants", whether sentenced or not, in order to overcome the "divisions in the country". At the moment it looks very likely that the initiative will get the backing of the entire apparatus of state.

Bernhard Schmid

© Qantara.de 2005

Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan

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