Extremism alive (and well?) in Algeria
The last week has seen two spectacular illustrations of the survival of extremism in Algeria, despite that country’s horrendous experiences in its five-year-long civil war in the 1990s which cost the lives of up to 200,000 people.
On 16 December, a self-styled Salafi imam, Abdelfatah Hamadouche Ziraoui, on Facebook called for the eminent Algerian author and journalist, Kamel Daoud, to be publicly executed for insulting Islam.
A few days later, on 22 December, Algerian elite special forces killed the head of the pro-Islamic State group (IS, formerly ISIS) Jund al-Khalifah, Abdelmalek Gouri and two of his associates in an ambush in the Kabyli town of Issers. His group had been responsible for the beheading of a
|Verbal extremism illustrates the growing alienation of large parts of the population from the state.|
French tourist, Hervé Gourdel, in Kabylia last September in a vain attempt to dissuade France from joining the US-led anti-IS coalition in Iraq.
Both events illustrate different facets of the ongoing problem of extremism in Algeria and of the state’s response to it, despite the country’s bitter experiences two decades ago. They suggest, furthermore, that, whatever the success of the anti-IS coalition in the Middle East today, the issue will continue to embitter the region for years to come.
The ongoing problem of violence
In fact, violent extremism has continued to be a marginalised thread of public life ever since the end of the civil war in 1999, particularly in the Berber-dominated coastal region of Kabylia, just to the east of the capital, Algiers.
In 1997, a new group in Kabylia targeting the Algerian security forces, the Groupe Salafiste de Predication et du Combat (GSPC) split off from the most extreme terrorist group, the Groupes Islamiques Armés (GIA) coalition.
In 2003, the group split, with one branch remaining in Kabylia and the other moving into the Sahara. There it captured 33 foreign tourists whom it released against a ransom three months later, retiring to an inaccessible hideout in Northern Mali with its gains. Three years later, as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM), it declared its allegiance to al-Qaeda.
Both branches continued desultory attacks on the Algerian state, despite continued army action inside Algeria until 2011.
Then, capitalising on the civil war in Libya which gave it an opportunity to re-arm, AQIM piggy-backed on the Touareg rebellion in Mali to seize control of North Malian towns including Timbuktu.
Two years later, in January 2013, AQIM and its allies tried to seize the Malian capital, Bamako, at the same time as a dissident leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, mounted a spectacular attack on the In Amenas gas facility in Eastern Algeria. France intervened in Mali, with the help of Chad and is still there.
Algeria, meanwhile, renewed its domestic campaign against extremism inside the country. It has also coordinated action against extremist groups in Mali and their counterparts in Tunisia and Libya with other Sahelian states. With the emergence of IS in Iraq and Syria, its own extremists in Kabylia have had a new beacon to follow, as the al-Qeda brand has become tarnished.
Now that Abdelmalek Gouri has been killed, however, the remaining extremists in hiding in Kabylia are likely to become even more marginalised. Since last September, thirty extremists have been killed in Algeria by the army, seventeen of them in Kabylia and five who were members of the thirty-strong Jund al-Khalifah.
Concerns over extremism
Verbal extremism is another matter and should be much more worrying to the authorities in Algiers, for it illustrates the growing alienation of large parts of the population from the state. It is a reflection of the ongoing social and economic crisis in the country and of the continuing cultural divide there between Francophone and Arabophone.
Kamel Daoud, for example is a highly respected journalist and author. Editor for nine years of the respected French-language daily, the Quotidien d’Oran, he has been listed twice in recent years for the premier French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, most recently this year. He writes by preference in French, he says, because Arabic is full of hidden ideological and religious traps for the unwary.
That is not an attitude that endears him to Algeria’s growing Salafist community, hence Ziraou’s very public attack on him for apostasy and for “waging war on values sacred to Islam”. The Salafists see themselves taking on the mantle of protecting Islamic values from Algeria’s moderate pro-Muslim Brotherhood Islamists in the Green Alliance parties who have failed to make a dent on the formal political process in Algeria.
His attack has also highlighted the cultural cleavage between secular and religious groups for it has been opposed by intellectuals, fifty of whom signed a petition calling on the state to protect Daoud and addressed to the ministers of religious affairs, culture and communications.
Two ministers responded. Mohamed Aissa, who holds the religious portfolio condemned the attack but deplored support for Daoud from Bernard-Henri Levy in France, who he depicted as heading an international Zionist lobby. Communications Minister Hamid Grine attacked all threats to freedom of speech.
The Algerian presidency, which Daoud has roundly attacked in the past, not surprisingly said nothing, a point seized upon by the Francophone press, led by El Watan.
The issue is serious, however, and the government cannot simply hope that it will go away, for it highlights both the growing frustrations of Algerians and the persistence of religious extremism that runs counter to Algeria’s own indigenous traditions, exemplified by Malek Bennabi, Algeria’s leading Islamic intellectual of the 1970s.