Photo Credit: Al-Khalidiyah Blog
By: Emily Gilbert, Columnist
Algeria is a critical security partner in North Africa and the Sahel.[i] However, faced with the continued instability of its neighbors to the east and south, Algeria is also contending with an uncertain political and economic future.[ii] While incidents of terrorism are significantly down within Algeria, many of the forces that laid the groundwork for terrorism and insurgency persist, particularly the grievances of the restive Amazigh (or Berber) population in the Kabyle region. Amazigh-dominated Kabyle’s role in both the insurgency in the 1990s and subsequent terrorist campaigns is often overlooked in discussions of Algeria’s security outlook. In order to understand the evolution of the contemporary security environment, one must understand Kabyle’s position in post-colonial Algeria.
Though ethnic tension in the Kabyle region dates back to French colonial rule, the current conflict has its roots in the period following independence when the new Algerian state instituted a policy of “Arabization.” The Amazigh are a separate ethnic group from Algerian Arabs with a distinct culture and language.[iii] Following the end of French rule, Algerian leaders were determined to institute a new cohesive identity in Algeria that was notably different from France. Attempts to enforce an Arabic identity across Algeria ignored the contributions and autonomy of the Amazigh and these policies faced fierce resistance in Kabyle.[iv] What resulted was decades of economic and political marginalization until the ‘Arabization’ process was legally formalized in July 1998 when Arabic was recognized as the only official language.[v]
Though the elections of 1992 are widely recognized as a flashpoint in Algerian history, the Islamist movement and leadership that sparked the civil war have their roots in the struggle for determination in Kabyle. The decades following Algerian independence saw multiple clashes between the Kabyle and the Algerian government. The year 1980 saw massive protests known as the Berber Spring.[vi] In 1982, a rebellion led by Mustafa Bouyali, a Kabyle leader in the independence war against France, broke out. Bouyali’s organization, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), waged an insurgency until he was killed in 1987.[vii] In 1988, the country experienced massive student protests. In several incidents, security forces fired on protesters, killing at least 500 people and arresting 3,500.[viii] Outraged, two of Bouyali’s associates found the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), a political organization that sought to compete in elections. Four years later, when it appeared the FIS would win the 1992 election, the Algerian military nullified the vote and declared martial law, leading several groups to launch an insurgency that would last the rest of the decade. The resulting civil war killed some 200,000 people and saw both sides committing atrocities against the populace.[ix] Protesting insurgent culpability, Hassan Hattab, also of Kabyle, founded a new organization in 1998: the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC).[x]
During its existence, GSPC found sanctuary and tacit, if not direct support in Kabyle.[xi] In 2007, the GSPC swore allegiance to al-Qaeda and changed its name to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). From 2007 onward, AQIM staged much of its fight against the government in and around the mountainous Kabyle.[xii] Dramatic suicide bombings, including two particularly deadly attacks in April and December 2007, announced the group’s presence within al-Qaeda. Further strikes included a December 2007 suicide bombing of UN headquarters in Algiers that killed 37 people and an August 2008 suicide attack on a police academy in Issers, Kabyle, that killed 43 people. After consecutive years of decreasing violence, 2011 saw resurgence.[xiii] A coordinated assault on an army post at Azazga killed 17 soldiers, while ambushes and gun-battles against gendarmes, soldiers and police officers in Thénia, Ammal, and Bouderbala killed at least seven. Improvised explosive device bombings against municipal guard and police patrols killed at least eight over the course of the year.[xiv] While outside observers often reported this as “northern Algeria,” the vast majority of attacks took place in Kabyle.
The conflict between the Kabyle and the government can be attributed to a history of economic and political marginalization that created an environment that was easily manipulated and factionalized.[xv] Both the government and terrorists benefited from blurring the lines between the Kabyle Amazigh community and insurgency and later terrorism. Today, violence has decreased, but the Kabyle region remains plagued by insecurity. Investment and development have largely stalled and the most recent international investigation into the status of development in Kabyle found depressing numbers.[xvi] One province saw 107 development projects languish for years while 400 other projects suffered significant delays.[xvii] The region as a whole continues to suffer from water shortages and poor energy access. The risk of terrorism and kidnapping is common, seen most recently with the kidnapping and beheading of a French tourist by the ISIS-affiliate Jund al-Khilafah (JAK) in 2014.[xviii]
While development in Kabyle has languished, stagnant oil prices have created a looming economic crisis throughout Algeria. This comes at a time where the country must also contend with an increasingly challenging regional security environment. Furthermore, terrorist activity in Tunisia, the dissolution of a functional Libya following the 2011 NATO intervention, and insurgency in northern Mali have coincided with a period of uncertain political leadership in Algeria. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has occupied the presidency since 1999, has remained out of the public eye since suffering a stroke in 2013.[xix] In another startling shakeup, the long-serving head of Intelligence (Département de la Renseignement et de la Sécurité or DRS), General Mohamed Mediène was replaced suddenly in 2015.[xx] Needless to say, politics in Algeria remain opaque.
Algeria’s political situation is uncertain, and while Algiers is taking steps to address ongoing economic stagnation, this uncertainty is worrisome in a region increasingly relying on Algeria’s stability. Continued ethnic grievance and poverty in Kabyle, the historical epicenter of insurgency and terrorism, remain unaddressed. Finally, while incidents of terrorism have decreased since 2011, AQIM, the Mali-based Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, and Al-Murabitun continue to be active terrorist threats in Algeria. High profile leaders such as Mokhtar Belmokhtar and AQIM’s Emir Abdelmalik Droukdel remain at-large.[xxi] In the Kabyle region, Algeria has an opportunity to improve the complex security environment facing it. To do so, Algeria must take steps to address grievance and poverty in Kabyle as it moves to find solutions to broader security and economic challenges.
[i] U.S. Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security, “Algeria 2015 Crime and Safety Report.” Accessed at: https://www.osac.gov/pages/ContentReportDetails.aspx?cid=17015.
[iii] Jacobs, Anna. The Amazigh Movement & Democratic Reform: A Look at Morocco & Algeria, Muftah. July 28th, 2014. Accessed at: http://muftah.org/amazigh-movement-democratic-reform-look-morocco-algeria/ – .WBzn8hTk72A.
[iv] Institute for Security Studies. 2008. “Chapter 2: Terrorism in Algeria,” TERRORISM IN THE MAGHREB: The Transnationalisation of Domestic Terrorism. Accessed at: https://www.issafrica.org/chapter-2-terrorism-in-algeria.
[vi] Jacobs, Anna. The Amazigh Movement & Democratic Reform: A Look at Morocco & Algeria, Muftah. July 28th, 2014. Accessed at: http://muftah.org/amazigh-movement-democratic-reform-look-morocco-algeria/ – .WBzn8hTk72A
[vii] Ahmed, Akbar and Frankie Martin. “The Kabyle Berbers, AQIM and the search for peace in Algeria,” Al Jazeera. February 24, 2013. Accessed at: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/02/201321913479263624.html.
[ix] Beardsley, Eleanor. “Algeria’s ‘Black Decade’ Still Weighs Heavily,” NPR. April 25, 2011. Accessed at: http://www.npr.org/2011/04/25/135376589/algerias-black-decade-still-weighs-heavily.
[x] Ahmed, Akbar and Frankie Martin. “The Kabyle Berbers, AQIM and the search for peace in Algeria,” Al Jazeera. February 24, 2013. Accessed at: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/02/201321913479263624.html.
[xi] Rogan, Hanna. 2008. Violent Trends in Algeria Since 9/11. CTC Sentinel 1:12.
[xii] Tomolya, J. nos, and Larry D. White. 2015. Terrorist threats in north africa from a NATO perspective. Vol. 124. Amsterdam: IOS Press.
[xiii] Djaffar Tamani, “Retour de la Peur en Kabylie,” El-Watan, April 19, 2011; “La Kabylie vit un de ses étés les plus chauds,” Le Temps d’Algérie, August 19, 2011; Hadjer Guenanfa, “Août, le mois le plus meurtrier depuis le début de l’année,” Tout Sur Algérie, August 31, 2011
[xiv] M.T., “L’ANP frappée au Coeur,” Liberté, August 28, 2011; Mélanie Matarese, “Alger sous la ménace terroriste,” Le Figaro, July 27, 2011
[xv] Institute for Security Studies. 2008. “Chapter 2: Terrorism in Algeria,” TERRORISM IN THE MAGHREB: The Transnationalisation of Domestic Terrorism. Accessed at: https://www.issafrica.org/chapter-2-terrorism-in-algeria.
[xvi] Tomolya, J. nos, and Larry D. White. 2015. Terrorist threats in north africa from a NATO perspective. Vol. 124. Amsterdam: IOS Press.
[xvii] Ahmed, Akbar and Frankie Martin. “The Kabyle Berbers, AQIM and the search for peace in Algeria,” Al Jazeera. February 24, 2013. Accessed at: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/02/201321913479263624.html.
[xviii] U.S. Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security, “Algeria 2015 Crime and Safety Report.” Accessed at: https://www.osac.gov/pages/ContentReportDetails.aspx?cid=17015; Johnson, Chris and Kim Willsher. “French tourist beheaded in Algeria by jihadis linked to Islamic State,” The Guardian. September 25, 2014. Accessed at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/24/french-tourist-beheaded-algeria-isis-linked-jihadis.
[xx] “Algeria’s Bouteflika replaces head of DRS military intelligence – sources, state media”, Reuters, 13 September 2015. Accessed at: http://af.reuters.com/article/topNews/ idAFKCN0RD0ME20150913.
[xxi] U.S. Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Safety, “Algeria 2015 Crime and Safety Report.” Accessed at: https://www.osac.gov/pages/ContentReportDetails.aspx?cid=17015.