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Why Algeria’s Jihadist defectors don’t matter

September 22, 2009

Jarret Brachman and Jihadica have both been covering the “revisions” (i.e. Jihadi self criticisms) of the largely defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (PDF). This has been widely presented in the media as a case of a group merged into al-Qaida breaking out again, in protest of bin Ladin’s extremism.  A very appealing idea, but not at all true.

the map is alright, but the terrain seems all screwed up

In fact, the group of jailed leaders now issuing “revisions” (supported & publicized by the Libyan state) is not representative of the group that has merged into al-Qaida. Most (all?) of them never took part in the decision of others, still at large, to join bin Ladin post-9/11. They may well have opposed it from the start, even though LIFG-AQ relations were good throughout the 90s. In sum, the “revisionists” are not so much pulling back from AQ as advising their former comrades-in-arms to do so. Quite significant, still, from a “war of ideas” standpoint, but not what it’s been made out to be.

* * *

This “revisions” business is now an old game, whether formally portrayed in those terms or not. First, it was the Egyptian Gamaa Islamiya, then various hardliner  “Sahwa” clerics in Saudi Arabia (eg. Salman el-Awda), then sections of the Jihad Islami, Ayman el-Zawahiri’s group — most notably & recently, Seyyid Imam el-Sharif, its former ideologue-in-chief and a Jihadi star theorist. And now the Libyans.

Interesting fact: they’re not the first Maghrebi Jihadis to recant. Long before that, we’ve seen Abdelhaqq Laayada (fmr. GIA head) and Hassan Hattab (GSPC founder), as well as most of the ex-FIS leadership (Ali Belhadj still won’t budge) back down from their challenge to the Algerian state. But that hasn’t got much attention outside of the country, despite Algeria’s civil war having been a major scene of Jihadist activity in the 90s (in fact a formative influence on much of the London & Afghanistan-based travelling Jihadi ideologue circus: Abu Qatada, Abu Moussab el-Suri. etc). Why is that?

* * *

The main reason is probably that the global Jihadi movement had its fingers burned in Algeria at an early date. The country’s politics have always been quite incomprehensible to outsiders, as well as to Algerians, and no less so to Jihadis. The bin Ladin/Zawahiri kind of people — the Salafi Jihadi mainstream if you will — pulled away from the conflict already about 1996, when the GIA began its descent into total madness (they ended up declaring that 99.9% of Algerian Muslims were apostates and should be put to death; it was a pretty hard sell, propaganda-wise). International Jihadis were understandably cautious in engaging with the country after that. You’ll recall it took until 2006 for the GIA’s comparatively sane breakout faction, GSPC, to gain approval as an AQ wing (AQIM), despite it having signalled the intention to join much earlier.

Another reason is the level of manipulation of Islamists by the Algerian secret services. Now, the wild accusations of certain Algerian exiles, who (profess to) believe that the entire war was staged by the DRS to scandalize those poor Jihadi boy scouts, don’t seem to have much currency in the global movement — there, Algeria seems to be cited more as an example of a good cause gone bad, due to takfiris taking command, than as a case of hostile manipulation. But certainly, even disregarding the local conspiracy mania, there was a lot of infiltration, provocation and false flag operations in Algeria. Presumably the change of heart among Algeria’s militant Islamists has lost some of its effect on outside Jihadis, because it could so easily (and sometimes correctly) be explained away as just another conspiracy.

More crucial, however, was the political and deeply corrupt character of the war — not at all the glorious Jihad its adherents had hoped it would become. The true believers among the Islamist warriors never gave up. They’re still at it, in the mountains of Kabylie, and in the deep Sahara. But of the movements and leaders that formed in the early 90s, and ran the main fighting, most have withdrawn ungracefully in deals with the government. Many of these people, formerly self-proclaimed Jihadi purists, now seem to live quite comfortable lives, rubbing elbows with their former enemies. Some of them regularly appear in the media (which, while freewheeling otherwise, tends to be well-monitored on serious security issues) to throw accusations at Algeria’s enemy du jour — like Laayada, who comes forth to tell of Moroccan support for his madcap movement every other week. What they aren’t much doing, on the other hand, is to formulate a serious religious response to Jihadism, i.e. attacking the concept of war against the rulers in Algeria on its theoretical/theological merits. Probably because they never managed to formulate many such arguments in favor of it, either, back when they were fighting — they just ran with what poured in from the ideologues in London and Saudi Arabia. And that’s the fourth reason: their “revisions” aren’t even proper counter-arguments, they’re just defections from a manifestly failed cause.

* * *

The shadowy dealings of the state, the gruesome war and its amoral aftermath, and the way patronage has supplanted ideology for so many former Jihadi luminaries, has contributed greatly to the air of nihilist resignation that rules today’s politically devastated Algeria. This is also the case for pro-Jihadi non-Algerians looking at the country’s Islamist scene from the outside: they’re not going to like what they see. The defections of Hattab, Medani Mezrag, Rabeh Kbir, Laayada and others have much local importance, because of the ties these men have or had to local opposition movements, armed or otherwise. But their “revisions” are at heart shallow political arguments, meaningful only in a local Algerian context. And that context, i.e. the Algerian civil war, inspires, from the very start, a sense of disgust and weariness among Jihadis and anti-Jihadis alike. This being the case, Algerian Islamists turning in their weapons and accepting a government amnesty  — as they’ve been doing at irregular intervals for over ten years now — is not going to have any serious impact outside the country at all, until it gets to the point where the Islamist rebellion is extinguished altogether.

So, to conclude: the news, however untrustworthy, of Mokhtar Belmokhtar readying to turn himself in, are of course welcome for anyone who hopes to see al-Qaida’s North African franchise crash and burn. But the effect of that and other defections will be local (on his Saharan network), national/regional (he’s a widely known name in AQIM), but not at all global or ideological in a wider sense.

30 Comments leave one →
  1. October 2, 2009 20:13

    I can imagine all kinds of reasons why, and this is still an isolated, anonymous quote with no supporting evidence. Look hard enough, and there’s probably an article somewhere where another anonymous Mali security source accuses POLISARIO of aiding AQIM.

  2. October 2, 2009 22:14

    Surely I think feudal Morocco utilizes Islamist terrorism or the threat of it as a tool of foreign policy. It is my suspicion. I think there are reasons to believe so. Historically it is explicable. There are also accusations. Why so shy about this opinion? Is it ridiculous?

  3. October 2, 2009 23:14

    No, as far as I’m concerned, you can have whatever unsupported opinions you like. But then expect them to be treated as such.

  4. October 3, 2009 08:58

    My opinions are supported, but I suppose that’s a matter of opinion. Please treat them as you please. Btw. you probably will argue a political murder a la Ben Barka can’t be labeled as terrorism, and the head of the gendarmie in the Sultanate is not Islamic inspired, and the murder in France has nothing to do with foreign policy. You will be right and we move on.

  5. October 3, 2009 23:23

    van kBtw. you probably will argue a political murder a la Ben Barka can’t be labeled as terrorism, and the head of the gendarmie in the Sultanate is not Islamic inspired, and the murder in France has nothing to do with foreign policy.

    1. The Ben Barka affair was not terrorism in the normal sense of the word (attacking civilians to create a climate of fear), it was a targeted political disappearance/assassination of a key member of the opposition. A crime nonetheless, of course.
    2. Benslimane, Oufkir and the others allegedly involved were certainly not inspired to act by Islam, Islamism or religion at all, just because Morocco is a Muslim country. Compare: political murders in Franco’s Spain may have been committed by more or less devout catholics, but they were hardly the result of Catholicism.
    3. It’s a kingdom, not a sultanate.
    4. The Ben Barka affair was driven by Moroccan domestic policy, although it took place abroad (for the simple reason that he was abroad).

    You will be right and we move on.

    Exactly 🙂

    D Sah — I’m not sure the Wikipedia article is correct to lump in the Mauritania attack with other “international brigades”; the name itself is not very unique. As for who was behind it, I really truly don’t have a clue. It could certainly have been Sahrawis, whether under central POLISARIO command or not. But since international attacks have never been committed by POLISARIO on any other occasion, and they’ve publicly denounced the action, there’s plenty of reason to doubt it. Morocco is another fine theory, or (as per Wikipedia) independent leftist sympathizers. At the end of the day, I don’t know.

    However, even if that attack could plausibly have been carried out by Morocco, it’s not at all the same as saying that eg. the Madrid bombings have such a connection, as Van Kaas constantly seems to imply. They were very different events, one taking place in the context of a war where Morocco was involved, and the other in totally different circumstances (AQ sympathizers worldwide attacking what they view as enemy governments). Also, and quite crucially, unlike in the Mauritanian ambassador attack, the perpetrators of the Madrid bombing are known, so the room for speculation is rather limited.

  6. October 4, 2009 20:58

    If I seem to be saying that eg. the Madrid bombings have a Moroccan connection, I should explain myself. Do I say so? Well, maybe.

    The standard perception of the Moroccan involvement with international terrorism is clear: they are on our side. Morocco defaults to: a modern Arab nation with young modern King, the best Arab democracy available, with respect for the Jewish world. Morocco assists the USA with the interrogation of suspected AQ terrorists. They also fell victim of terrorism. The modern Moroccan western oriented King has an Islamic opposition. They protect our interests, and keep refugees from European shores. They buy Western arms. Etc.
    This is the standard idea about Morocco I do not agree with. I think it’s not a modern society, but a medieval Sultanate in its core, spitting on international justice while having problems on all borders, with an sadistic police-corps under a maffiastyle billionaire ruler claiming to be the religious leader. Sure Morocco helps to torture suspected AQ terrorists, they are experts.

    Of course this bad picture can not be enough reason to believe in Moroccan complicity with terrorism. Just like the modern image of Morocco can’t be a reason to trust it. In the end we can only judge this nation (or any other) by its action. What do they do for peace and stability? What is their attitude against terror?

    And so we get to what Alle thinks is my suggestion of Moroccan complicity. Now I just point at three cases: the accusations from Algerian side; the question-marks around the case of Belliraj, and the exclamation-marks around the case of Chakib el-Khayari.

    What does Morocco do to assure Algeria it is a trustworthy neighbour, what are the answers to the suspicion?
    Nothing. Indifference. They do not care and hope their image is powerful enough. The arrogance is so enormous.. they claim to solve several political murders in Belgium, while silencing internal opposition in the case of Belliraj. They kick the Spanish intelligence antennas out because they have a problem with the revelations of Chakib el-Khayari.
    How to qualify these actions? To my mind these are not typical for a good trustworthy ally but for an opportunistic undercover double agent.

    So in the end I am not making the accusations, Moroccan actions do.

    And of course we still have the accusations of Carlos Ruiz Miguel on this topic.

  7. October 4, 2009 21:31

    Carlos Ruiz Miguel defined two very important criteria which embarrass Morocco.
    1-Who profit of the terrorism in Algeria?
    2 – Why weapons coming from France and from Spain pass in transit by Morocco and are used in Algeria and not in Morocco?


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