Why Algeria’s Jihadist defectors don’t matter
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.
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.
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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?
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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.
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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.