Al-Qaeda and Algiers Struggle to Cope with the Implications of the Arab Spring

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 42

Al-Qaeda's Ayman Al-Zawahiri in his October 2011 video

Al-Qaeda’s media arm released a video from Dr. Ayman al-Zawhiri in October that focused mainly on American “defeats,” but also offered the al-Qaeda leader’s views on Algeria. Al-Zawahiri called upon the people of Algeria to rise up against their government, which he claimed was guilty, among other things, of fighting the imposition of Shari’a in Algeria and serving the interests of America and France in the Mediterranean. Al-Zawahiri also called on the soldiers of Islam in the region (i.e. al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – AQIM) to offer an example of jihad and resistance (as-Sahab Media, October 11). [1] On October 17, al-Qaeda’s media wing posted another video entitled “Algeria and the Battle of Patience” by senior al-Qaeda commander Abu Yahya al-Libi. This message called upon Algerians to depose President Bouteflika and his regime (as-Sahab Media, October 18):

Rise up with your sons and bring back your uprising against a fragile, shaky regime, as life is chances, and the winds are winds of change, and relenting and settling won’t work with it. Should your winds blow, take advantage of them, as after each storm there will be calm… So, revolt O defiant people in the face of injustice and tyranny with higher determination and stronger challenge in order to overthrow this moldy regime that stole your revolution, wasted your wealth and enriched your enemy with your money, and caused you poverty and forbade you to have the best of your resources, and opened your country for the bastards of the West to enjoy your resources, and made your honorable sons displaced around the world asking for peoples’ help. [2]

Why then, has al-Qaeda Central turned its focus to Algeria at this time?

A Contextual Assessment

These statements must be contextualized in a wider political and strategic framework and in light of the dynamics of change working in the region and interacting with global and long-term trends. There are three main contexts, which can be divided in three geopolitical circles:

  • Global Dynamics: These statements are an attempt by al-Qaeda Central to retain the political initiative. The capture and death of Bin Laden represented a great symbolic blow to the organization, whose operational capabilities were already in decline. For al-Qaeda/jihadist elements, Algeria has a strong importance for historical reasons but several current trends and developments have attracted al-Qaeda’s attention: Algeria is in the midst of a vast year-old regional turmoil, it has good relations (more or less) with all the main “far enemies” of al-Qaeda (the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Spain); it supported, although not very vocally, Mu’ammar Qaddafi until the end of his regime and its political balance is currently considered fragile.

    These messages are likely also a signal to AQIM to become more resolute in its fight against the Algerian government. AQIM suffers from the same problems as al-Qaeda Central: It has lost the political initiative over the past few years and despite some recent signs of survival, the group’s ability to attack the Algerian government has decreased progressively.

  • Regional Troubles: One of the novelties of the Arab Spring revolts was that, from the very beginning, they were not characterized by a resolute Islamist rhetoric. However, the lack of a radical Islamist discourse in the uprisings does not entail the end of Islamist forces as main political players in the region.

    The increasing prominence of Islamist groups in Libya, the victory of Ennahada in Tunisian elections and the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egyptian political transition show that Islamist-oriented groups still remain among the region’s most organized political and social groups. Al-Qaeda is ideologically and politically remote from many of these players. However, this broadly considered Islamist awakening is seen as an opportunity for the movement to re-enter the political and ideological window of the Arab Spring, in which Al Qaeda has had trouble finding a place since the earliest days of the revolts.

  •  The National Arena: In the early weeks of the Arab Spring, Algeria was considered a serious candidate to follow the same path as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. However, this did not happen, although there were reports of demonstrations, strikes and clashes in Algeria. The nation’s domestic political picture is becoming more and more complicated as social and political cleavages emerge, but that does not automatically entail that the regime will be destroyed. There is strong potential for an increasing destabilization of the Algerian institutional and political landscape due to questions over the health of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and intelligence chief General Mohamed “Toufik” Mediène, housing shortages, sustained inflation in food prices, structural corruption and tensions over the distribution of wealth.  With parliamentary elections upcoming in 2012 and presidential elections following in 2014, these elements likely entered into the calculations of al-Qaeda’s leaders when deciding to release these statements.

The Fragile Status Quo

Paradoxically, there is a convergence of views between al-Qaeda and some Western views on the inevitability of the domino effect in considering the Arab Spring.  Algeria was for some time considered to be the next in line for a national uprising. However, when the Arab Spring is discussed in the context of Algeria, the discussion must take into account developments in Algeria since 1988. Unlike Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Algeria has already experienced a large-scale insurgency since the thorny elections of 1991. Although this did not end in regime change, its enormous impact on the political scene in Algeria is the major factor in understanding whether there is room in Algeria for another huge uprising that would provide an opportunity for AQIM to exploit it.  

Currently, the elements supporting the political status quo seem stronger than those against, at least in the short term. Whether these balances are sustainable in the longer run remain to be seen; indeed, some developments – demographic pressure, persisting youth unemployment, an economy still too much dependent on oil revenues and the likely drop in gas production starting in 2012 – will likely reduce the sustainability of the current Algerian political balance. However, there are significant elements supporting a fragile and unstable status quo. In decreasing order of importance, these are:

  • The memory of the civil war of the 1990s: Together with the enormous violence of the war of independence against the French colonizer, this represents an enormous psychological burden for Algerians, without distinction between social classes and geographical origins.  This is by far the most important element in understanding why Algerians are so hesitant to experience another round of large-scale political violence.
  • A more consistent government paternalism: As a rentier state, a paternal use of economic resources was common in Algeria. In the wake of the Arab Spring, the political power structure has been able to use money to reduce political tensions. This situation is different from the late 1980s, when Algeria was in a far more difficult economic situation given the crisis in global oil prices and the failure of its socialist economic model. Since the beginning of the general regional uprising, Algerian authorities have increased public sector wages, provide more generous food subsidies to face food inflation and given handouts to unemployed youth (Reuters, October 20). Moreover, huge infrastructure projects focused on reducing the impact of housing shortage are ongoing. The levels of Algeria’s foreign currency reserves, currently estimated at about $150 billion, can allow Algerian authorities to keep working on this track.
  • The losing appeal of radical Islamist messages: In the late 1980s, Islamist narratives were the only catalyst of discontent in an ideological and political landscape dominated by socialist ideology and rhetoric, which were identified by Islamists with the existing power structure and therefore considered illegitimate. Now, however, radical Islamist messages have lost their appeal given the violence of the past 20 years and the presence of moderate Islamist parties in the political mainstream of the country, a significant difference from the one party system of the 1980s dominated by the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN).
  • The interests of the external players in stability:  In the case of Libya, some of the main external players had an interest in getting rid of Qaddafi, including France, the UK, the United States and eventually Italy. However, this convergence of aims is unlikely to be replicated and their stances on Syria, apart from some rhetorical peaks, demonstrate a lack of interest in providing open and resolute support for other revolts. In the case of Algeria, this element is important as Algiers is a fundamental actor for the overall security of the Maghrebi/Saharan/Sahelian region as well as the Mediterranean region. Washington and Paris have a strong interest in the stability provided by Algeria. Moreover, Algerian energy supplies are key to the energy needs of Italy, which is now in financial crisis. No external government, even among those rhetorically committed to supporting democracy, has any interest in supporting a possible destabilization of Algeria.
  • The strange openness of the political system: Although it remains an authoritarian country, the political system of Algeria is now more open than it was 20 to 25 years ago. Debates and clashes between political factions and players are frequent and the press openly criticizes political personalities and factions in a rather open fashion compared to the standards of the wider Middle East and North Africa area.
  • On the other hand, this openness helps avoid any unexpected explosion of political and social conflict, as happened in the nations more affected by the Arab Spring.
  • The “normality” of discontent: Demonstrations, strikes and protests are a common features of the Algerian the political landscape, giving Algiers more experience than its neighbors in handling political and social turbulence. The opposition, moreover, is fragmented, with none of its main leaders able to present an ideological alternative appealing to a large segment of the population.
  • The lack of Tahrir Square-style mass protests. This absence is explained by the peculiar geographical features of the Algerian urban landscape: for instance, Algiers is characterized by a lack of large open spaces, with very few wide boulevards and squares, thus discouraging huge gatherings of people (Jadaliyya.com, September 16; Daily Star, [Beirut], February 8).

Conclusion

Al-Qaeda, in general, was incapable of asserting its influence over the events of the Arab Spring, suffering from a general inability to impose its ideological imprint on the narratives of discontent in the Arab and wider Islamic world over the past decade. Though the movement can exploit development to gain greater room to maneuver, as in the Egyptian Sinai and the Sahel following the Libyan war, politically and ideologically, al-Qaeda has remained removed from development.

Placed in a situation of weakness on a global scale following Bin Laden’s death, al-Qaeda is now trying to retain some political significance. In its current perceptions, Algeria is now the weak link in the wider Middle East-North Africa region and one in which, given the presence of a clear and active franchise, al-Qaeda would try to integrate itself into the dynamics of the Arab Spring by pushing for demonstrations and regime change. The operational links between al-Qaeda Central and AQIM remain weak but it is likely that these statements were a suggestion for AQIM to take action.

The strategic picture for AQIM has improved over the past few months amid the implosion of Qaddafi’s regime and the more general increase in regional instability, with weapons and veteran fighters spreading through the Sahel.

As confirmed recently by an AQIM commander, AQIM acquired weapons from Libya during the collapse of the Qaddafi regime and is trying to stress its ideological connection with the Libyan Islamists (Agence Nouakchott d’Information, November 9; Jeune Afrique, November 10). The strategic developments of the Arab Spring could help AQIM to increase its operational profile and refocus its attention on opposing the Algerian regime rather than smuggling activities in the Sahel, an outcome more likely if the Kabylia-based AQIM leadership can retain control over its autonomous and quasi-independent units in the Sahel. AQIM will also benefit if the process of state-building in Libya proves more complicated than hoped and the main focus of the Algerian security services remains domestic stability rather than counter-insurgency operations directed at AQIM.

However, it is not very likely that AQIM, as we know it today, could succeed in exploiting and at the same time reinforcing discontent against the Algerian government as it lacks the ideological depth and political flexibility to attract other segments of the opposition galaxy. Moreover, AQIM suffers from a strong unpopularity among ordinary citizens because of its kidnappings and its status as the latest incarnation of the groups fighting in the 1990s. AQIM, and consequently al-Qaeda Central, could benefit from the Arab Spring’s impact on Algeria more from a strictly operational than broadly political point of view.  

Dario Cristiani is a PhD Candidate in Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King’s College London. Previously, he has been a teaching fellow in Political Science and Comparative Politics at the University of Naples "L’Orientale" and a political analyst with the Power and Interest News Report (PINR).

Notes:

1. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=5qdFOTl-Kc4.

2. See http://aljahad.com/vb/showthread.php?t=12879.