An estimated 30 individuals, presumed to be members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), raided a bar near the city of Tizi Ouzou in the mountainous Kabylie region of Algeria on April 6 (Liberté, April 9). The men reportedly robbed the bar’s owner and patrons of 15,000 dinars and proceeded to destroy window panes, liquor bottles and furnishings. A similar event reportedly occurred in the town of Tadmait just days earlier. Additionally, on April 5, an off-duty policeman was killed at a fake roadblock, also near Tizi Ouzou (El Watan, April 6). Immediately following the incident, vehicle passengers stopped at the roadblock were given material depicting recent AQIM activities in the Kabylie region.
These recent events have again brought to the fore AQIM’s reliance upon Algeria’s northeastern territory—which is predominately Berber, relatively close to Algiers, and where the rugged terrain is ideal for insurgent operations—as a haven from which the group can launch operations against the government. Indeed, AQIM and its predecessors have traditionally used northeastern Algeria as their primary base of operations. The issue then to be determined is the impact AQIM’s activities in the Kabylie region may have for the group’s relations with the local Berber population. While Berbers constitute roughly a quarter of Algeria’s overall population and are not exclusively found in Kabylie, the issues confronted herein are particularly salient in Kabylie province.
On April 20, large street protests hit Algeria’s Berber regions, in particular Tizi Ouzou and Bouira, marking the twenty-eighth anniversary of the “Berber Spring” (Echorouk, April 20). These protests are a manifestation of long standing disaffection from the Kabylie Berber population toward the Algiers government’s harsh treatment and neglect of the region’s indigenous inhabitants. The Kabylie issue has previously resulted in violence, as in the aforementioned 1980 Berber Spring and more recently in April 2001, when violent protests ensued following the death of a young Berber man in police custody.
The Kabylie Berbers’ grievances with the Algiers government in part inform the discussion about the role of AQIM in the region. At first glance, Kabylie’s Berbers appear to be natural rivals of AQIM. First, Berbers are the original inhabitants of North Africa, and were only later assimilated into Arab culture following the Arab-Muslim conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries. Secondly, many Berber men from the Kabylie region lived and worked in France, earning an elevated position in French society relative to other North Africans and resulting in an informal cultural exchange. Despite this, many Kabylie residents were leading members of the anti-colonial, nationalist movement that eventually won Algerian independence from France. Following independence though, the national character was painted as Arabo-Muslim and uniquely Berber traits like the Tamazighth language were banned. This suppression of Berber identity is the primary source of the Kabylie disaffection (Echorouk, April 20). Despite this rivalry with the Algiers government and their efforts in linking the Berber communities throughout North Africa, Kabylie’s Berbers have continued to recognize Algerian national borders and have sought to effect change within the national polity. This final point stands diametrically opposed to the transnational vision espoused by al-Qaeda and to which AQIM now aspires.
Nonetheless, AQIM and its predecessors have consistently used Kabylie as its primary base of operations. One possible explanation for this is a shared antipathy for the Algiers government. Additionally, the Islamist insurgency spearheaded by AQIM and the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC) before it have regularly invoked the name of Tariq bin Ziyad, an eighth century Umayyad military leader and ethnic Berber from Algeria who led Muslim forces into al-Andalus—the Iberian peninsula. In this manner, AQIM has attempted to forge an alliance of sorts, building a common identity with the Berbers by recalling common icons of the two communities’ history. This was plain in a February 17 statement by AQIM in which the group took “the opportunity to call on our brothers, the free Kabylies, descendants of Tariq bin Ziyad, to stand in the ranks of our brothers, the mujahideen, against these traitorous rulers. We remind you that our jihad is in defense of the religion of the umma [Muslim nation] and its sanctities, and is [meant] to do away with the oppression that rules high-handedly over all the Muslims—including our brothers the Kabyles, who have suffered woes at the hands of an apostate gang that represses every free voice that opposes the oppression, the corruption, and the tyranny” (ekhlass.info, February 17). Thus, while their agendas and strategic objectives may stand at odds, both AQIM and Kabylie’s Berbers may view near-term cooperation as being mutually beneficial.
However, as noted earlier, these bonds appear to be strained by AQIM’s recent activities in the Tizi Ouzou area. Whereas previously the GSPC strove to avoid civilian casualties and focused its attacks on the security services and symbols of the government—targets which a restive Kabylie population likely approved of—AQIM’s new attack patterns and increasing civilian casualties may risk alienating Kabylie’s Berbers (El Watan, September 8, 2007). Furthermore, and as a natural consequence of AQIM continuing to operate in the region, the national security services have been drawn to Kabylie, resulting in damage to local forests and olive groves, creating “a climate of anger among the local population” (El Watan, August 14, 2007).
In sum, AQIM’s ongoing operations in northeastern Algeria in recent weeks appear to risk alienating the group from the local Berber population. While it is far too soon to draw conclusions about this relationship, with AQIM already suffering from alleged unsteadiness in its ranks as well as a growing revolt against the group’s ongoing suicide bombing campaign (see Terrorism Monitor, February 7; El Khabar, March 18; Magharebia, April 18), the loss of the Berber haven would be a debilitating blow for the group and force it to scatter in search of a new base of operations.