“Stopping the Idols”: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb Calls for Boycott of Algerian Elections

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 10

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

Al-Qaeda and radical Islamist groups that look to al-Qaeda as a source of guidance and inspiration boast an impressive record of issuing carefully calculated public statements in an effort to influence key political events in their favor.  In addition to relying on violence, the remarkable consistency demonstrated by al-Qaeda and its affiliates in addressing key political events through timely public discourse on the internet and other venues is a testament to their emphasis on mobilizing support for their causes.  Public statements by radical Islamists also enable them to communicate their agendas to both allies and adversaries alike.  Despite its history of violence, the occasion of Algeria’s April 9 presidential elections elicited a rhetorical response from al-Qaeda’s North African affiliate, the Algerian-based al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a response designed to influence Algerian politics through political discourse (al-Jazeera, April 9).  
Algeria’s recent elections have been mired in controversy since November 2008, when the Algerian parliament overwhelmingly adopted an amendment of Article 74 of its constitution that abolished presidential term limits, thus allowing incumbent president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to seek a third term (al-Jazeera, November 12, 2008). Mainstream Algerian opposition activists and political parties angered by the decision called for a general boycott of the elections. On April 6, AQIM leader Shaykh Abu Musab Abd al-Wadoud (a.k.a. Abdelmalek Droukdel) joined the fray by issuing an audio statement addressing the Algerian elections entitled “A Statement to the Algerian Muslim People” (almedad.com/vb, April, 6; muslm.net, April 6).  In his statement, Wadoud called on Algerians to boycott the elections, a process he deems anathema to Islamic governance. Wadoud described the Algerian electoral process as a ploy designed to provide a sense of false legitimacy to a corrupt and repressive regime whose ultimate aim was to attack Muslims and to further U.S. and Western interests in Algeria; “It is the duty of every Muslim who is devoted to his religion and to his nation to know with certainty that these leaders are apostates and unbelievers…to refrain from helping them in any way, even through participating in elections…[and] to strive [for]…the establishment of an Islamic state…”.  Wadoud also called on Algerians to reject what he described as the state’s efforts to destroy Islam in Algeria through social, legal, and violent means; “We take every opportunity to stop the idols [the Bouteflika regime]… to stop the aggressor against the sanctity of Islam and Muslims – to stop his tongue or his pen or his gun…” (almedad.com/vb, April, 6; muslm.net, April 6).  
News of AQIM’s latest audio announcement and links to transcripts of the statement circulated widely on radical Islamist chat room forums and websites.  The timing of the statement, coupled with AQIM’s history of violence, raised concerns about the potential for a new round of attacks in Algeria during the voting.  Some polling stations were the scene of protests and minor disturbances; one polling station east of Algiers was hit by a bomb blast that injured two police officers (al-Jazeera, April 9).  There are no indications, however, that AQIM—a group known to claim responsibility for its attacks against high-profile targets in Algeria — was behind any of the disturbances.  Given the weak state of the opposition and Bouteflika’s support from his allies in parliament and the powerful military and security services (the main power brokers in Algerian politics), it is no surprise that the incumbent president was re-elected for his third 5-year term. Despite reports of electoral fraud and corruption, Bouteflika claims to have gained over 90 percent of the vote amid high voter turnout (al-Jazeera, April 10).      
Wadoud’s scathing critique of Bouteflika and the Algerian regime contained the requisite references to Islamic theological discourse typical of such statements.  Many observers of radical Islam tend to preoccupy themselves with understanding the theological aspects of extremist discourse and symbolism, an approach that often ignores the most critical aspects underpinning radical Islamist communications.  In this regard, AQIM’s statement sheds light on a critical aspect of radical Islamist ire that is imbued with pragmatism and also represents a source of resentment among mainstream Arabs and Muslims: the persistence of authoritarianism in the Arab and Muslim world and strong U.S. and Western support for authoritarian regimes despite American political rhetoric that emphasizes the virtues of freedom and democracy.  Radical Islamists, including al-Qaeda and its regional affiliates such as AQIM, strongly oppose incumbent authoritarian regimes, seeing them essentially as corrupt, illegitimate and beholden to U.S. and foreign interests as opposed to those of their own citizens.  Some of the most violent militants in al-Qaeda and related groups got their start by participating in radical opposition politics in their native countries.  It is in this context that AQIM sees Bouteflika as a U.S. puppet whose stock has risen in Washington since the September 11, 2001 attacks as a reliable ally alongside other staunch U.S. allies such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Radical Islamists—and many mainstream Muslims—see these regimes as participants in a U.S.-led campaign to destroy Islam.  
The subject and timing of AQIM’s statement also highlights the group’s effort to tap into the growing frustration exhibited by Algerians due to the state of the country’s politics.  AQIM also appeared keen on tapping into Algerian nationalist sentiment by calling a boycott of the elections a form of national “duty.” Algeria’s 1954-1962 struggle for independence against France, a struggle that left between 500,000 and upwards of 1 million or more Algerians dead, has played a formative role in shaping Algerian politics and society, especially when it comes to questions of national identity and independence.  While AQIM-led violence in Algeria and beyond remains a serious threat, the group’s apparent effort to shape events on the ground through political discourse provides critical insight into its strategy and objectives.  The political succession process in Algeria and AQIM’s reaction may also shed light on future scenarios in the region during periods of political succession that warrant closer attention.  The upcoming political succession in Egypt, for instance, where the incumbent octogenarian leader Hosni Mubarak appears to be paving the way for his son Gamal to succeed him (despite widespread opposition to such a move across Egypt) is sure to elicit a strong rhetorical and possibly even a violent response from al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda-inspired militants.