On September 29, Algerians voted in an unprecedented referendum to approve a charter for “peace and national reconciliation,” offering amnesty to Algerian insurgents in exchange for laying down their arms. The charter also extends the same offer of clemency to police and security agents involved in crimes during Algeria’s turbulent civil war. The charter marks a turning point in resolving Algeria’s conflict, as it recognizes for the first time the numerous claims of Algeria’s “disappeared” and considers reparations for relatives of those who suffered from to the violence.
At least 150,000 Algerians are believed to have died during the country’s more than decade-long conflict, ignited in 1992 following nullification of the country’s first multiparty elections in which the populist Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) would likely have been victorious after a second round. Islamist oppositionists responded with brutal violence that was met with similar ferocity by the Algerian authorities. While those killed were mostly civilians, as many as 10,000 are among “the disappeared,” kidnapped by the security services or Islamic insurgents.
The peace plan, called the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation, was overwhelmingly approved (97 percent) in a referendum marked by high turnout (80 percent). The plan is a cornerstone of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s political agenda, which seeks to end Algeria’s insurgency. Bouteflika assumed power in 1999, and pledged in October 2004 to submit an amnesty plan that would facilitate a reconciliation process first initiated by the 1999 Civil Harmony Law. Yet the amnesty is as much an effort to close the wounds of the insurgency, as it is a test of Bouteflika’s legitimacy. He was re-elected for a second term in 2004 in a landslide victory, and hopes to win a third election. Bouteflika’s political fortunes are firmly tied to the amnesty.
The charter ends judicial proceedings against Islamist insurgents, including those who disarm, who live abroad and are complicit in terrorism within Algeria, and who were convicted of crimes in absentia. The plan also offers reparations for families of the disappeared. Excluded from the amnesty are individuals involved in massacres, rapes, or bombings.
Yet the accord is not without controversial features. State assistance to insurgents’ families, rejection of claims that security forces participated in disappearances of Algerians, prohibition on disparaging Algerian institutions, and restrictions on political activity by perpetrators of terrorism have been lightening rods for commentary. Critics question whether the charter’s compensations will translate into justice for Algerian victims, asserting the amnesty lacks adequate mechanisms for debate, punishment and justice .
The Impact of the Amnesty on Violent Islamist Activity
Islamist violence has continued to subside since Bouteflika’s inauguration, even in areas such as Sidi Rais, known as the Triangle of Death at the height of the insurgency. Approximately 4,000 insurgents surrendered from 1995 to 1998 under the clemency of former president Liamine Zeroual, with an additional 6,000 after Bouteflika’s 1999 amnesty . Tallies on active insurgents vary, but Algerian officials estimate that as many as 800 to 1,000 recalcitrant insurgents have managed to sustain operations throughout the country. This represents a notable decrease since the 1990s when insurgents possibly totaled 28,000. Improved ability of Algerian intelligence and security forces to eliminate insurgents, previous amnesty initiatives, and international assistance has contributed to the depletion in the ranks of violent Islamists.
Despite the decline in violence, Algeria is still plagued by bouts of attacks that continue to pose a challenge to national security. Significantly, the weeks preceding and following the charter referendum have been punctuated by a surge in insurgent violence that is attributed to the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), an organization that remains in a bitter struggle with the state. The GSPC, now perhaps Algeria’s most fortified Islamist group, has vehemently rejected the peace plan and vows to continue hostilities against the Algerian state.
Algerian security officials say remnant insurgents predominantly belong to the GSPC and they expect most members to accept the new amnesty. One prolific affiliate may include former GSPC leader Hassan Hattab, who has been negotiating with the Algerian government over his surrender. Hattab’s compliance with the charter reportedly depends on a fatwa from a Saudi imam who would authorize Hattab to bargain with a government he considers impious. Rather than judge the legitimacy of surrender, the fatwa would only address whether Hattab can negotiate with a former enemy in a way that protects his credibility vis-à-vis his cadre of current supporters. If successful, Hattab could both come away with his position intact and with supporters willing to surrender under the amnesty .
Ultimately, however, Algerian officials offer tempered assessments of whether all violent Islamists will surrender under the charter. “The most important thing is to bring down their numbers,” Prime Minister Ahmed Ouhiya told Algerian daily, L’Expression. “We don’t have any illusions. …There will always be the hard core who will never take up the offer of peace” .
If current GSPC statements are any indication of its reactions to the amnesty, some violence from the group can be expected. Firm in its opposition to the charter and in its intention to wage violence against the Algerian establishment, the new leader of the GSPC, Abu Musab Abdelouadoud, allegedly posted an Internet communiqué reaffirming the organization’s position. The statement issued just after the referendum said that Algeria “does not need a Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation, but instead a Charter for Islam. …The jihad is going to continue” .
Indeed, such words appear to be backed by actions, which suggest the GSPC intends to follow through with its goals. In the weeks leading up to the referendum, the mayor of Ammal was allegedly killed by GSPC insurgents . These attacks were accompanied by assaults on Algerian soldiers in the countryside. The aftermath of the vote has been even deadlier, as some 60 Algerians died during October in an escalation of hostilities that coincided with the holy month of Ramadan—20 people were killed in two days alone. On October 17th, security operations east of Algiers resulted in the deaths of eight GSPC militants and four soldiers . The next day, GSPC insurgents killed four militia members west of Algiers, according to El Watan, and three civilians were killed by a bomb left at a GSPC hideout .
GSPC activities abroad also speak to the group’s viability and capabilities. Evaluating GSPC activities in the West African Sahel, Nigerian authorities in October discovered an underground terrorist gang reportedly 10,000 strong in the Niger Delta that they say is linked to the GSPC. Nigerian intelligence officials assert that the GSPC, also an al-Qaeda affiliate, is involved in the ongoing recruiting and training of Nigerians in an effort to attack Nigerian interests . The GSPC has also maintained ties in Europe, the U.S. and the Middle East.
However, the strength of the GSPC has eroded considerably over recent years, due to internal divisions and government efforts that have successfully localized and contained insurgents. Once boasting 4,000 members, the organization has been reduced to 300.
Other violent groups on the Algerian landscape are less active. The Armed Islamic Group (GIA), once the major terrorist entity in Algeria, has been substantially weakened by internal fracturing and surrenders under the earlier 1999 amnesty. The Arme Islamiques du Salut (AIS), the armed wing of the FIS, declared a cease-fire in 1997. The Free Salafist Group (GSL), which also opposed the amnesty, is active, but has been predominantly involved in crime and trafficking, rather than terrorism.
The Future of Islamist Politics in Algeria
Against the backdrop of changing developments in Algeria, it is difficult to precisely predict the future of legitimate Islamist politics. The civil war has produced rejectionists unwilling to cooperate with the establishment and advocate the use of violence against the state. Yet the conflict has, likewise, created a government deeply wary of Islamists. Algerian officials vowed that insurgents will never again be able to bring instability to the country and groups involved in the violence, chiefly the FIS, have been banned from participating in politics.
The isolation of the FIS also has important implications for the fate of moderate Islamist parties. Moderate groups have suffered a noticeable decline in popular support, a phenomenon that may be a consequence of FIS’ call to boycott elections and Algerian disaffection with Islamists after years of conflict. For example, the Movement of Society for Peace (MSP) and Movement for National Reform (MRN), each with former FIS members, did not fare well in the recent 2002 election. MSP support dropped by half from 14 to 7 percent between the 1997 and 2002 votes, while the newer MRN earned 10 percent. The Islamic Renaissance Movement received four percent—half its previous share .
Critics of the state’s staunch approach fear the restrictive policy toward political Islam does little to engender confidence in the government or in the future of democracy in Algeria. Some argue that the government’s stance may only exacerbate discontent fanned by the war. With the existence of growing unemployment and poverty, the ground may once again become fertile for extremism.
Therefore, the extent to which political Islam will be kept at the periphery of Algerian politics and in what form are now unresolved issues. Algeria’s mainstream party, the National Liberation Front (FLN) could adopt some moderate Islamic principles and bring select Islamist moderates into their fold. Since the banner of the amnesty is to encourage harmony, such a strategy may present some opportunities. However, it is a path that needs to be considered carefully as Algeria braces for the long-term impact of the amnesty.
1. Al-Bawaba Reporters, “Algerian Charter Risks Reinforcing Impunity and Undermining Reconciliation,” September 27, 2005, http://www.Albawaba.com.
2. L’Expression, September 7, 2005, and Salim Tamani “On Responsibility,” Algiers Liberte, October 3, 2005.
3. Ghania Khelfi, “Algerian Terrorist GSPC Leader Hattab Demanding Saudi Fatwa Prior to Surrender” Algiers Liberte, October 27, 2005.
4. Ahmed Fattani, “Ouyahia Face Aux Patrons De Press: Espirit De La Reconciliation, Est-tu la?” Algiers L’Expression, September 7, 2005.
5. Nadjia Bouarich, “Algerian Terrorist GSPC Rejects Government Peace Plan,” Algiers La Nouvelle, October 1, 2005.
6. “Algiers: Algerian Paper Says Mayor Killed by Terrorists in Boumerdes Province,” Algiers Al-Khabar Website, September 3, 2005.
7. R.H. “Algerian Terrorist Killed in Bouira Area Search Operation,” Algiers La Tribune, October 20, 2005.
8. “New Reports: 20 Killed in Two Days in Algeria,” October 19, 2005, Algiers El Watan.
9. Nigerian Government Uncovers 10,000-Man Gang in Niger Delta,” Lagos Weekend Vanguard, October 18, 2005, http://www.vanguardngr.com/vag.htm
10. Ministry of the Interior, Algiers, May 31, 2002.