As widely predicted, the September 29 referendum on the proposed amnesty (the second since 1999) was a resounding ‘yes,’ although the monolithic media campaign made any other result unlikely. The issue is a thorny question for human rights activists, since—unlike the Truth and Reconciliation committees of post-apartheid South Africa—the amnesty only applies to reconciliation, in what is an attempt to block lengthy investigations. The amnesty will offer financial compensation to the victims of the more than a decade-old insurgency and will free imprisoned militants not considered to have been involved in massacres, rapes or bombings.
Armed militant groups such as the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC) waged a campaign of intimidation against former fighters wavering in response to the amnesty, and have rejected the deal that offers a partial amnesty to Islamists in return for disarming. The run-up to the referendum witnessed a spike in jihadi activity, which claimed some 44 lives over the last month, half of them from the Algerian military. On September 20 a statement was issued by the group explicitly forbidding participation by any Algerians in the referendum since it would “aid the tyrants against your mujahid brothers… allowing them free rein to fight us in your name.” Sensing that exhaustion may be setting in, the author complained, “so what are 14 years [of struggle] compared to paradise as wide as heaven and earth, if only ye knew?” and warned that “we are now at the decisive stage” (www.salafia.ne1.net).
While the GSPC is still capable of showing its teeth in high-profile attacks, such as that on June 4 at the military border post in Mauritania (see Focus, Volume II, Issue 11), the effects of progressive attrition from the Algerian army are making themselves felt. The battle is also becoming virtual. Its website has suffered intermittent interruptions, and recently the Katibat al-Ansar faction of the GSPC has had to warn its participants against declarations by those purporting to speak in its name. The last statement issued on the site (on September 18), after a full page of justificatory citations from the Qur’an and the Hadith, was to announce that the Katiba was no longer to publish any further statements, and that henceforth its media department was dissolved.
A more disturbing development is the evidence of an active GSPC cell in Paris. Evidence obtained from an Algerian arrested earlier in September, M’hamed Benyamina, led to the break-up of a cell which French security authorities described as poised to launch an attack on transport hubs such as Orly airport and the underground Metro rail system. The GSPC signalled its attention to take the conflict to Europe in statements denoting France as “enemy no.1” and calling for Muslims in France to “help your brothers in Algeria by going after those criminals in France” and target leading Algerian secular and government figures there (Focus, Vol II, issue 17). As pressure mounts inside Algeria, the mujahideen may find such high-profile attempts increasingly attractive.