Counter-terrorism Lessons From the Algerian Civil War By Abdelillah Bendaoudi
After having been defeated militarily in Syria and Iraq, ISIS changed itself from a caliphate-building entity to a scattered organization as it prepared to shift from governing mode to insurgency mode. However, an ideological defeat of the organization has become a question of necessity rather than one of choice, since extremist ideology still characterizes the international security landscape in 2018. The possibility of defeating such an ideology, or at least neutralizing it is needed now more than ever. History records an experience where extremist ideology was neutralized and weakened: the Algerian civil war of 1990-2000.
The Algerian struggle in fighting extremism emerges as a pioneer experience that led to the ideological defeat of terrorist groups. Although no conflicts can ever be regarded as entirely equal in cause and effect, an understanding of what become known as Algeria’s “Black Decade” is critical in helping facing the challenges of terrorism in Syria and Iraq today. In addition, the similarities between the Algerian extremist groups during the civil war and ISIS can offer an opening on how to combat extremism, and eventually lead to the overall demise of the organization.
The Algerian struggle against extremism goes back to the 1990's, when The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) declared "Jihad" against the Algerian government. Following its victory in the first round of legislative elections in December 1991, the FIS was prevented from participating in the second round when the Army interrupted the electoral process in January of 1992. The military crackdown on FIS supporters was viewed as a de facto declaration of war; shortly thereafter, the protest was replaced by violence, leading toward a full-fledged civil war that ravaged more than 150,000 lives. When assessing the characteristics of Algerian extremist groups, especially GIA (Armed Islamic Group), there are some similarities to ISIS in Syria and Iraq, since both organizations proclaimed a "Caliphate" in the regions they governed. They both have a history of brutalizing the population, waging insurgencies and occupying territories. On top of that, they both considered mainstream Muslims, such as rulers and those who collaborated with them, as infidels. This ideology led GIA and ISIS to initiate a war against Sunni Muslims in Algeria during the civil war in 1990, and Syria and Iraq after declaring the "Caliphate" in June 2014 respectively.
While the GIA and ISIS may differ in many ways including the scope of their activities from the international for ISIS to the local scene for GIA, we can still learn from Algeria and its strategy in defeating extremist groups, both militarily and ideologically. It was first focused on eradicating the military power of extremist groups, so much so that the Algerian generals became known as the "Eradicators". The Eradicators in the Algerian Army saw no room for compromise with extremist groups and mobilized all security forces to conduct operations against terrorist groups. However, when the Algerian government realized that relying on repressive means alone may feed extremism and like-minded groups more than solving it, counter-terrorism strategies changed completely from an exclusively military approach, to involving the ideological approach. The implementation of the ideological approach has combined different ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ measures aimed at countering the extremist ideology as a driver of terrorist groups.
This approach had a major success both internally and externally. Twenty years later, radicalism now holds relatively little appeal in Algeria. In other words, the modern Algerian society has been cured of extremism, and the ideological defeat over extremists has become a reality as the GIA group is no longer in existence in Algeria. Even the successor of the GIA, the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) suffered from a lack of manpower and resources to continue its fight against the Algerian Army. Eventually, the remaining members of GSPC left Algeria, pledged allegiance to Al-Qaida by becoming Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and building a vast network in the Sahel based on extremists from the Sahel region. However, AQIM failed in attracting Algerian fighters to its ranks due to the successful measures taken to counter the extremist ideology and the awareness among the Algerian young people.
Furthermore, since its establishment in June 2014, ISIS has not succeeded in recruiting and convincing many from Algeria to join their cause. Only 170 Algerians joined the group, whereas more than 3,000 Tunisians and 1,500 Moroccans are now fighting with ISIS. Even, Jund Al-Khilafa (Soldiers of the Caliphate) ISIS's branch in Algeria demonstrated little dynamism to represent a threat, recruit new members and gain a foothold in the country. This is surprising, given the fact that Algerians were among the first fighters in Afghanistan to engage in a global Jihad movement against the Soviet Union, and these veterans joined the ranks of extremist groups during the country’s civil war in the 1990s. But the Algerian government undertook specific measures to suppress all forms of radicalization, which gives Syria and Iraq an opportunity to apply the same solutions. These are aimed at stopping individuals and groups from engaging in terrorist activities; it has included political settlement, economic reform, security strategy and new religious discourse, as well as rehabilitation programs, integration, deterrence, and coercion. Thus, mitigating radicalism in Syria and Iraq is unlikely to occur unless there is an implementation of the same effective, and sustainable measures that guarantee a complete de-radicalization of their societies.
A Political Settlement
The Algerian government initiated a political settlement of the conflict (The Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation) that involved all actors and political opponents in a dialogue in order to establish security and regain safety in the country. In an attempt to bring closure to the Algerian Civil War, the Algerian state offered amnesty for political prisoners and fighters who handed in their weapons without conditions. The Charter explicitly justified this measure as vital to lead Algeria permanently out of chaos. Although the Charter was not perfect, it was approved by a referendum in September 2000 and contributed toward bringing stability; and establishing security. Additionally, integrating thousands of fighters back into society in the post-civil war was a major security concern, so the Algerian government began an innovative measure that goes beyond strategies that rely on harsh oppression and detention of terrorists, —a program of rehabilitation and reintegration that allows fighters who were engaged in terrorist activities to repent, and rejoin society. Moreover, efforts to de-radicalize prisoners convicted of terrorism have provided a platform for them to express remorse, repent, and renounce their violent ideology.
Such a rehabilitation and reintegration program is feasible for Iraq and Syria and may gradually reduce levels of violence in both countries. In this case, Iraq is in a fairly good position to initiate a program that involves treatment and rehabilitation of those who have been radicalized, if the Iraqi government ends its sectarian policies —a key recruiting tool of ISIS— adopted by the Maliki government (2006-2014). However, Developing such a rehabilitation program tailored to the Syrian context would not succeed without addressing the problem of stability, especially in its fragile political context. A political consensus in Syria that leads to stability is paramount to begin this meticulous process and may set adequate conditions necessary for a successful de-radicalization program. An inclusive dialogue between all political actors in Syria is key to countering ISIS's ideology because the experience showed that extremist groups usually exploit political divisions to emerge and expand. These divisions have made individuals more susceptible to recruitment and led to a breeding ground for violent extremism not only in Syria and Iraq but also in other countries such as Libya, Yemen and to some extent in Egypt after the coup.
Economic revitalization is paramount to consolidate financial stability, push marginal individuals in the society to reject extremist views and create an environment for a healthy development of the country.
The Algerian government has begun a profound economic reform which included building a different mega-projects and infrastructure aimed at offering new economic opportunities. These economic measures aimed to attract greater foreign direct investment, and enhance the relationship between the government and its population that deteriorated during the "black decade". Likewise, job programs for young people between 18 and 35 have contributed in reducing the unemployment rate from 30% in 2000 to less than 10% in 2014 and kept young people away from the path of extremism and radicalism. Despite the fact that economic growth in Algeria has been primarily driven by oil and gas, accounting for 96% of exports, the Algerian government has attempted a policy of diversification that encourages private-sector and self-entrepreneurs to create more jobs.
In addition, Algeria also addressed the issue of the national tragedy victims by providing financial and other compensations to the families of the dead and missing to help heal their wounds. Such economic reforms in Algeria should inspire authorities in Syria and Iraq address all grievances and ensure equal access to economic opportunities for the aggrieved population in both countries. However, the question that has been raised is this: Do they have the means and resources to start a sweeping economic reform?
The reality is that the reconstruction process was suspended, especially in Syria, until further notice. While the primary donors—including the United States, the EU, and the Gulf countries—refuse to fund Syria's rebuilding program unless it leads to a political transition, the political gains that Assad has achieved in the last two years, on the other hand, imply that this transition is unlikely to occur. As a result, Syria has been caught in the middle. At this point, the economic reforms are postponed and conditions remain favorable for the remnants of ISIS to exploit the grievances that are entrenched in the Syrian society and recruit individuals on the margins of this society. Therefore, Syria remains a fertile ground for terrorism and offers a promising area for its resurgence. The same thing happened in Iraq after 2007 when the remnants of Al-Qaeda were able to survive the defeat, reorganize, regroup, and reemerge as ISIS—stronger than ever as the conditions proved more suitable for extremists to thrive.
The situation in Iraq, however, is different due to the oil reserves that have made it—the world's fourth-largest oil exporter—an attractive site for the inflow of reconstruction funds. The government in Baghdad must initiate a dialogue with the Sunni population that would lead to a political consensus and must implement policies that aim to impose order in regions that were previously held by ISIS. Thus, the possibility for economic reform will be convenient in Iraq to address the issue of the victims of terrorism.
National Security Strategy
Algeria has applied a tight security approach based on two strategies: deterrence and coercion. The first strategy is deterrence, where the Algerian Army has doubled its military spending, with an increase of 176 percent, taking total annual spending to $10.4 billion. The growing security challenges after the bloody civil war, mainly from terrorist groups, has pushed Algeria to upgrade its military capabilities, which includes raising the number of national security service up to 209,000 in 2014. By contrast, France has only 143,000 in its national security service for a population of 65 million compared to 39 million inhabitants in Algeria. With this kind of investment in manpower and military capabilities, Algeria has kept tight control of its landlocked borders and deters any terrorist activities inside the country.
The second strategy is coercion which means using a decisive force that requires the right balance between military means and political objectives. Based on an understanding of the dynamics of coercion, Algeria increased its threat to use powerful instruments and military means to coerce members of terrorist groups to turn themselves into authorities before the end of August 2006. At the same time, Algeria used political measures that were approved in the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation by offering amnesty to all members of armed groups including a release of prisoners. This strategy of coercion led to thousands of extremists to lay down their arms before the end of August 2006 and hasten the political process that aimed to end the civil war.
New Religious Discourse
Algeria has adopted a new religious discourse based on controlling the Algerian religious sphere in order to control the religious discourse. The Algerian government maintained a tight command over all religious institutions and shut out radical preachers that promulgate an extreme version of Islam from Mosques and Quranic schools. However, it has replaced their toxic ideology by opening doors for another ideology, which is Salafiya Al-Elmia (some call it the quietist Salafism). After all, ideologies cannot be defeated by a gun. In other words, ideologies are not destroyed but supplanted by other ideas, and the absence of any religious leadership usually helps terrorist groups appeal, recruit, and control the religious discourse. Thus, Salafiya Al-Elmia became a procedure that effects a significant shift in the Algerian strategy on countering extremist ideology. It has offered moderate views as alternatives for those Algerians who were disappointed by the violence of the GIA and other terrorist groups. The scholars of Salafiya Al-Elmia have recommended their followers to comply with the slogan “The best policy is to stay out of politics,” and have taken on the interpretation of extremist ideology and rejected its vision of Islam. In addition, for the scholars of Salafiya Al-Elmia, the primary objective is to correct how Muslims understand Islam and practice their faith, which is known as "The purification and education", however, the establishment of an Islamic state comes later, as a secondary goal.
Today, Salafiya Al-Elmia represents a remedy for Syria and Iraq to alleviate specific push and pull factors of radicalization and cope with the anger and frustration among the population. Additionally, mitigating extremist ideology must involve the empowerment of religious institutions that disseminate moderate views and emphasize an effective counter-narrative against extremism. Similar to all terrorist groups in Algeria, ISIS too misinterpreted and misrepresented Islam by marketing itself as a savior of Islam to further its political agenda. Hence, rather than characterizing counter-terrorism efforts as “moderate ideology versus terrorist ideology,” religious institutions in Syria and Iraq should instead frame the battle of ideas as “terrorist elements versus Islam.”
The Algerian experience in combating extremist ideology is considered by many as a success story that led to a complete de-radicalization of the society. Understanding the environmental and ideological factors that shaped the Algerian strife against extremism should be a source of inspiration for Syria and Iraq. It is true that the two wars are fundamentally different in their causes and outcomes but there are still lessons to be learned from the Algerian civil war. Given what happened in Algeria, counter-terrorism requires more than just forcing the caliphate underground, it calls for counter-radicalization as a solution that leads to an ideological defeat of the organization. Thus, the best approach for both countries to counter ISIS noxious ideology is to combine both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ measures in the long-term and to believe that extremism as an ideology can be defeated and replaced by better ideas.
Abdelillah Bendaoudi is a freelance writer based in Maryland with a particular focus on counterterrorism, Syria, and Iran, and a reporter and contributor at The Muslim Link Newspaper.