Algeria has faced significant challenges from violent extremism and terrorism over the past few decades, stemming largely from Islamist militant groups. In the 1990s, Algeria experienced a devastating civil war that pitted the government against Islamist groups like the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which later became Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). This conflict resulted in over 100,000 deaths during what is known as the “Black Decade.”
Even after the civil war ended in the early 2000s, Algeria continued to face threats from AQIM and affiliated groups that staged frequent deadly attacks across the country. The largest of these was the attack against the In Amenas gas facility in 2013 that killed dozens of foreign workers. The persistence of extremist violence led the Algerian government and society to realize that a solely military/security approach was insufficient. What has emerged instead is a comprehensive, whole-of-society strategy to counter violent extremism (CVE) and terrorism.
This multifaceted CVE approach encompasses security measures aimed at militants, alongside widespread social, economic, political, cultural, and religious reforms and initiatives. The goal is to delegitimize extremist ideologies and address the underlying factors that motivate and enable radicalization. Algeria’s CVE policies have encompassed major political changes, promoting moderate Islamic institutions, economic development of marginalized areas, and fostering national culture and identity.
While challenges remain, this societal approach has been credited with significantly reducing extremist violence and terrorism over the past decade. Algeria’s experience provides an important model of how civil society, government institutions, and ordinary citizens can work collaboratively to counter radicalization and extremism. The Algerian case offers lessons for other countries struggling to overcome domestic violent extremist threats.
Historical Context of Extremism and Terrorism in Algeria
Algeria’s contemporary struggle with violent extremism has roots in its history of French colonialism and the radical Islamist ideology that emerged in the postwar era. Algeria was colonized by France for over 130 years beginning in 1830, creating deep-seated hostility as native Algerians were marginalized and denied political rights (Horne, 2006). The nationalist movement that fought for independence was driven by secular socialist ideologies espoused by the National Liberation Front (FLN). Upon achieving independence in 1962, Algeria was governed as a one-party state under FLN rule, adopting a state socialist model of development that did not incorporate Islamist political influences (Evans & Phillips, 2007).
In the 1980s, the FLN regime faced declining oil revenues and growing public frustration over economic stagnation. Seeking to boost its Islamic credibility amid rising Islamist movements, the government introduced more conservative family laws in 1984. However, this failed to satisfy the growing Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which asserted the regime was corrupt and demanded genuine Islamic governance. The FIS won local elections in 1990, provoking the army to stage a coup d’état ahead of parliamentary elections in 1992 that the FIS was poised to win (Zeraoui, 2020).
The coup galvanized the rise of radical Islamist militant groups determined to wage jihad against the secular regime. The Armed Islamic Group (GIA) formed in 1992 and launched a series of assassinations and massacres of intellectuals, journalists, artists, and foreigners (Evans & Phillips, 2007). The GIA came to be dominated by extremists who denounced Algerian society as apostate and waged violent terror against civilians. Another group, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), broke off from the GIA in 1998 and gained support from Al-Qaeda, later becoming AQIM (Harmon, 2010).
The resulting civil conflict between Islamist militants and security forces from 1992-2002 killed over 100,000 civilians in what is known as the “Black Decade.” The violence subsided after 2002 as most Algerians rejected the extremists’ radical ideology. But AQIM and related groups continued staging sporadic attacks and kidnappings, while trafficking arms, drugs, and cigarettes across the Sahel region (Harmon, 2010). Algeria’s persisting vulnerability to extremism and terrorism necessitated an evolution in counterstrategies.
Security-Focused Counterterrorism before the Black Decade
Prior to the devastating civil conflict, Algeria’s counterterrorism approach was focused heavily on military and policing measures. During its war of independence, France had developed elite units to conduct counter-guerrilla operations targeting the FLN militants. After independence in 1962, the Algerian government under President Houari Boumediene likewise prioritized building up its security forces, based on the doctrine that controlling political power depended upon controlling the instruments of coercion (Watanabe, 2018).
The Algerian military and security services centralized authority and limited civilian oversight. The national police force, gendarmerie, and militia units focused on gathering intelligence and conducting surveillance and raids against suspected terrorists and dissidents. Under Chadli Bendjedid’s presidency from 1979-1992, Algeria acquired sophisticated weapons and surveillance systems for counterterrorism. A specialized intervention unit, the Ninjas, was modeled on France’s elite counterterrorism forces. Courts could impose the death penalty for crimes like undermining state security (Roberts, 2003).
However, the sole reliance on heavy-handed, repressive security measures without sufficient adherence to rule of law was counterproductive. Indiscriminate and excessive force alienated segments of the population and engendered grievances. Lack of coordination between the various security agencies undermined effectiveness. The absence of legal safeguards led to human rights violations that radicalized some Algerians. Hence, security-centric counterterrorism eventually proved insufficient and Algeria was compelled to fundamentally rethink its approach after the Black Decade.
Whole-of-Society Counter-Radicalization and CVE Strategy
Algeria’s contemporary approach to countering violent extremism (CVE) emerged in the post-civil war period of the 2000s as an extensive reform and national reconciliation process. This represented a major shift from the previous narrow security concept (Spencer, 2006). The realization developed that ending radicalization required addressing not only armed groups, but the root sociopolitical, economic, cultural, and ideological conditions enabling extremism to arise.
Algeria’s whole-of-society strategy incorporates both coercive measures and dissuasion/prevention. Force is used selectively against militants, while wide-ranging reforms are pursued to undermine the appeal of radical ideologies. This grassroots de-radicalization approach sees countering violent extremism as a long-term challenge requiring mobilizing the full resources of the state and civil society (Bencherif, 2017).
Some key elements of Algeria’s multifaceted CVE strategy include:
-Political reforms and national reconciliation
-Restricting violent extremist ideologies while promoting moderate Islam
-Improving socio-economic conditions in marginalized areas
-Fostering patriotism, culture, sports, and leisure to provide alternatives to radicalization
-Community engagement, dialogue, and targeted intervention programs
-Communications monitoring and controlled Internet access
-Selective granting of amnesties to militants who renounce violence
-Continued targeted security operations against irreconcilable militants
This combination of far-reaching political and social reform with monitored freedoms and selective coercion aims to sustainably overcome radicalization drivers. Algeria’s CVE approach is shaped by its unique history and context, but provides lessons in utilizing all facets of state and society to counter extremist threats.
Political Reforms and Reconciliation Processes
A key pillar of Algeria’s CVE strategy was initiating sweeping political reforms and reconciliation processes after the Black Decade civil conflict ended in 2002. These aimed to restore faith in government institutions following years of violence and address grievances that could foster renewed radicalization.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika spearheaded major constitutional and legal reforms during his first term beginning in 1999. A civil concord law granted amnesty for militants who laid down arms. The charter for Peace and National Reconciliation approved by referendum in 2005 provided conditional amnesty for security force abuses as well as Islamist fighters not involved in rape, bombings, or mass killings. This controversial measure was seen as necessary to turn the page on the conflict. The constitution was amended to strengthen democracy and the rule of law. The long-standing state of emergency was lifted, with new provisions to balance security needs with protecting liberties (Joffé, 2008).
Reforms expanded press freedoms and decentralized state authority, reversing Algeria’s traditionally hyper-centralized governance. The Loya Jirga community assembly process expanded local decision-making on development issues. Municipal elections in 2007 enhanced local governance. Security forces were placed under civilian oversight and judicial control (Bencherif, 2017).
To promote reconciliation, the National Commission on the Disappeared investigated missing persons cases from the civil war. Reparations were paid to victims’ families. Public memorials honored the dead. A national peace and reconciliation body continues efforts to heal societal rifts.
These political reforms sought to address drivers of radicalization like political exclusion, corruption, impunity for abuses, and lack of opportunities for nonviolent political change. By restoring faith in public institutions, the aim was to channel dissent away from extremist ideologies that feed on alienation from the state. The reforms remain partial and controversial, but helped stabilize Algerian politics and society.
Promoting Moderate Islam
A second key pillar of Algeria’s CVE strategy was to undermine extremist interpretations of Islam while promoting moderate religious institutions that compatible with democracy and human rights. This occurred in conjunction with political reforms during the 2000s.
Algeria has been working to extend state supervision over mosques and Islamic education to prevent radical preaching. The government has programs monitoring mosques, training and certifying imams in moderate Islam, and retraining radical imams. Mosques are required to be officially licensed and are prohibited from engaging in political activities.
The state has sought greater influence over the dominant Maliki school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence which had aligned with Salafist movements (Snow, 2019). Educational reforms aim to limit Saudi-influenced Wahhabi doctrine. Algerian imams have been encouraged to travel abroad to promote moderate Islam.
The state also officially recognized and supported Sufi Islamic brotherhoods following the civil war. Sufi orders like the Qadiriyya and Tijaniyya with millions of Algerian adherents advocate mysticism and tolerance in contrast to radical Salafism. By incorporating Sufis into its CVE policies, Algeria aims to foster an apolitical spiritual Islam resistant to extremism (Fakir, 2020). Promoting Sufism is controversial however, as critics argue the state should avoid promoting any religious current over secularism.
Algeria’s policies restricting and monitoring religious activities while elevating moderate alternatives have proven controversial domestically and internationally for impinging on political freedoms. But the severity of past Islamist violence led authorities to deem strict oversight of religion necessary to curtail radicalization risks, as part of its comprehensive CVE strategy.
Socioeconomic Initiatives in Marginalized Areas
Algeria has paired political and religious reforms with major economic and social development initiatives targeted at marginalized regions most vulnerable to radicalization. These aim to lower potential grievances and offer alternatives to extremist groups.
A key priority has been generating jobs and improving infrastructure and public services in rural regions that were strongholds for Islamist militants during the civil war. The government has funded roads, hospitals, schools, utilities, and social housing. Subsidies have supported new businesses and employment initiatives for youth. Family allowances, food aid, and microcredit schemes assist the needy.
This expanded development spending targets southern and eastern provinces with high poverty and unemployment. Initial programs focused on locations of 1990s Islamist activity, like the Berber Kabylie region. Later efforts shifted to border zones in the Sahara and Sahel regions where AQIM was active in trafficking, smuggling, and kidnapping during the 2000s. Development programs aim to boost legitimate economic activity and raise living standards, thereby denying safe havens and reducing grievances extremists exploit (Ait Hamada, 2018).
Critics argue Algeria’s hydrocarbon-dependent economy still fails to meet popular economic demands. But state development initiatives did contribute to significant reductions in poverty levels from 23% in 1995 to less than 5% in 2011. Improvements were made in electricity, sanitation, and housing coverage (BTI, 2018). Ongoing programs continue striving to spread socioeconomic opportunities to peripheries.
This exemplifies Algeria’s broad CVE strategy of combining security measures with addressing underlying economic and social drivers that can feed radicalization. Development programs aim to give vulnerable communities an alternative to the economic benefits promised by extremist groups involved in criminal activities.
Promoting National Culture and Identity
A further key element of Algeria’s CVE strategy has been reviving and promoting national culture, arts, sports, and leisure activities as means to foster a unifying patriotic identity providing alternatives to radical Islamist ideologies. This complements expanded freedoms and socioeconomic opportunities as dissuasion measures against extremism.
In the 2000s, the Algerian government sought to cultivate national culture and identity to heal divisions from the civil war. Patriotic symbols like the national anthem and flag were promoted. Historic national cultural figures were elevated through education, museums, and commemorations. The Amazigh (Berber) language gained official recognition. Arts and film received new funding and infrastructure. Sports clubs and youth recreation centers were built, along with stadiums and sports complexes. Cultural and sporting events were encouraged to provide activities and forums for young Algerians beyond Islamist networks.
The goal was to boost civic nationalism and pride based on shared heritage, to create unifying alternatives to the exclusionary Islamism pushed by groups like FIS and GIA during the 1990s. Cultural identity was seen as a form of “social immunity” against radical ideologies (Bencherif, 2017). Algeria also aimed to improve its cultural influence abroad to counter Islamist messaging by aggressively promoting arts, film, music, literature, and sports globally.
Some argue these policies excessively celebrate narrow Algerian nationalism versus inclusive pluralism. But cultural programs have had success engaging Algerian youth and limiting radical Islam’s appeal. Sports, arts, and leisure provide constructive outlets and foster pride beyond religion. This cultural element remains a key component of Algeria’s multifaceted CVE approach.
Targeted Rehabilitation and Reintegration
Algeria has paired political, socioeconomic, and cultural initiatives with targeted religious rehabilitation and social reintegration programs as part of its CVE strategy. These aim to de-radicalize and reintegrate former militants into society, thereby undermining violent groups.
Algeria developed decentralized rehabilitation centers in the mid-2000s for low-risk radicalized youth not directly involved in terrorism. The centers provided religious re-education, psychological counseling, vocational training, and family reconciliation. Those successfully completing rehabilitation graduated to job placement and monitoring. From 2006-2012, around 2,000 youth passed through the centers with a recidivism rate below 5% (Koehler, 2017). Critics argued the centers were insufficiently staffed and focused excessively on religion versus social integration. But Algeria viewed them as a useful component of its CVE approach.
For higher-risk militants, Algeria implemented more mandatory rehabilitation and surveillance under its 1999 civil concord law. Thousands of former terrorists benefited from amnesty after completing rehabilitation. This controversial program aimed to reintegrate radical elements back into society under strict monitoring as an alternative to indefinite detention without charges. Critics asserted Algeria’s rehabilitation approaches lacked transparency and sufficient oversight. But authorities considered them valuable CVE tools.
Algeria has paired rehabilitation initiatives with amnesty programs allowing repentant terrorists to fully rejoin society in exchange for renouncing violence. The Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation provided conditional amnesty for thousands of militants not directly involved in atrocities. Amnesty laws required renouncing violence and handing over weapons. Those accepting amnesty were released from prison and allowed to reintegrate into Algerian society without stigma.
Authorities consider selective amnesties effective in undermining extremist groups by creating incentives for members to defect. But critics argue offering amnesty for serious crimes undermines rule of law. Algeria’s rehabilitation and reintegration programs remain controversial but exemplify the country’s whole-of-society CVE efforts to peacefully draw militants away from violence when feasible.
Targeted Security Operations
While emphasizing political, social, cultural, and religious counter-radicalization measures, Algeria’s strategy also incorporates highly-targeted security operations against irreconcilable terrorists. These coercive efforts complement its dissuasion approach.
Algeria’s security forces have become more precise and coordinated in targeting militant leaders following criticisms of heavy-handed past tactics. The focus is on minimizing collateral damage that could alienate populations. Rules of engagement have been tightened to avoid abuses and civilian casualties. Joint operation centers, surveillance drones, and Special Forces units track terrorists and carefully plan raids against them, often seizing militants without firing a shot (Steinberg & Werenfels, 2014).
Security offensives like the “Clean Hands” campaign from 1993-1998 helped contain the GIA insurgency. Operations in the 2000s neutralized the GSPC/AQIM’s top commanders. Ongoing border security efforts curb contraband flows that fund extremists. Sophisticated monitoring curtails communications and recruitment. Algeria’s selective, intelligence-driven counterterrorism operations disrupt militant networks threatening the state.
Some Western governments have assisted Algeria on strengthening counterterrorism capacity to also protect foreign interests. There has been controversy over lack of oversight and allegations of continuing rights abuses. But Algeria considers targeted security measures a necessary complement to its broader de-radicalization CVE efforts. Where prevention fails, neutralizing terrorist leaders remains viewed as critical.
Community Engagement and Targeted Interventions
Grassroots community engagement has been another component of Algeria’s CVE approach. Building trust with communities through dialogues and addressing local problems helps counter radicalization.
Algeria established mechanisms for citizens to voice grievances and provide tips on suspicious activity. Consultative forms like People’s Municipal Assemblies expanded under reforms of the 2000s. Community Development Centers assist local projects. Hotlines and confidential informants provide intelligence on potential militants that allows preventive intervention (Bencherif, 2017).
Cultural and religious figures engage in mediated dialogues with communities, families, and at-risk youth to provide alternative narratives to extremist ideologies. Social programs target issues like high-school dropout rates that feed radicalization. Algerian officials credit grassroots engagement for reducing local tolerance and support for Al-Qaeda in the 2000s (Lister, 2015).
At the same time, critics accuse authorities of excessive community surveillance and need for greater oversight. Rights advocates argue Algeria’s local engagement insufficiently protects freedoms of expression, religion, and assembly (Human Rights Watch, 2020). But Algeria defends community-level CVE efforts as striking a necessary balance.
Communications Monitoring and Controlled Internet Access
A controversial but key element of Algeria’s CVE strategy has been strict monitoring and control over communications and Internet access to limit extremist indoctrination and recruitment. These limits on freedom aim to deny radicals free rein to spread dangerous ideologies or coordinate violence.
The 1990s civil war drove home dangers of unchecked communications for Algerian authorities. Extremist sermons on cassette tapes and leaflets helped spread radicalization. In the late 1990s Algeria began requiring registration and surveillance of phone lines, faxes, cybercafes, and websites. A cybercrime law criminalized online material undermining public order or state interests. Internet service providers must submit subscriber lists and usage data to security agencies (Freedom House, 2019).
The 2000s saw further tightening of Internet controls. Extremist, pornographic, or political sites deemed dangerous were blocked through filters and firewalls. Cybercafe owners and bloggers were prosecuted for harmful content. Mobile phones were registered. Social media remains inaccessible from within Algeria without VPNs. These restrictions aim to constrain Islamist indoctrination and militant coordination (Abdelaziz, 2021).
Rights advocates strongly criticize Algeria’s monitoring and censorship for impinging on freedoms of expression, information, and privacy. But authorities insist controlled Internet access and surveillance are necessary evils to counter radicalization threats. Algeria’s tight policing of communications reflects the security dimensions of its CVE approach.
Algeria has also prioritized greater security cooperation regionally and internationally as part of its counterterrorism and CVE strategy. This includes intelligence sharing, joint operations, and capacity building with partners facing similar Islamist militant threats.
Regionally Algeria has strengthened coordination with neighbors like Tunisia and Morocco to control borders and track militants linked to AQIM and the Islamic State. Algiers spearheaded forming the regional Mali-based CEMOC counterterrorism force in 2010. Algerian forces participated in battling extremists in Mali after 2012 alongside French forces (Lounnas, 2018).
Internationally, Algeria partners closely on counterterrorism with Western states, especially former colonial power France. Cooperation stepped up after the 2013 In Amenas gas plant siege. Algeria participates in training programs funded by the U.S. and EU to boost regional counterterrorism capacities. Such cooperation aims to leverage resources from partners also threatened by North Africa’s extremist groups.
However, Algeria has limits in aligning too closely with Western security policies associated with imperialism. Algeria rejected NATO intervention in Libya during the 2011 conflict for fear of destabilization effects. Algiers also pursues independent foreign policies regarding issues like Western Sahara and the Israel-Palestine conflict that complicate its counterterrorism cooperation with major powers. But within red lines, Algeria continues seeking useful international partnerships on CVE.
Assessment of Progress and Remaining Challenges
Algeria’s whole-of-society CVE strategy combining expanded freedoms and targeted coercion with efforts to address radicalization drivers has been credited with substantially improving stability and security. Incidents of terrorism declined over 90% from a peak of 1,100 deaths in 1997 to under 100 per year in the 2010s (Institute for Economics & Peace, 2020). Violent unrest is no longer a threat to the state. Algeria provides a model for comprehensive CVE policies.
However, critics argue the persistence of attacks like the 2013 In Amenas gas plant siege and periodic killings of police and soldiers show extremism remains a threat. They contend overly repressive policies risk renewing radicalization among marginalized youth. Restrictions on freedoms in the name of security remain controversial. Critics argue Algeria’s ineffectual governance and cronyism block deeper political reforms needed to achieve long-term CVE success.
Officials respond Algeria faces threats beyond its full control, including instability in neighboring Sahel and Middle East states fueling arms flows and Islamist militancy. They argue gradual reform must be balanced with security, and that Algeria’s CVE policies reflect its complex internal dynamics and regional context.
Despite remaining challenges, Algeria is cited for avoiding large-scale extremist violence for over two decades due to its holistic CVE strategy. Algeria combined earlier political inclusion, social development, cultural promotion, communications oversight, targeted coercion, and community engagement better than most Mideast/North African states affected by Islamist extremism after the 2011 Arab Spring revolts. This demonstrated the value of broad-based CVE policies enacted over the long term.
Algeria’s two-decade CVE strategy provides a robust model for utilizing all facets of state and society to counter radicalization and extremist violence. Its whole-of-society approach recognizes no one element alone can address extremism’s complex drivers.
Key lessons include:
-CVE requires implementing political, economic, social, ideological, and cultural reforms addressing extremism’s root causes
-Promoting moderate religious voices can counter radical ideologies
-Community engagement builds trust and cooperation against radicalization
-Communications controls deny militants propaganda tools, despite free speech concerns
-Offering nonviolent opportunities and incentives can de-radicalize militants
-Highly-targeted security operations avoid collateral damage
-Comprehensive long-term prevention combined with selective coercion is most effective
Algeria faced criticism that its policies excessively emphasize security over rights and freedoms. But Algeria contends restrictions are necessary evils given the severe threats it faced. Its evolving CVE strategy reflects difficult balances between freedoms and security shaped by Algeria’s unique context and the necessity of preventing resurgent extremist violence.
Algeria’s multifaceted CVE model, while imperfect, provides insights useful for developing holistic long-term strategies against violent extremism applicable for policymakers in many countries facing similar challenges.
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