ALGERIA : WHERE IS AQMI?
On March 27, Algeria’s Ministry of Defence issued a communiqué announcing that an Army detachment, acting in coordination with the police, had broken up a three-man “terrorist cell” in the western city of Oran the previous day, seizing a submachine gun, two hunting rifles, knives, a pair of binoculars and a GPS device in the process. The three men who were arrested had, according to the communiqué, been “preparing terrorist attacks during the election rallies.” A week later the MoD followed up with the announcement that seven members of a related “support group” had been apprehended.
AQMI fired back with an indignant rejoinder. In a short written statement dated March 30, the organisation
“categorically den[ies] that our soldiers target the peaceful uprising of the nation. We have no connection with any criminal act that targets our Muslim brothers, whether in those locations they mentioned or other places where Muslims gather. […]
“Our honourable people, it is not a secret to you that the gang of evil and criminality continuously seeks to interfere with your popular uprising, may it be blessed, Allah willing, with every trick and every means.
“Simultaneous with the ongoing popular uprising and its escalation, senior criminals in the army promote such lies. It is not ruled out at all that they will resort to conducting criminal operations and then pin them on the Mujahideen, the sons of this proud people, who are pleased to free their nation and their people from the shackles of oppression and enslavement imposed by those traitor agents with the force of iron and fire.”
Beyond the bombast, it is worth noting AQMI’s very emphatic effort to ingratiate itself with a peaceful, mass movement which has to a quite remarkable degree eschewed all religious references, never mind islamist sloganeering.
In this, the March 30 statement is of a piece with the 20-minute video message by the head of AQMI’s ‘Council of Notables’, Abou Oubeïda Youssef Al-Annabi, issued on March 10 (which, as it happens, raises the possibility of the pouvoir mounting false-flag operations to incriminate AQMI). Let’s take a closer look at this first attempt by AQMI’s chief ideologue to get to grips with the burgeoning revolution.
Entitled “Algeria and the way out of the dark tunnel”, the video begins with a short clip of Ahmed Ouyahia seemingly promising to quell any protests, before segueing into several minutes of smartphone footage from the demonstrations overdubbed with jihadist anashid. Al-Annabi’s speech itself (an audio recording delivered over a static photomontage) begins with a lengthy disquisition on the conditions a leader (imam) must meet under Islamic law and why they disqualify Bouteflika. “We list this religious argument,” Al-Annabi goes on, “because we want the basis of the fundamental change you seek to be the basis of religion”. “We salute your courage” in coming out to seek change, but “if you are to achieve your goals, we urge you to observe the following”:
“Your first goal” should be the downfall of “the whole criminal gang that rules you”, and “your ultimate goal is that Algeria should be ruled by Islamic law alone.”
“Stay united and cast aside all factors of division, such as the regional, sectarian or tribal tensions that the ruling gang has often used to divide you”.
“Stick to Islamic morals and good behaviour in your protests: no rioting, pillaging, or foul language.”
“Organise yourselves into associations and coordinating bodies, appoint good men to organise and lead the movement. And beware the provocateurs and mercenaries the ruling gang will try to plant in your midst to spread rioting and unrest and thus find a pretext to suppress the movement.”
“The ruling gang have a long history in crime”. It is not to be ruled out that they “might commit criminal acts against innocent people and their property and blame it on the jihadis in order to hamper the movement. […] We in the jihadi movement, part of this dear nation that we are, declare hereby that we disown any criminal acts against the lives or the property of our people.” For “our fight was never against our people” and “our guns targeted no one but the criminal ruling gang”.
“Our brothers in Algeria,” Al-Annabi intones, “your fight against the ruling gang right now is the same fight your brothers in the jihadi movement have been leading for the past 25 years. […] Let us continue the fight together: intensify your demonstrations, broaden their scope and spread them all over the country”. However, “be patient, and do not seek to reap the fruit before it is ripe”, for ultimate victory is certain.
AQMI has since followed up with a second recording, also by Abou Oubeïda Youssef Al-Annabi, dated April 4, in which islamist references find even less place, programmatically or analytically, than in his initial not-very-hot take. In this 11-minute audio message, entitled “By God we beseech you not to retreat”, Al-Annabi salutes the Algerian people’s “blessed intifada” that is now “a stone throw away from achieving its noble goal”, and proffers his advice:
“We beseech you by God, do not retreat” for “the ruling gang is collapsing” and soon “its main pillar will fall. […] Be patient [and] do not be fooled by those thieves who were part of the gang just yesterday, and today, when the gang is about to fall, want to join the intifada. […] Beware of those who want to distort the aims of your movement, so accept nothing short of fundamental change and nothing but Islam as a governing constitution”. Al-Annabi goes on to call on “all members of military and security forces: the Army, the Republican Guard, the Gendarmerie, the Border Guard, the police, and prison guards” to “join your people in their blessed uprising; it is your people and your country, the country you swore by God to protect. The day has come for you to fulfil your oath and protect your people from the plotters who, supported by countries and organisations known to be enemies of Islam, work to punish the people by emergency rule and curfews. Officers and soldiers, do not let your people down; defend your country. Do not shoot at your sons and daughters for the sake of [leaders] who will soon be gone”.
It is impossible to know how big an audience there is for AQMI’s propaganda output in Algeria, but there has certainly been no sign so far that Al-Annabi’s exhortations to focus on demanding the rule of sharia have registered at all with the bulk of protesters. During the massive demonstration in central Algiers on Friday, April 5, a small group of youth did try to lead the crowds in chants of “dawla islamiya” (‘Islamic state’ – the chief slogan of the Front Islamique du Salut in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s), but got nowhere. The same slogan, along with chants of “freedom for Ali Belhadj!”, was heard, sporadically, during a small parallel protest in the Algiers suburb and one-time FIS stronghold of Kouba on March 22 – but even there the organisers clearly had trouble controlling the local youth who turned out and keeping them on message. One might suppose Al-Annabi may have a thus far invisible audience among the many thousands of repentis – former members of armed islamist groups pardoned and released into society after giving up the armed struggle under Bouteflika’s Civil Concord (1999) and National Reconciliation (2005) programmes – some of whom may conceivably hanker back to the jihadist ideals of their younger days, although this is a hypothesis that is yet to be tested.
It is striking, meanwhile, that the slogan of “freedom for Ali Belhadj” was touted relatively early on by Jordanian-Palestinian jihadi ideologue Abu Qatada Al-Falastini, in a video Q&A posted on his YouTube channel on March 6. Now based in Jordan, Abu Qatada has a long history of involvement with the Algerian jihadi movement (in the 1990s he founded and edited Al-Ansar, the London-based organ of the Algerian Groupe Islamique Armé – the organisation from which the GSPC, the forerunner of today’s AQMI, emerged) and it is worth dwelling on his analysis of the situation in Algeria.
Asked by one of his followers via social media How to deal with the demonstrations in Algeria “given that the demonstrators refuse to raise Islamic banners and slogans and are not calling for sharia rule”, Abu Qatada answers that:
“the level of religious awareness in the Algerian nation is not sufficient for them to achieve Islam’s objectives”. Therefore, “what we need to do is to raise the level of this awareness” and these moments of collective action are a good opportunity in this respect. The way to raise Islamic awareness among the people is by being on their side. The Algerian people are demonstrating against injustice, so the natural place for Islamists is to stand beside the people: “stand up, show them you reject oppression too, and people will follow you”. “In terms of demands, demonstrations never end where they start. The demonstrators are not calling for the caliphate right now? So what? It is your role to get them there”. But to “take leadership you need leaders, and the only person in Algeria who can lead the movement is Ali Belhadj”. Hence Islamists at this stage should put forward the release Ali Belhadj as one of the demands of the movement and leave it there for the time being. In a follow-up question, a viewer asks whether “peaceful demonstrations are the way to achieve change, meaning that jihad is no longer needed”. Abu Qatada answers: “That is what the secularist enemy wanted us to believe during the Arab Spring, but history has shown it does not work like that. Peaceful demonstrations work in certain conditions, but there comes a point where armed conflict is inevitable.”
This rationale would seem to be coherent with, if not explain Al-Annabi’s approach. Indeed, both Abu Qatada and Al-Annabi have for some time contributed to a broader effort by certain jihadi ideologues associated to one degree or another with Al-Qaeda to rethink the movement’s relationship with the broader Muslim masses.
As has been pointed out elsewhere (see for example Cole Bunzel, Abu Qatada al-Filastini: “I am not a Jihadi, or a Salafi”), over the past two years Abu Qatada has issued a series of videos and written fatwas in which he has expressed his regret that “the jihadi current” has “succeeded brilliantly in isolating itself” from the broader Islamic community (umma) and developed the idea of a more broad-based “jihad of the umma” in contrast to the “jihad of the vanguard” (jihad nukhba) that, he suggests, has largely failed to achieve its goals. In his recent output, Abu Qatada has argued that since the Arab Spring the jihadi movement has tended to alienate the umma with its incessant organisational and ideological infighting and urgently needs to learn to engage with “the real world” rather than withdrawing into a self-sustaining Salafi-jihadi fantasy world.
Similarly, shortly before the outbreak of the current popular uprising, Al-Annabi expounded at some length, in response to a question from a follower as to whether the jihadi movement had “lost the initiative”, on the need for jihadis to “develop and change” and reexamine the ideological, strategic and organisational foundations of their movement, the better to be able to appeal to “the people”.
Al-Annabi’s suggestion that a rethink of organisational forms might be possible is particularly noteworthy. Although AQMI’s propaganda does not seem to be have had any noticeable impact in the earliest, headiest days of the Algerian revolution, in the more difficult days that likely lie ahead it may conceivably find a more receptive audience among parts of the youth and, perhaps, the repentis – and in this mulch, if the Tunisian experience is anything to go by, new, hybrid, city-based, semi-jihadi groups along the lines of Ansar Al-Sharia could take root. To quote an oft-mangled dictum of Gramsci’s: when “the old is dying and the new cannot be born, in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
Peter Cross (President, Yaqut s.a.s.)
Hazem Eseifan (senior consultant, Yaqut s.a.s.)
Hat-tip to Aaron Zelin’s excellent Jihadology for making so many of the primary sources available.