The Regional Influence of the Algerian Jihad

Sheikh Ahmed Abu al-Baraa with Abdelmalek Droukdel

The impact of Algerian jihadists in shaping the nature of jihad on the African continent is often understated. How the Algerian jihad emerged and came to influence issues pertaining to state-building, governance, and the implementation of Islamic fundamentalism in society in line with Al-Qaeda’s growing global movement, bares testament to the process of organisational learning. Today, the plethora of terrorist organisations active in the Sahel can be traced back to Algerian jihadists, whose experiences in establishing formidable, functional, and ideologically evolving organisations have been replicated in various ways throughout the continent and beyond. Crucially, the project of Islamic statehood, values attributed to international affiliation and contentions over “warranted” ways of waging jihad have been a key point of debate within the global jihadi movement, causing factions and splinters in some groups. In contrast, others have silenced and eliminated dissenting voices at any and all costs for the sake of organisational continuity and survival. Therefore, this is an article on what has and continues to be gleaned from Algerian jihadists’ experience and their influence on the African jihad and beyond, navigating through internal organisational pressures, local and international factors.

Organisational Learning 

Like archetypal organizations, a terrorist organisation’s ability to survive is closely tied to their ability to learn and adapt to evolving internal and external environmental dynamics. This involves the challenges of ideology in theory and practice, organisational goals and objectives, operational shortfalls and leadership contentions against the backdrop of counter-terrorism efforts and responses of the wider community. Jackson, Baker, Chalk, Cragin, Parachini and Trujillo (2005) developed a model of organisational learning by terrorist organisations, which describes it as a process through which a group acquires new knowledge that it uses to apply strategic decisions or tactics to increase its chance of survival and by extension-success. Jackson et al. suggest organizational learning as a four part process involving: information or knowledge acquisition; interpretation; distribution and storage.

Image Source: Constructed by Brenda Mugeci Githing’u via Visme based on model developed by Jackson et al. (2006)

This part explores the journey of the Algerian jihad. 

The Algerian Jihad

Algerian jihadists emerged in 1991 following a military coup and the Algerian government’s rejection of an Islamist Party,  the Islamic Salvation Front’s (FIS) electoral victory. This metastasized into a major military crackdown on FIS members who were banned from political participation and mobilisation, detained and assassinated. The crackdown resulted in the emergence of various Islamist guerillas; the most prominent was the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). Its slogan “no dialogue, no truce, and no reconciliation“, demonstrated the group’s intentions weren’t to achieve government concessions but to overthrow the Algerian government. This precipitated into a civil war between 1991 and 2002, during which a quarter of a million Algerians died, hundreds of thousands were injured, displaced, and forcibly vanished. In the midst of this climate, the organisational approach to the study of terrorist organisations asserts the main goal of groups like the GIA was to survive (Schmid and McAllister, 2011: 226), thus prompting the first stage of organisational learning: information or knowledge acquisition. According to Botha, the GIA drew in approximately 1000 Algerian-Afghan veterans, who later became known as “les Afghanis” for their beards, turbans and Afghan-styled clothing. This group played an integral role in the operational, ideological and organisational establishment of the GIA, training its members in combat, sharing tales of ‘holy war’, preaching radical sermons at mosques and luring marginalised and disadvantaged youths. 

The philosophy and tactics of one of the GIA’s earliest emirs, Cherif Gousmi, is widely considered a turning point with regards to how the group exercised its ideology, as the GIA soon became known for village massacres and indiscriminate violence against the population. Thus the interpretation and distribution stages of learning by the GIA evolved into full blown takfirism. This even involved the rape and kidnapping of women and young girls, some as young as fifteen, who were forced into into temporary marriages, known as zaouedj el moutaa and made to cook and clean in the camps of their captors. The GIA also participated in the targeted killing of innocent civilians who failed to adhere to the group’s religious precripts, prompting defections and infighting with prior groups that came to form part of it such as the FIS. On the 26th of August 1994, under the leadership of Gousmi, the GIA declared an Islamic Caliphate within its operational territories south of  Algeria, where it  enforced severe punishments in accordance with its extreme interpretation of Sharia law. Eventually several members split from the GIA over its violence against civilians, leading to the formation of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). By then al-Qaeda had distanced itself from the GIA, as the group began losing its territory to Algerian security forces and its members to the GSPC. Arguably, one of the key lessons drawn from this experience by the group and its distant affiliate, al-Qaeda, was the high cost of unrestrained takfirism upon a population whose support it needed to survive. Therefore, the GSPC emerged as a manifestation of what was learned in Algeria, but still had a lot more to learn in the decades to come. 

The next item on the agenda was the case for internationalising the Algerian jihad. According to Ouellet, Lacroix-Leclair and Pahlvi, the Algerian Salafism was deeply infused with nationalist ideals in opposition to the former French colonial regime and the subsequent Algerian government. Therefore its founder and leader, Hassan Hattab, centered the GSPC’S ideology on Algeria’s local struggles and if anything, saw the value of the group’s affiliation with Al-Qaeda as one in support of the Islamist cause in Algeria-not the other way around. However, Hassan Hattab was overruled by the group’s council, thus establishing Abdelmalek Droukdel as its new leader. Similar to the deteriorating political and security situation in Algeria that prompted the evolution of the Algerian jihad in its bid for survival, the post-9/11 US invasion of Iraq allowed Al-Qaeda to garner some solidarity among jihadist groups in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) which allowed it to establish a wider and more influential presence against the backdrop of a major onslaught. 

Droukdel sought to demonstrate the GSPC’s regional capital by federating Maghrebi and Sahelian Islamist movements under its banner. Droukdel’s GSPC established ties with Libyan, Moroccan, Tunisian, Malian, and Muritanianian Islamists, which was possible in large part due to the diverse regional membership of its leaders and fighters. In fact, the Afghan-veteran, Mokhtar Belmokhtar played an instrumental role in supporting Droukdel’s bid for the GSPC to be a formally recognised affiliate of Al-Qaeda while also establishing key revenue operations for the group through the smuggling of drugs, weapons, tobacco, illegal immigrants and acquiring foreign hostages. Furthermore, the GSPC relied on Algerian-Afghan veterans and foreign fighters for information or knowledge acquisition to build its operational capacity, adopting and implementing Al-Qaeda’s guerilla warfare techniques like bombings, never before seen suicide attacks, and ‘martyr brigades,’ like that of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The leadership of the GSPC interpreted these activities as crucial to establishing its role in the global jihadi movement by developing its network and capabilities in order to be a formidable and consolidating force in the region.  

However, by 2007, as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), the group now faced internal contentions over the severity of their newly adopted and widely distributed modus operandi of bombings and suicide attacks, which often killed the same Muslims it claimed to be waging jihad to defend. Fearing a repeat of events from the mid-90s with the GIA (as key members already began defecting to the government and encouraging others to do the same), Ouellet et al. argues  AQIM’s drop in (suicide) bombings, particularly between 2009 and 2010, was a result of an attempted opt for alternative strategies that would be less lethal. By taking foreign (mainly French) hostages as its main modus operandi (among others), the group aimed to demonstrate its awareness of the local realities of France’s continued involvement with political developments in the region post-independence, its ideological commitment to Al-Qaeda in harming Western targets, while also establishing a means of generating revenue.  

As the first African jihadist group to accomplish an official affiliation with al-Qaeda, the Algerian jihadists set a precedence on the continent, providing roadmap to affiliation and an example of how a jihadist movement can withstand internal and external pressures through organisational learning and adaptation. Though many factions have emerged and established themselves independently of AQIM, it still remains al-Qaeda’s regional ambassador, a facilitator of contraband, a violent actor and a capacity builder for other groups in the region. 

Organisational Learning in the Sahel and West Africa 

Jihadist orginizations outside of the Sahel have also learned from the Algerian Jihad. Boko Haram serves as an example of a group who benefited directly from a relationship with AQIM. In 2009 AQIM members offered financing, weapons, training, and advising to members of Boko Haram. This offer was in response to a letter dated August 24, 2009, from a Boko Haram representative. The letter stated that Abubakr Shekau sent three members of Boko Haram to AQIM requesting a union between the two groups with the establishment of a safe house in Niger, training for Nigerian fighters in the Malian desert, weaponry, and financial support, and advice on how to carry out jihad in Nigeria. Boko Haram was exposed to new technology by AQIM, incorporating IEDS (improvised explosive devices) into their repertoire. Furthermore, Boko Haram members fought alongside Al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Mali in 2012 and 2013 before returning to Nigeria with exposure to the tactics used there. In this way Boko Haram gained access to new technology and tactics, its members got practical experience implementing them, they took this knowledge back to their organization, it was implemented, and the group increased its lethality. 

However, there are other ways that Boko Haram may have learned and benefited from AQIM. As the first African group to join al-Qaeda, AQIM provided a membership roadmap for other groups in Africa such as Boko Haram. It was obvious that becoming al-Qaeda affiliate meant that al-Qaeda’s senior leadership would assert its authority and influence over the tactics that a group under its control uses, its targets, and its messaging. This is likely why Boko Haram although locally and regionally focused gives lip service to the global jihad with its leader, Abu Bakr Shekau threatening the “West”. Al-Qaeda’s desire to exert authority over its affiliates to garner support from civilians is also a likely reason why Shekau’s extreme violence has proved a point of contention between him and al-Qaeda’s senior leadership. Shekau declared the entire Muslim population of Nigeria as infidels on the basis that they did not disbelieve in taghut (idolotry), their children still attended government schools, and they participated in democratic elections soured the relationship between Boko Haram and AQIM. This conflict and diversion from al-Qaeda’s precepts demonstrates an important aspect of terrorist group learning. Terrorist groups and their leaders may have access to new information and technology but choose not to integrate them. 

Although this piece doesn’t focus on splintering, the concept merits mentioning within the context of terrorist learning. Splintering or splitting members from one group and forming another group, particularly those who fragmented from AQIM, display the distribution process of organizational learning. Although several groups have splintered from AQIM, they remain strategic allies of the group and under the al-Qaeda banner. The most notable exception is the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), though a product of AQIM, emerged as its main competitor and that of its strategic allies. Today, the jihadist groups themselves are currently grappling with the realities of co-existing in a bipolar jihadist universe of two major ideological adversaries. The immediacy of the need to survive-and by extension a process of learning- amidst competing groups in the region is likely to be the next learning curve with deadly ramifications not only for surrounding communities but members of the groups themselves.

Featured image source: Raising a baby al-Qaeda-style

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