Country Profile


Situation Report

Algeria remains at the centre of violent Islamist extremism in the Magreb and Sahel regions. Lisa Watanabe examines the evolution of extremist groups in the country, and looks at the implications for national and regional stability.

The beheading of French national Hervé Gourdel by Jund al-Khilafa in September 2014, following the expiry of the group's deadline for France to halt airstrikes in Iraq against ISIS brought violent Islamist extremism in Algeria once again to international attention. Jund al-Khilafa (Soldiers of the Caliphate) is an offshoot of Algeria's most prominent armed Islamist group, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has its roots in Algeria's decade-long civil war. AQIM remains active in the north-eastern mountain terrain of Kabilya and in the inhospitable Sahara desert in the south of Algeria. However, over the past decade, it has also expanded its activities to the Sahel and now has the capacity to destabilise already fragile Sahelian states, powerfully demonstrated in Mali in 2012 and 2013 as AQIM and its allies captured the north of the country.

While AQIM and its splinter groups pose the most acute threat to North Africa and the Sahel, European interests and citizens are also at risk from attacks and kidnappings, particularly as rivalries between AQIM leaders prompt the formation of new groups seeking to announce their presence through carrying out spectacular acts, such as the murder of Gourdel. The rise of ISIS and its associated 'brand' label threatens to add yet another dimension to this competition, potentially with lethal consequences for Europeans. While AQIM has as of January 2015 not claimed responsibility for any attacks inside Europe, it is reported to have cells in European countries, so far largely involved in fundraising activities, and European states could find themselves the object of AQIM-inspired acts carried out by radicalised individuals in Europe, particularly if they engage in direct action on the ground to curb the advance of such groups.

The Roots of Algeria’s Violent Islamist Groups

Islamism in Algeria has traditionally been a channel for resistance against perceived unjust (and foreign, colonial) rule, notably with the Islamic reform movement, represented by the Association of Muslim Algerian Ulama (AUMA), which sought to promote a cultural awakening and the purification of Islam. The UAMA incorporated Salafism as part of its nationalist agenda and anti-colonial resistance from the early 1930s on. Salafism identified the shortcomings and corruption of Muslim societies as a result of their political, economic and technological subservience to European countries. Liberation from colonialism was seen as depending on the reinvigoration of Islam.  Lisa Watanabe, "Religion, Ethnicity and State Formation in Algeria: 'The Berber' as a Category of Contestation," in Kenneth Christie and Mohammad Masad (eds.), State Formation and Identity in the Middle East and North Africa (New York: Palgrave, 2013), pp. 160-2. However, following the War of Independence, the AUMA was sidelined by the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), which became the dominant political force in independent Algeria and the main narrator of an 'authentic' Algerian selfhood following the country's independence in 1962. The definition of the nation promoted by the FLN was a fusion of UAMA and Arab nationalist ideology. The centrality of Islam was written into the 1963 Constitution and the Algiers Charter, for example. Yet, the Constitution also emphasised the Arab essence of the nation. The Arab and Islamic nature of the nation was again confirmed in the 1976 Constitution.  Ibid., p. 168.

Political Islam was one of the main conduits through which society sought to resist repression under French rule.

Nevertheless, Islamism would again become one of the most prominent opposition forces following what became known as 'Black October', when some 500 people lost their lives as public anger erupted against the regime of President Chadli Benjedid, popularly perceived as corrupt and unjust. Protestors clashed with security forces in October 1988, and the army was given carte blanche to quell the unrest. A key figure to emerge during the demonstrations was Ali Belhadj, an Islamist preacher. As political Islam has been one of the main conduits through which society had sought to resist economic, cultural, political and religious repression under French rule, is not surprising that the Islamist movement was one of the primary forces of opposition against the regime as the latter failed to deliver on its promises of social and political justice. While Chadli had attempted to co-opt the growing Islamist movement in the 1980s, he was ultimately unable to contain its more militant elements as evidenced with the emergence in 1982 of the Mouvement Islamique Armé (Armed Islamic Movement, MIA), with the declared goal was of overthrowing the regime through violent means.  Lisa Watanabe, "The Transformation of the Algerian Insurgency and the Emergence of Al-Qaida au Maghreb Islamique," in Alexandre Vautravers and Matthew Goulding (eds.) Counterinsurgency- Secuirty Forum 2011 (Geneva: Webster University, 2012, pp. 180-1.

The broader international geopolitical environment also contributed to the rise of radical Islam in Algeria at this time. Political Islam had been on the rise across the Arab world as disillusionment with Pan-Arabism mounted. The Iranian Revolution in 1979 had also served to demonstrate that a non-Western political model could be realised in the Middle East and North Africa. In addition, the war in Afghanistan against Soviet troops provided a stimulus to the growth of a narrative of global jihad that would make its way back to Algeria. Algerians were among the most numerous of the so-called Arab Afghan fighters confronting the Soviets in Afghanistan. When these Algerian 'Afghans' returned home after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989, they sought to continue their jihad against the Algerian regime, forming a component of the Islamist movement that had a global rather than national vision of change.  Ibid., pp. 182-3.

In an attempt to quell social unrest following 'Black October', the regime responded by initiating what were at the time significant political reforms. A new constitution was endorsed by the electorate in February 1989 that limited the role of the army, guaranteed freedom of expression and association, formalised the separation of the state and the FLN party, and recognised the rights of Algerian citizens to form political associations. A plethora of political parties were subsequently established. Reflecting the growing popularity of political Islam, almost all of the major parties, including the revamped FLN, recognised the centrality of Islam within Algerian society. Yet the most visible evidence of the increased prominence of Islamism on the political scene was the popularity of the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS), which was a newly-created Islamist party led by Belhadj and an elderly Sheikh, Abbasi Madani. The FIS not only sought to end one-party rule, but also to establish an Islamic state based on sharia law.  Ibid., p. 183.

The popularity of the FIS was confirmed in the local elections in June 1990, which were the first multi-party elections held in independent Algeria. The FIS won 54 per cent of the vote, with the FLN garnering a mere 28 per cent. In the national parliamentary elections in December 1991, the FIS won 188 of the 231 seats in the national assembly. The FLN won a mere 15 seats.  James de le Sueur, Between Terror and Democracy: Algeria since 1989 (London and New York: Zed Books Ltd, 2010), pp. 43, 51. With the FIS clearly set to win a landslide victory in the second round, the army took matters into its own hands. The second round of elections was cancelled, FIS leaders were arrested along with thousands of FIS members who were sent to camps in the Sahara or simply 'disappeared'. Power was also transferred to a High Security Council, comprised of the minister of justice, the foreign minister, the defence minister, the minister of the interior and the army chief of staff. Watanabe, "The Transformation of the Algerian Insurgency," Op. cit., p. 186. These measures and the 'stolen' victory of the FIS would pave the way for a full-blown Islamic insurgency to develop in Algeria and a decade-long civil war.

The GIA earned a reputation for extreme brutality during the Algerian civil war.

The Groupe Islamique Armée (GIA) emerged as the most prominent armed Islamist group following the reversal of the political liberalisation experiment. Despite its name, the GIA was in fact a loose alliance of groups formed in October 1992 by dissidents of the armed Islamist group MIA, who favoured urban terrorism over the MIA's guerilla warfare, Jared Reene and Scott Sanford, "The Fortunes of Political Salafism in Gaza and Algeria," IMES Capstone Paper Series, The Elliot School of International Affairs, The Institute for Middle East Studies, May 2010, p, 9; Watanabe, "The Transformation of the Algerian Insurgency," Op. cit., p. 186. joined by Islamist militants who now believed that the violent overthrow of the regime was necessary. The GIA earned a reputation for extreme brutality, largely due to a series of bloody massacres carried out by the group throughout the 1990s, in which civilian populations of entire villages were systematically murdered. Other Islamist groups condemned the GIA's killing of civilians and the extension of its campaign abroad – the GIA was believed to be responsible for the 1995 bombing of a metro station in Paris. However, the group had peaked in 1993 and popular support had diminished thereafter, in large part due to the brutality of its actions. From 1995, many GIA members took up the government's offer of amnesty. Infighting within the GIA intensified between 1996-8, particularly between salafi-jihadis with a more global vision and so-called Algerianists, who focused their attention on removing the Algerian regime. The internationalist salafi-jihadis in the GIA attempted to cleanse the group's ranks of Algerianists. Watanabe, ibid. p. 189. The effect of this split within GIA set the stage for the growth of internationalist salafi-jihadis and the presence of an al-Qaeda franchise in Algeria.

The Emergence of AQIM and Its Regional Diffusion

In 1998, a new group emerged from the GIA – the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC). The group was established by Hassan Hattab, and initially focused on targeting the Algerian security forces. However, a leadership change in 2003 gave those who favoured global jihad prominence in the group. The GSPC's new leader, Nabil Sahraoui, was an 'Afghan' veteran, believed to have had connections to Osama bin Laden. Sahraoui appeared to understand that a shift of strategy was needed if the group were to survive the regime's counter-terrorism campaigns and Bouteflika's amnesty initiatives that had seen thousands of insurgents surrender to the authorities in return for immunity from prosecution. The 2003 Iraq War acted as a catalyst for new recruits and the GSPC was able to play a role in training Moroccans, Tunisians, Libyans and Mauritanians wishing to fight in Iraq.

Nevertheless, a pan-North African network failed to emerge. The GSPC was mostly active in Kabilya and the Sahara region of Algeria in the early 2000s. In Kabilya, it continued to carry out attacks on state targets, whereas the Saharan network engaged in smuggling, kidnapping and other fundraising activities, often in the Sahel. Dario Cristiani and Riccardo Fabiani, "Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM): Implications for Algeria's Regional and International Relations," IAI Working Paper, No. 1107, April 2011, p. 3. The Saharan network was particularly successful in expanding its operations, given the inability of the Sahel states to control all of their territory, the disaffected local populations, long-standing traditions of smuggling, and the apparent collusion of local officials. The kidnapping of 32 European tourists in 2003 by a leader of the southern region, known as El Para, brought the GSPC to greater prominence, and announced the beginning of a continued expansion southward into the Sahel that would be pioneered by El Para until his imprisonment in 2005, and by another prominent leader in the Saharan network, Mokhtar Belmokhtar.  Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, "The Many faces of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb," GCSP Policy Paper No. 15, May 2011.

The group's notoriety and growth would again be boosted when the GSPC sought formal ties with al-Qaeda in 2006. Sahraoui's successor, Abdel Malek Droukdal, had developed closer links with al-Qaeda, primarily as a result of his contact with the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. The formal association with al-Qaeda was followed by a name change in 2007, when the GSPC became known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The group's merger with al-Qaeda helped to raise the profile and credibility of the group by capitalising on the al-Qaeda brand name, as well as al-Qaeda's recent designation of France as an enemy following the country's decision to ban headscarves in some public places. The alliance with al-Qaeda also had an impact on the scale and type of actions undertaken by the GSPC. Having previously engaged in hostage taking and attacks targeting the Algerian state, AQIM struck the UN representation and the Algerian Constitutional Council in Algiers with almost simultaneous suicide bombs in 2007.  Ibid.

Despite the group's new name, which alluded to a pan-Maghreban organisation, AQIM's growth still remained centred on the Sahel. Belmokhtar and the base structure supporting his activities – The Masked Battalion – were particularly active, extending AQIM operations into Niger, Mauritania and Mali. However, Belmokhtar's growing autonomy and ambitions brought him into conflict with AQIM's core leadership. The rift between Belmokhtar and Droukdal grew as the latter attempted to regain control over the southern branch of the organisation by appointing his ally, Abu Zaid, as leader of a new brigade in the Sahara – The Tariq ibn Ziyad Battalion – and effectively demoting Belmokhtar by granting overall responsibility for the AQIM southern branch to Yahia Djouadi. When Belmokhtar extended his battalion's activities into Mali in 2012, Droukdal is reported to have ousted Belmokhtar, who then formed a splinter group – al-Muaqioon Biddam (the Signatories in Blood).  Christopher S. Chivvis and Andrew Liepman, "North Africa's Menace: AQIM's Evolution and the U.S. Policy Response," RAND Corporation, 2013, pp. 7-8; Mohammed Mahmoud Abu al-Ma'ali, "Al-Qaeda and Its Allies in the Sahel and Sahara," Aljazeera Center for Studies Report, 1 May 2012, p. 3. Those Who Sign Their Name in Blood Signed in Blood merged with MUJAO in August 2013, forming al Murabitun.

The In Amenas attack revealed the vulnerability of Algeria to instability in its neighbourhood.

This split between Droukdal and Belmokhtar would bring a period of relative calm in Algeria to an abrupt end in January 2013, when the Signatories in Blood took a lead role in carrying out the worst attack the country had witnessed since 2007. The hostage crisis at the Tigantourine gas facility in In Amenas in the Algerian desert, near the Libyan border, which led to the death of 39 foreign hostages and one Algerian security guard, US Department of State, "Country Reports: Middle East and North Africa: Overview", Country Reports on Terrorism 2013. was a means of raising the profile of Belmokhtar and his newly-formed group. Coming just a week after the beginning of the French-led Operation Serval, which aimed to drive AQIM and its allies out of northern Mali, the group demanded the release of a militant Islamist captured in Mali and claimed that the attack was retaliation for Algeria's authorisation for French aircrafts to fly over Algerian airspace en route to Mali. Susi Dennison, "Algeria after the Arab Spring: Vindicated Model or Regime on the Rocks?" in Daniela Huber, Susi Dennison and James D. Le Sueur, Algeria Three Years After the Arab Spring, The German Marshall Fund of the United States Mediterranean Paper Series 2014, p. 7. The attack was not only significant because of its scale, but also because the gas plant was extremely well-guarded. It also targeted Algeria's hydrocarbon industry – upon which the country's wealth still depends heavily. The In Amenas attack revealed the vulnerability of Algeria to instability in its neighbourhood, not only in Mali, but also in Libya, where armed Islamist groups have gained a greater foothold since the collapse of the Qaddafi regime. Indeed, the attack is believed to have been launched from Libya.  House of Commons, "The Main events of 2012-13 and the UK Government's Response to Them,"

The consequences of the confluence of competition within AQIM and regional instability for Algeria would also be brought home when another splinter group of AQIM, Jund al-Khilafa (Soldiers of the Caliphate), kidnapped and beheaded Hervé Gourdel at the end of 2014, declaring its allegiance to ISIS. As in the case of the In Amenas attack, the kidnapping of Gourdel appears to have been a means for the group's leader, Abu Slimane, who was a veteran of GIA and the GSPC, and was killed by Algerian special forces in December 2014, to use the ISIS brand name of to increase his group's profile. Despite the international attention currently afforded to ISIS, Jund al-Khilafa's room for manoeuvre is likely to be fairly contained by the counterterrorist capacities in Algeria, though small satellite cells and groups inspired by ISIS, like Jund al-Khilafa, are likely to proliferate. A further fragmentation of AQIM could also be highly likely, as ISIS allegiance offers greater visibility. This kind of fragmentation, in turn, raises concerns about more spectacular attacks and hostage taking, as new entities seek to announce their arrival.

Regional Implications

AQIM and its splinter groups are seeking to profit from instability in Algeria's neighbourhood, and have the capacity to impact regional dynamics. First and foremost, they have a direct, and in some cases major, impact on the stability of Sahelian states. AQIM is able to exploit long-standing conflicts and traditional smuggling routes to North Africa to its advantage. Indeed, this was precisely what occurred in Mali, where Belmokhtar had spent some time establishing close relations with the disenfranchised, local Tuareg by encouraging marriages between AQIM militants and locals, capitalising on mutual 'business interests', and through proselytisation. When the Qaddafi regime collapsed in Libya in 2011, and the return of Tuareg mercenaries helped to bring about a rebellion against the Malian government in 2012, AQIM and one of its splinter groups, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), in alliance with local Tuareg Islamist militant group Ansar al-Dine, seized the opportunity to coordinate the capture of the northern part of the country, with MUJAO and Ansar al-Dine imposing strict shariah law in the areas they captured.  Chivvis and Liepman, "North Africa's Menace," Op. cit., pp. 7-9.

The actions of AQIM, its splinter groups, and their allies have also increased the reliance of Sahelian states on outside support, particularly that of France. The rapid advance of AQIM and its allies towards Mali's capital, Bamako, prompted the Malian government to request assistance from France, which promptly launched Operation Serval in January 2013. Having taken control of the major urban centres held by AQIM and its allies by the end of January, France and its regional allies were able to strike a blow to AQIM, MUJAO and Ansar al-Dine's goal of creating a safe haven for militant jihadis in Africa, and to disrupt their operations. However, many Islamist militants simply fled to other countries in the Sahel and the Maghreb, Chivvis and Liepman, ibid., p. 9. or simply sank back into the local civilian population. As long as capacities of Sahelian states remain weak, and poor and disenfranchised communities exist within their population, they remain vulnerable to Islamist extremism, and thus will remain reliant on external intervention, primarily from European powers. Ibid., p. 9. Indeed, as a follow-up to Operation Serval, France has now established Operation Barkhane – a permanent force of 3,000 troops that will carry out cross-border counter-terrorism activities in the Sahelo-Sahara basin – in cooperation with Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.  "Operation Barkhane," Website of the Ministère de la Défense, Republique Française,, accessed 31 January 2015.

The ability of AQIM and its offshoots to exploit regional instability is now not confined to the Sahel, however. The security vacuum created by the fall of the Qaddafi regime in 2011 and the ensuing chaos enabled AQIM to enter Libya, where it acquired more sophisticated weapons and transported them back to the Sahel. The weapons were reported to have included SAM-7 anti-aircraft and RPG-7 anti-tank missiles, significantly boosting AQIM's arsenal, which had until that point largely composed small arms and explosives. Ould Mohamedou, "The Many faces of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb," Op. cit. In addition to obtaining arms in Libya, AQIM also used the opportunity to recruit militants, and is believed to have a recruited a number of sleeper cells in Libya. Abu al-Ma'ali, " Al-Qaeda and Its Allies in the Sahel and Sahara," Op. cit., p. 5. Nevertheless, AQIM's presence in Libya should not be exaggerated. While it has lent moral support to Libya's Islamist militant groups that seek to establish an Islamic state in Libya, no formal associations appear to exist, though some degree of loose cooperation likely takes place, Chivvis and Liepman, "North Africa's Menace," Op. cit., p. 9-10. and AQIM could potentially act as a force multiplier for local groups should the opportunity arise. In Tunisia too, AQIM does not appear to have made any significant inroads. No formal linkages are reported to exist between Tunisia's main salafi-jihadi group, Ansar al-Sharia, and AQIM, though they clearly share interests and may cooperate at some level. Ibid., p. 11. AQIM is also reported to have connections to the Mohammed Jamal Network, one of the operationally significant salafi-jihadi groups active in the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, though again, this should not be confused with a formal alliance.  Testimony for the Hearing before the House Committee on Homeland Security, 11 February 2014, "Al Qaeda's Expansion in Egypt Implications for U.S. Homeland Security," Foundation for Defense of Democracies, p. 5.

Algeria's reluctance to engage in intervention in Mali has highlighted the frailty of its security role in the Sahel.

While AQIM still cannot be said to have a pan-Maghreban or even pan-North African identity as yet, AQIM and splinter groups have become more diffuse and have the capacity to affect regional balances. Algeria's regional role has typically been boosted by its counter-terrorism experience, though predominantly in relation to the Sahel. The Tamenrasset Joint Operational Committee, based in Algiers, was created in 2010 by Algeria, Mali, Niger and Mauritania, with the aim of avoiding external (non-regional) intervention in Sahelian affairs. In the same year, these four countries also created a Centre de Renseignement sur le Sahel (CRS), which was also based in Algiers, to support more effective action against AQIM. Cristiani and Fabiani, "Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)," Op. cit., p. 9. Yet, Algeria's reluctance to engage in direct military intervention in Mali in 2013, for fear of fuelling militancy at home, has highlighted the frailty of its dominant security role in the Sahel, with France adopting a stronger role in supporting Sahelian countries in the field of counter-terrorism. Nevertheless, Algeria's counter-terrorism experience does continue to make it an important strategic partner for some countries in the Sahel and increasingly for its North African neighbours. Algeria and Egypt now share a common interest in preventing Libya from becoming an even greater safe haven for Islamist extremists and Egypt is now seeking to cooperate with Algeria in the security field. Walid Ramzi and Waleed Abu al-Khair, "Terror Threats Push Algeria, Egypt Closer," Maghrebia, 20 November 2014,, accessed 1 February 2015. 

International Ramifications

While the states of the Maghreb (still largely Algeria) and the Sahel are AQIM's near enemies, the group has declared Spain and France as its far enemies. Yet, so far, AQIM has not launched attacks in European states, though individuals within European states with suspected links to AQIM have been arrested in Europe. European cells appear to be a source of finance for AQIM rather than responsible for planning attacks on European soil, even though France in particular has been declared an AQIM enemy. Geoff D. Porter, "AQIM's Objectives in North Africa," Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, February 2011. While it remains a potential direct threat to European countries, it still constitutes a predominantly regional challenge, manifesting itself in different ways in various African localities. Chivvis and Liepman, "North Africa's Menace," Op. cit., p. 13. The actions of AQIM and its offshoots, nevertheless, have broader international ramifications. The In Amenas attack was a reminder that international targets are highly valuable to groups like AQIM and its offshoots, given the media attention they can bring to a group. The attack on the gas facility was not only significant because it revealed the ongoing vulnerability of Algeria to large-scale attacks and resulted in the deaths of 39 foreign workers; by targeting Algeria's energy sector it highlighted the potential that such groups have to disrupt energy supplies, albeit on a relatively low level. The kidnapping of foreigners, as that of Gourdel demonstrates, also remains an ongoing threat in Algeria and the Sahel in particular. Not only does it serve to bring media attention to those responsible, it has also been a means of financing activities in instances when ransoms have been paid, posing dilemmas to the states of those kidnapped.

Though responses to the In Amenas attack and the advance of AQIM and its allies in Mali will have dented the capacities and operational room for manoeuvre of salafi jihadi groups in Algeria and the Sahel, AQIM and its offshoots still retain the ability to rebound, especially in the Sahel and possibly Libya, where permissive conditions for their growth exist and opportunities to act as a force multiplier for local salafi jihadi groups remain a possibility. Ibid., p. 13. As long this is the case, direct external intervention in the region will also remain necessary. Given the proximity of North Africa and the Sahel to Europe, European states, especially France, may find it hard to avoid direct military intervention in support of states with limited capabilities to address the problem on their own or even in regional groupings. Moreover, given the continued gaps in European military capabilities, military interventions could require US military support. This will, in turn, feed into the salafi-jihadi narrative, placing US and European interests and citizens at greater risk. It will, therefore, be critical for Europe in particular, but also the US, to invest in regional capacity building in Africa.

Concluding Remarks

Thus, while the threat of global terrorism in Algeria had receded from the international headlines in recent years, the country remains at the centre of violent Islamist extremism in the Maghreb and the Sahel. AQIM and its proliferating splinter groups, of which one already has pledged allegiance to ISIS, still retain the capacity to destabilise fragile Sahelian states and, in the fall out from the Arab uprisings, have an increased potential to exploit instability in Libya, Tunisia and perhaps even Egypt. While AQIM and its offshoots have as of January 2015 not carried out attacks in Europe and appear unlikely to be directly involved in attacks in European countries, European interests and citizens are at risk in Algeria and the Sahel in particular. Moreover, the weak state capacities of countries in the Sahel and Libya in particular are likely to implicate European states, especially France, in direct counter-terrorism actions on the ground, posing difficult dilemmas for their governments.

The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

This report was first published on 24 February 2015.