Algeria: Al-Qaeda Suffers from Differences Among its Leaders, 'Protectors of the Call' a group Holed up in the Mountain refusing to engage in Combat, Salafists Invade Algiers Capitalizing on the Security's Preoccupation with the Fight against Jihadists - Part I - (by Camille Tawil)
Camille Tawil Al-Hayat - 06/06/07//
Algiers - Fifteen years after the Algerian authorities cancelled the results of elections, which the Islamists were poised to sweep; Islamists have stepped back into the limelight today taking advantage of a large measure of freedom of religious activity granted by the authorities that are determined to turn over a new leaf with those willing to renounce violence.
Visitors of the Algerian capital notice a strong presence of Islamists from all walks of life, though the most noticeable are the Salafists with their long beards and short jilbab (garment). Such a scene was not not common a few years ago when the country was still fighting a war against militant groups in which no less than 150,000 have been killed.
Those people are not only spotted in one area of the capital, but they also appear in many of Algiers neighborhoods. They gather round mosques holding the hands of their children, who also wear Salafist-styled short jilbab like their fathers, and heading for prayers. You see them in taxis whose radios uninterruptedly pump out recitation of Qur'an. You can also see them in popular markets selling vegetables and meat.
But this 'Salafist rise' has not expressed itself during the elections Algeria witnessed a few days ago, as the Islamic parties that participated in the polls did not make a breakthrough at the expense of other political currents in the newly-elected National People's Assembly (the lower chamber of parliament).
Movement of Society for Peace (MSP) was the only party that made some progress, although it was largely attributed to the weakness of other parties (Movement for National Reform and the Islamic Renaissance Movement) not to the votes of the Salafists, who usually do not vote for a Brotherhood-oriented party.
Regardless of the elections and their results, some link the Salafist rise in Algeria to the tolerance shown by the authorities towards them in an effort to encourage the establishment of an Islamic alternative capable of confronting the Jihadists' ideologies. The Jihadists are the basic human reservoir on which the militant groups, which are bent on fighting the government, depend.
The Algerian authorities discovered the importance of the Salafists at the end of the 1990s at the advent of the new millennium when a number of Gulf scholars stated explicitly that what the militant groups in Algeria are doing is not jihad. Speaking to 'al-Hayat', a prominent official concerned with this dossier said that the fatwas of the Salafist scholars at the time were conveyed by special envoys to the warlords of militants groups in the mountains and had a considerable impact on those who "appeared as though they have suddenly discovered that what they thought right has turned out to be wrong and that the killings they have been doing over the years are not sanctioned by the Sharia, as they thought."
The official added that these fatwas, which provided a Sharia-based interpretation that nullifies jihad in Algeria, helped, in a very short period, convince a number of groups' warlords to get down from mountains and surrender in order to benefit from the 1999-2000 Civil Harmony Law, which was proposed at the beginning of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's term, and later from the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation.
The official indicated that an Emir of a group descended from the mountain with all elements of his battalion and informed the security bodies that he had read the fatwas of the Salafist scholars and that he became convinced that he was mistaken and that he was ready to bear the consequences of his actions. The Emir confirmed that he did not descend from the mountain just out of his desire to benefit from the amnesty. The official did not reveal the name of the Emir or his group.
The official pointed out that the militant groups that are still in the mountain are divided into two main sections: the first is affiliated to the al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb led by Abu Musab Abdel Wadud (Abdelmalik Droudkel) and the second is affiliated to the 'Protectors of the Salafist Call' group led by Salim al-Afghani.
Both groups are offshoots of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) following its disintegration in the second half of the 1990s as a result of the extremist ideology embraced by its leadership under Djamel Zitouni (between 1994 and 1996) and then Antar Zouabri (1996-2002). Under the leadership of Zouabri the GIA became a 'takfiri' group, considering Algerian society to be in violation of Islamic precepts.
While al-Qaeda (formerly the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat) is active in the wilayas (regions) on the eastern outskirts of the capital and some areas in the desert, the Protectors of the Salafist Call were taken the western region of Algiers as a base for its activity before being finally forced to move eastward across the Alonchris mountain chain toward the regions adjacent to the western part of the capital.
The official confirmed that Abdel Wadud's group - its members are estimated at few hundreds although its exact figure is not known - is suffering from intense internal problems due to the policy that has been adopted by Abdel Wadud since he converted the GSPC into al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb last January.
He said that penitent elements of this group have recently told the security services that many differences exist among its commanders, providing an accurate description of reservations expressed by some emirs at the policies of the National Emir, Abdel Wadud. It is known that al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb has recently issued a statement in which it denied Algerian reports about differences among its ranks, but the Algerian official told 'al-Hayat' that security services have information corroborating these differences.
The official pointed out that the authorities are still ready to reach out to any militant in the mountain, whether from Abdel Wadud's group or any other groups, urging him to lay down arms to take advantage of the reconciliation and peace charter (despite its expiry last year).
The official did not discuss in detail the position of the GSPC former Emir, Hassan Hattab, who refuses to come down from the mountain though he disagrees with GSPC-renamed-al-Qaeda current leaders. Nevertheless, the official praised Hattab's renunciation of militancy, assuming that the fatwas issued by the Salafist clerics in the Gulf invalidating jihad in Algeria could have made him review his ideas, although he was one of the first who defected from the GIA under the leadership of Antar Zouabri and disassociated themselves from the massacres it had claimed.
Hattab currently lives in an isolated place in a remote mountainous region, but he refuses to surrender to benefit from the reconciliation measures. Over the past few years security services have made contacts with him but they failed to reach agreement with him to come down from the mountain. It is believed that the security services are disappointed at Hattab's failure to convince a large number of GSPC activists to renounce violence and come out of their strongholds to benefit from the reconciliation law, while Hattab himself is cautious by nature and is afraid that the intelligence services are deceiving him. Therefore, he does not want to put 'all eggs in the basket of security bodies', because this will 'smear his reputation in the eyes of some Islamists'.
The official admitted it is difficult to completely eradicate al-Qaeda strongholds east of Algiers, but he said that the army knows that the elements of this organization are based in the upper parts of Bejaia and Tizi Ouzou districts, but these bases are not fixed as the Salafists are forced to transfer them from one place to another as a result of security crackdown. The official explained that the Salafists' continuous movement hampers their ability to prepare for major operations, such as those carried out in the Algerian capital in April when they sent cars driven by suicide bombers that blew themselves up at the government palace and a security center in Bab Ezzouar.
The official emphasized that the current situation cannot be compared in any way with the situation in the 1990s, as today there is nothing called 'liberated areas' the army cannot enter, as was the case at the time of the Armed Islamic Group, which used to control well-fortified regions.
As for the Protectors of the Salafist Call, the second splinter group that broke away from the GIA, a source familiar with its dossier said that the fatwas of the Salafist clerics in the Gulf were also conveyed to its Emir 'Salim al-Afghani', who briefly replied without saying whether or not he is opposed to them.
It seems that this group decided to halt its operations without official announcement in a step similar to that taken by the leader of Egyptian Jihad group, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has ceased his operations in Egypt secretly since 1995-1996 for lack of capability, as the security forces dismantled most of his groups' structure inside the country.
The Algerian source told 'al-Hayat' that the army knows that elements of the Protectors of the Salafist Call avoid confrontation with it and begin to leave their positions in a particular area if they notice that the army approaches the area. Since the cessation of its operations years ago this group has been preparing a new generation of the sons of its elements and the people of the regions where they are deployed by indoctrinating them in the Salafist teachings.
A few days ago, the Algerian media received a letter signed by this group which included a Sharia-based interpretation confuting the justification for the bombings carried out by the al-Qaeda Organization in Algiers on the government palace and security center in Bab Ezzouar.
It is not clear today whether the Protectors of the Salafist Call's avoidance of military confrontation with the security forces is a temporary tactic strategy or a long-term strategy.
But it is believed that inside the Algerian military institution there are opponents to any compromise with this group on the ground that it takes advantage of the military cooling-off period to build its cells and capabilities and that confrontation with it is inevitable, if it is not today it will be tomorrow.
Others respond to this criticism by saying that the truce with the Salafists gives security bodies the time to focus on the Jihadists front, instead of fighting on two fronts.
(To be continued)