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Algeria's Islamists

Rayna Breuer / csc
January 25, 2013

Islamists in Algeria took foreign hostages and demanded an end to French intervention in Mali - and the whole world stopped to watch. DW looks at how the recent hostage taking is connected to the conflict in Mali.

Algerian soldiers secure the airport in Ain Amenas, Algeria, before the departure of freed hostages Saturday (Photo: Mohamed Kadri/Xinhua/AP/dapd)
Image: dapd

In recent years, Algeria has been ignored by the media, forgotten by tourists and neglected by Western leaders. A former French colony that is one of Africa's largest countries by area, Algeria has been a political dwarf on the international stage - until now. A group of radical Islamists last week attacked a gas field in eastern Algeria, taking foreign workers as hostages. Suddenly, Algeria was in the media, and the whole world was watching - surprised, shocked and confused - as the hostage crisis unfolded. At least 37 foreigners died after authorities carried out what has now become a controversial raid.

Algeria's civil war and its consequences

The links between the hostage crisis in Algeria and the conflict in neighboring Mali run deep, in part due to the former's history. In 1988, young Algerians blocked streets in the whole country to demand democratic reforms and an opening of their restrictive society.

"The Arab Spring essentially began in Algeria more than 20 years ago. They were the first to incite a massive uprising," says Asiem El-Difrauoui, Middle East expert and author of the book,"The Jihad of Images." This led to a process of cautious opening.

But when the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), swept local elections in the early 1990s, the government moved to curtail its takeover. This led to a decade-long civil war between the armed FIS and the country's military.

GettyImages 122164616 An armoured vehicle takes position in front of government buildings 12 January 1992 in Algiers the day after the resignation by Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid. (ABDELHAK SENNA/AFP/Getty Images)
An armored vehicle in front of government buildings during the civil war in 1992Image: AFP/Getty Images

The role of the military

The military was able to consolidate its dominant position and the Islamists were pushed to the periphery.

"The violent and armed jihadi groups regrouped several times. Some moved toward the Sahara, where they formed alliances with terrorist movements from Mauretania, Mali and the Sahel region," says Rachin Ouaissa from the Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies (CNMS) at the University of Marburg in Germany.

Rachin Ouaissa from the Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies
Rachin Ouaissa from the Center for Near and Middle Eastern StudiesImage: Rachin Ouaissa

"The problem that we have with the terrorists today goes back to the Algerian civil war [of the 1990s]," says Werner Ruf, another Africa expert and professor at the University of Kassel.

"At the time, the military helped support and build other Islamist armed groups, in part, in its fight against the FIS," Ruf said.

The goal of the army was to spread the terror of these groups to make all Islamists unpopular in the country. The terrorist acts of these Islamist networks were supposed to cover the atrocities, torture and mass murder of the Algerian army on the people, Ruf explains. Up to 200,000 people were killed in the country's brutal civil war.

Algeria's Jihadists in Mali

In the end, the army managed to defeat the Islamists and push them from the major cities, but it did not destroy them, says Algerian expert Rachin Ouaissa. Several groups that were ready to be violent sprung up, taking advantage of the weak structures and massive uninhabited areas in the Sahel, on the border with Mali. That's where they hid themselves and built networks with similar groups around the world. Their countries of origin played a secondary role. What matters for Jihadists is their ideology.

"[In the hostage taking], you had attackers of 8 nationalities; one was Tunisian, others were from Niger, Egypt; apparently there was one from Canada," Williams Lawrence, a North Africa expert at the International Crisis Group (ICG), told DW.

The demands of the kidnappers were clearly linked to the conflict in Mali. When the attackers said that the reason for their attack was the situation in Mali, they managed to grab the attention of the public, Lawrence said.

William Lawrence, International Crisis Group (ICG) Africa expert
William Lawrence, International Crisis Group (ICG) Africa expertImage: Crisis Group

Fear of Jihad

Lawrence is skeptical of the intervention in Mali and asks where the Jihadists are likely to go if pushed out of the northern part of the country. Back to Algeria where most of them come from, when it had managed to push them to the south? What is really needed is a more profound strategy to fight radical Islam on the continent.

Lawrence doesn't believe that the Islamists present a threat to Algeria's political stability. The Islamist parties didn't do well in the country's last elections. The military is still very present in the country, as the bloody end of the recent hostage taking at the gas field showed.

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