Why Algeria Isn’t Exporting Jihadists


Algeria’s tough security stance and the legacy of the country’s bloody civil war help explain why relatively few Algerians are fighting abroad.

Algeria’s tough security stance and the legacy of the country’s bloody civil war help explain why relatively few Algerians are fighting abroad.

There is frequent discussion of the appeal that jihadist groups such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, among others, hold for Arabs and foreign fighters coming from Western countries. Much attention has also been given to the increasing numbers of Tunisians and Moroccans joining these groups in Syria and Iraq: in September 2014, the figures stood at around 3,000 and 1,500 respectively.

But relatively little attention has been given to the fact that the number of Algerians fighting abroad—which a government official put at 63 in June 2015—is clearly small compared with that of their Tunisian and Moroccan counterparts. This may seem surprising given that Algerians were among the first to travel to Afghanistan in 1979 to engage in jihadism against the Soviets, and thousands of Algerians joined the ranks of the Islamic Armed Group and other jihadist movements on the Algerian scene during the country’s civil war in the 1990s.

Despite a sharp dip in jihadist activity since the end of the civil war, Algerian authorities have been speaking of residual terrorism for the past fifteen years. And today, jihadist activity continues inside Algeria, albeit limited to sporadic, individual incidents.

The relatively low number of fighters coming from Algeria—and, more broadly, their limited influence at home—can be explained by Algeria’s public discourse, its religious sphere and the state’s policies toward it, and the level of security in the country. However, state policies continue to overlook social, economic, and political grievances, which may plant the seed for instability in Algeria once more and, by extension, for a rise in jihadism abroad.

The Mass Trauma of the Black Decade

A key reason for the seemingly low appeal of jihadism among Algerians is the experience of the country’s civil war, which raged throughout the 1990s. That period, known as the black decade—during which 150,000 people died and 7,000 disappeared—resulted in a mass trauma that is still evident in Algerians’ yearning for order and stability, which the authorities fuel in order to justify their tough security stance.

Following the overwhelming victory of the radical Islamic Salvation Front in the first round of legislative elections in December 1991, the electoral process was interrupted in January 1992, and the front’s extremist wing launched the first calls for jihadism.

In the years that followed, Algeria witnessed the birth of a plethora of jihadist groups, the most prominent being the Islamic Armed Group, which called for a fight against the “impious state” and for the establishment of an Islamic state. The civil war and its horrors, bombings, and collective massacres lasted more than ten years. An individual who lived through the war in his or her formative years grew up in an environment in which fear was constant.

The fear of instability remains a powerful force in Algeria. The state of emergency that was declared at the outset of the war was only lifted in 2011, and the country continues to witness limited and highly localized jihadist incidents, especially in regions such as Kabylia, on the Mediterranean. The local jihadists are either members of autonomous groups or affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the successor of the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, itself the successor of the Islamic Armed Group.

Algerians still worry that the country might revert to its previous state of unrest, especially as conflicts erupt in neighboring countries such as Libya and Tunisia and threaten to spill over into Algeria.

The images coming out of Syria and Iraq serve as a painful reminder to Algerians of the black decade, which “nobody wants to live again,” as an Algerian in his late thirties told me. It seems that Algerians’ desire for security is stronger than ever. As a thirty-five-year-old lawyer put it: “Algerians had their dose of horror, and today they are vaccinated against Islamism. They do not want it anymore. They are traumatized and disappointed.”

The Algerian authorities have capitalized on this deep trauma and fear of instability, which they have been feeding through government statements centered on the notion that “total security” prevails in Algeria. This has been the case particularly since the Arab uprisings of 2011, when state discourse (in the state media and in officials’ speeches) became focused on the risks of terrorism, instability, and chaos, and the need for tough national security.

During the 2014 presidential election, the slogan of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was running for a fourth term, was unequivocal: “Stability and continuity.” The assumption was that if Algerians did not reelect the ailing seventy-eight-year-old president, chaos would rule as in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, and Algeria would witness a second black decade.

This rhetoric is built on the supposition that Bouteflika and the military are the devoted guardians of Algeria. Despite social and economic grievances, public opinion appears to support this total security policy because “there is no other alternative and too much is at stake,” as Kenza, a thirty-one-year-old architect in Algiers, told me. Others in the capital voice similar sentiments, such as: “Do we really have choice? . . . At least [Bouteflika] can avoid the chaos,” or “Today, the choice is between the plague and cholera.”

Even for those who are too young to have lived through the civil war, the memories of war and violence have been handed down, and there is a sense that the current security discourse is acceptable because of the terrorist threat that exists. Individual incidents of jihadist terrorism, like the attack on the In Amenas gas facility in January 2013, in which 70 people died—including 37 foreigners who were held hostage and 29 militants—feed this fear of instability and, by extension, the government’s frequent declarations about the terrorism threat facing the country.

From Jihadi Salafism to Dawa Salafism

Another reason for the relatively low appeal of jihadism among Algerians is the rise of the Dawa Salafiya movement, which some call quietist Salafism, as an alternative to both jihadism and politics and its co-optation by the state.

Dawa Salafiya was introduced in Algeria in the 1920s by Tayeb al Oqbi, a member of the Algerian Muslim Ulema Association, a group of religious scholars. The movement preaches adherence to what it says are pure Islamic teachings, and it provides a networked community of members who want to follow those precepts and find their place in society. The movement suffered from divisions within its ranks during the war of independence, but grew again through the 1980s and gained more ground at the end of the civil war in 2000.

Today, the most important figures in Algeria’s Dawa Salafiya are sheikhs Ali Ferkous, Abdel Ghani Aoussat, M’hamed Tchalabi, and Chams El Dine el Jazairi. These scholars are social media–savvy and have Facebook pages and websites. They offer guidance and instant fatwas to their adherents online, by phone, and on the air through Salafist radio stations. This advice covers diverse subjects such as clothing, voting, work, food, prayer, and marriage, and it is given in several languages, including Tamazight, a Berber language indigenous to North Africa.

The growth of Dawa Salafiya can be attributed to the political disillusionment of most Algerians. Few polling organizations in Algeria record the state of public opinion or political participation. However, according to the 2013 Arab Barometer survey, the level of participation in the political process is relatively low, with just 45 percent saying they had voted in the previous national election. Algerians’ level of trust in public institutions is also low: only 8 percent said they had a great deal of trust in parliament, while nearly 47 percent of respondents said they had no trust at all in that body.

Dawa Salafiya offers an alternative for those Algerians who supported the Islamic Salvation Front but were disappointed by the violence of the civil war. Dawa is also a substitute for those who have no more trust in Islamist parties such as Nahda and El Islah, which are in decline due to their continuous splintering, divisions, and lack of strategy and leadership. The country’s main Islamist party, the Movement of Society for Peace, is not even seen as a true Islamist group. Rather, it is perceived as a co-opted party, or a party of the pouvoir (power), which is “stuck in partisan struggles and absorbed by its own interest,” according to Farid, a young Salafist follower of sheikh Ali Ferkous.

The members of the dawa seek guidance from religious scholars who are seen as truthful and as the guardians of genuine knowledge, far removed from partisan divisions. In fact, Dawa Salafiya calls for total silence on political issues and rejects political activities that are seen as responsible for fitna (discord) among Muslims.

Dawa Salafiya also offers its followers economic and social support through a system of networks and donations accessible through the Salafiya community. Economic incentives and a sense of membership in this community, which has its own mosques, associations, scholars, style of dressing, and way of life, help explain why the Salafist youth seems to have no interest in leaving Algeria to fight a “cause that is not ours,” in the words of a young Salafist named Yassin.

Most of the movement’s scholars are employed by the Algerian state to teach in universities or mosques, and they remain disinterested in the state and its policies and do not constitute a threat. Through these scholars and the universities, institutes, and mosques to which they are assigned, the state is able to control the religious discourse and make the scholars into channels of its political project. As a former lieutenant colonel in the People’s National Army (PNA) explained in May 2015, “We let them be because they are not a menace. . . . On the contrary, actually they are a good means for the youth to channel and cope with their anger and frustration.”

A Tight, Merciless Security Mechanism

A final factor that contributes to keeping Algerians’ participation in jihadist organizations low, especially abroad, is the tight control that state security services exercise over jihadist groups.

That does not mean that there is no jihadist violence in the country; localized jihadist activity continues, as was seen in al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s attack on an army convoy in Aïn Defla, in northern Algeria, on July 8, 2015.

Nevertheless, the notion of total security is not just a slogan. Security forces are on alert and have a high capacity. Algeria, with its 39 million inhabitants, employed 209,000 police officers in its General Directorate of National Security in 2014—up from 90,000 in 2009. By contrast, Morocco employs around 46,000 in its equivalent body, for a population of 33 million. Even France, with its 65 million citizens, has only 143,000 in its national security service.

The Algerian state offers incentives to members of the security services to maintain their loyalty. In 2010, the state increased the already-high salaries of the services’ employees by 50 percent. Members of the security services enjoy important advantages such as housing: they were allocated a quota of 30,000 housing units in 2013. The police also receive performance bonuses, a risk allowance of up to 70 percent of an employee’s salary, extra payments for those who move to remote areas, and a prize worth up to $400 for those whose children pass their baccalaureate exams.

The People’s National Army and its intelligence sector, the Department of Intelligence and Security, back up the police and gendarmerie forces. The Algerian army has an active frontline force of 512,000, compared with 40,500 for that of Tunisia, which has a population of about 11 million. Algeria’s military has an available manpower of 20,387,681—Tunisia’s has 5,798,752. And Algeria has an active reserve force of 400,000, against 12,000 for Tunisia.

With this kind of capability, Algeria has beefed up its borders and sent more troops to monitor its frontiers with Libya, Mali, and Niger. By 2014, Algeria had closed all of its borders except the one with Tunisia and made them into military zones accessible only to individuals with special security clearance.

More importantly, the military in Algeria has something that the Moroccan and Tunisian armies do not have: highly sophisticated training and extensive experience in counterterrorist combat. As a former commandant in the PNA explained:

It is no longer the army of the 1990s when the situation was out of control. . . . The military had experienced a debacle the first two years because we had no experience in the fight against terrorism . . . but today everything is different. We have the equipment, the manpower, the money, and, especially, the experience. [Islamist groups] are under control and surveillance. We will not let them do it again. Everything is under control . . . we have a tight, merciless security mechanism.

The army has indeed increased its missions and security operations since the current conflict erupted in Libya in 2014. It has been relatively successful in securing Algeria’s borders against the flow of fighters from outside the country, and the Algerian military periodically arrests drug and arms traffickers and jihadists, especially in the south (in In Amenas and Djanet, near the Libyan border) and the east (in Tébessa and El Oued, near Tunisia).

For example, Abdelmalek Gouri, chief of the Algerian jihadist group Jund El Khalifa—which declared its allegiance to the Islamic State and was responsible for the death of French national Hervé Gourdel in 2014—was killed by the PNA together with two of his men two months after Gourdel was decapitated. Gouri’s successor, Bashir Othman al-Assimi, and his organization of 25 men were eliminated four months later in a massive operation led by the People’s National Army in the city of Bouïra.

In another example of a tough response to sporadic and localized jihadist activities, from January to September 2013, 190 jihadists were killed in the Kabylia region, a zone formerly controlled by the Islamic Armed Group.

What Next for Algeria?

Despite all the measures taken by the state, Algeria’s tight security mechanism remains a risky approach. That is because there is a culture of impunity among members of the police and security services, which allows them to engage in torture and other human rights violations without accountability. This might lead to the radicalization of youth, as happened in Algeria in the 1990s, when the opening of detention centers in the south led thousands of young people to seek vengeance and retaliation. Algeria should consider reforms of the security sector, which could be a first step toward a more balanced civil-military relationship.

In addition, economic, social, and political problems persist in Algeria, and the youth are without a doubt the first victims of such issues. Algeria is still highly dependent on the hydrocarbons sector, which accounts for 60 percent of the country’s budget revenues, 97 percent of its exports, and 30 percent of its gross domestic product. In other words, Algeria remains a rentier economy.

On the political front, there has been a lack, if not a complete absence, of generational renewal, allowing the same apparatchiks to remain in power since even before Algeria’s independence in 1962. Their authoritarianism and co-optation strategies prevented the emergence of a real opposition and led to a civil society that is plagued by anomie.

Algeria’s socioeconomic problems include high unemployment, which stood at 10.6 percent in the third quarter of 2014; a housing shortage, with a cumulative shortfall of 1,993,768 housing units in 2015; and abysmal wage levels and living conditions, which prompted over 9,000 riots in 2010. All this might lead the youth toward jihadist movements as a means to express their resentment and retaliation. And, with Algeria’s domestic jihadist scene still active, there is already a framework in place to host disaffected young people.

Accordingly, to keep the number of Algerians who join the ranks of jihadist movements abroad relatively low, and to prevent disaffected youth from joining local jihadist groups, the regime must confront the socioeconomic and political issues that affect the population, particularly the country’s young people. This will take more than injecting billions of dollars into projects such as the National Support Agency for Youth Employment to cure young people’s despair.1 Just as the 1962 generation took up arms in 1992, thirty years after independence, to demand its rights, so it is only a matter of time until the 1992 generation takes up arms in turn to claim its rights from the same family that has ruled the country since before independence.

At a certain point, the memory of the civil war will gradually fade, borders will become even more difficult to control, and Dawa Salafiya may no longer be able to respond to the anger and frustration of its followers. At that time, unaddressed sociopolitical and economic grievances, as well as the frustrations of the youth and their sense of hogra (injustice), will increase. This may boost young people’s support for internal or external extremist groups, which give them a voice and a raison d’être. Once again, the spiral of violence will be activated.

While this trend may mean a rise in the membership of groups operating within Algeria and the Maghreb, it may also lead to increased fighting farther afield. This is because conflicts like the one in Syria provide fighters with an opportunity to gain expertise and knowledge, which they can later apply when they return home, hoping to succeed where their predecessors have failed—namely, in establishing an Islamic state in Algeria.


The National Support Agency for Youth Employment gave significant amounts of money to young people between the ages of nineteen and thirty-five (up to forty for managers). According to its official online statistics, the agency provided almost $1.5 billion in loans in 2012. Between 2007 and 2013, the body issued over $5.8 billion in loans. From 2010 to 2014, the agency went from financing 20,000 to 60,000 projects, and around 700,000 jobs were created. Nearly 90,000 agency micro-enterprises were set up in 2014. According to the Ministry of Labor, Employment, and Social Security, the number of micro-enterprises overall will reach 500,000 by the end of 2015.

Carnegie Middle East Center

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