Algeria counters terrorism

The Algerian counter-terrorism campaign is inseparably linked to the controversy surrounding the definition of terrorism. Is the country faced with violent actions directed against civil targets in order to spread terror and destabilise state institutions?

If the answer is yes, then 'terrorism' should be considered as a strategic threat. The solution would be repression at two levels: military and judicial. If the answer is no, this would mean terrorist actions are "the consequence of social and economic forces, political and intellectual tools, gathered to provoke the act".1 Thus, the solution is essentially political and implies that one should deal with the ideological roots of this violence by attempting to lay the foundations for reconciliation.

A legislative decree passed in September 1992 indiscriminately uses the terms 'subversion' and 'terrorism'. Both are defined as "the infraction targeting state security, territorial integrity, the institution's stability and normal functioning, through any action which tends to spread terror and create a climate of insecurity by causing damage to people and properties". In Algeria, any reference to the political nature of terrorist actions was removed from existing legislation in 1995. Under new legislation, terrorist acts are given no political justification and integrated solely within the framework of criminal acts.

Counter-terrorist legislation is defined by a number of factors. A notable example is the UN Pact of Civilian and Political Rights that Algeria ratified in May 1989. According to this agreement, if the parties face "an exceptional danger which threatens the nation's existence", they would not be bound to respect the Pact's principles.2 In addition, a certain ambiguity can be observed in the distinction between the army's prerogatives on the one hand, and general public order, on the other. The penal code illustrates this confusion by not defining its area of application and its legal limits. Articles 63 to 69 only refer to "the crimes and transgressions against the public entity".3 Therefore, Algerian legislation does not adequately define the parameters relating to breaches of national security.

The outbreak of terrorism that erupted in 1992 can be partly attributed to a number of laws approved in the early 1990s. For example, the Algerian parliament approved several laws in June 1991 (state of siege) and in January 1992 (state of emergency), which allowed the army to take part in maintaining public order, national safety and protection of the population.4

These measures imposed several restrictions, admitted the use and the superiority of the special courts and transferred authority to the military hierarchy.5 Between October 1992 and October 1994, 13,770 people were judged, 25% of them were freed, while 12% were executed and 61% imprisoned.6

The recognition of the right to self-defence through the executive decree No. 97-04 was also highly influential. This decree linked national defence and public order by developing the notion of 'civilian defence' and giving it new substance.7 This encompassed linking 'public order' to 'national defence' through the concept of subversion.

Algerian army and self-defence groups

The National Popular Army (ANP) is an instrument of security in Algeria. Thirty years after independence from France in 1962, the ANP was the core of the regime's revolutionary and historical legitimacy, derived from the national liberation army's role against colonisation.

Consensus about the ANP stops there. The rest is the subject of contradictory debate or polemic. The first perspective regards the ANP as playing a vital role in fighting a threat capable of destroying the state and its institutions. According this perspective, the ANP's functions have shifted from defence of the country's borders to police duties. In other words the ANP's new role was to defeat urban and rural guerrillas. This transformation meant that new logistic and personnel support was needed. The ANP had to rely on generating its own logistic support for a period of at least eight years. However, in recent years the ANP has received assistance from a number of foreign governments.

Officially, the US was the first foreign power, in 2002, to break the ANP's military resource isolation by supplying night-vision material. According to Algerian governmental sources, that sale was the first unconditional contract signed since 1991. In fact, a contract had already been signed with Russia in 2001. Other contracts were concluded with South Africa (reconnaissance planes), Qatar (gift of all-ground vehicles), Czech Republic (L-39 advanced trainers), the UK (night-vision and infrared equipment), Russia (bombers), Jordan and Egypt (military training).

In addition to logistical support, the military counter- terrorist campaign has also relied on popular mobilisation though the self-defence groups (GLD) or the 'Patriots'. Their status evolved in keeping with the political context. Beginning in 1993, there was a limited number of these forces scattered across the country. Progressively, however, they reached several thousands and surpassed their original function. From self-defence, they moved to direct military operations, and then to maintaining order in the areas abandoned by the terrorists and the state. These missions created a heated debate for two reasons:

  • members of these groups were not trained, they exceeded prerogatives and imposed their own justice8; and
  • they involved themselves in discussions regarding counter-terrorist policy.
  • In 1997, the Democratic National Party (RND) sought to control the GLDs by federating them under formal structures. From the time when the authorities engaged in semi-official negotiations with the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), the armed wing of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the GLDs became a 'political problem'. Once the treaty of civil concord was concluded the existence of the GLDs became practically pointless.

    The second perspective directs its criticism at the ANP's role and status. The most serious condemnation concerns human rights violations in the military's counter-terrorist campaign. Many non-governmental organisations have presented reports denouncing such abuses, including large numbers of Algerians who have disappeared. For example, 'SOS-Disparus' transmitted detailed memorandums to the government in 2001. In 2002, the Association of Families of Disappeared People, based in the town of Constantine, published a report providing details of the death of people arrested by the security forces. The impact of such criticism has isolated the ANP, which has been unable to take advantage of the most developed arms at its disposal (such as night-vision equipment, specialised helicopters, light weapons, vehicles adapted to mountainous terrain where guerrillas are located, and modern mine-clearing equipment). Because of the criticism the armed forces have been subjected to the ANP's hierarchy has now begun to break the silence by recognising its mistakes and failures.9

    The reconciliation option

    The most important reform which Abdelaziz Bouteflika, as well as all his rivals, promised before the 1999 presidential election was 'national reconciliation', and the end of Islamist terrorism. This reconciliation process has a legal basis, the 'Loi sur la concorde civile' (13 July 1999-13 January 2000). The objective of the legislation was to encourage Islamist armed groups to renounce violence through the promise of an amnesty. Hundreds of armed Islamists took advantage of the amnesty following implementation of the law. However, the legislation has been subject to criticism on three grounds:

  • application of the law: the amnesty has been applied without any judicial framework and control.10 Furthermore, the law contained a number of contradictions. The perpetrators of bomb attacks in public places, assassinations, and rapes are purportedly excluded from this law. However, at the same time, the law specifies reduction of sentences for these crimes by excluding capital punishment and life imprisonment.
  • terrorist acts: Although the AIS and Islamic League of Daawa and Djihad agreed to surrender, both Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat rejected the state's offer.
  • human rights11: In the opinion of some critics the legislation provides impunity to those implicated in crimes against humanity. According to Algerian newspapers, this amnesty affected 1,000 AIS members and 4,500 members of other groups.
  • In Algeria, the official response to terrorism has provoked two contrasting approaches. Terrorist groups have faced a repressive response led by the different security forces: army, police, and self-defence groups. This has entailed prosecuting the perpetrators of terrorist attacks; looking for the financiers of such groups; organising investigations; arresting accomplices; controlling borders and communications; identifying logistical support; and promulgating special laws. However, necessary as they were12, these actions were nothing more than reactions, responses imposed by the crisis.

    Therefore, a second initiative was launched by means of the reconciliation process and the law of forgiveness. The problem is that this radical shift occurred after secret negotiations and agreement. As a result, a kind of distinction emerged between 'good' and 'bad' terrorists under legislation in which former terrorists were granted an amnesty and all instruments for fighting terrorism were legitimised.

    The failure to eliminate terrorism in Algeria lies not in the nature of the solution advanced by the authorities but in the way it has been implemented. There is no continuity between the first measure (repression) and the second (reconciliation). This kind of uncertainty is possibly as dangerous as terrorism itself, because it threatens vital connections and interactions and perpetuates the status quo.

    Louisa Aït Hamadouche is a journalist for the francophone newspaper La Tribune, currently responsible for the international affairs column. She is also a member of the Department of Political Sciences and International Relations at the University of Algiers.

    1 Liess Boukra, "La genèse de la menace terroriste en Algérie", in Premières journées d'étude parlementaire sur la défense nationale, 11-12 November 2001.

    2 Article 4, § 2 define the limits of this derogation: the right to life, prohibition of torture and slavery, equality and freedom of conscience and religion.

    3 Abdelhamid Berchiche, "Le cadre juridique de la défense nationale", in II èmes journées d'Etude parlementaires sur la défense nationale, 11-13 October 2003.

    4 Articles 6, 7 and 16 of this law stipulate that the army's intervention is decided by and will remain under the civilian authority.

    5 Ahmed Laraba, "Le régime juridique de la gestion des crises", in Premières journées d'étude parlementaire sur la défense nationale, 11-12 November 2001.

    6 Kamel Filali, "Le cadre légal de la lutte antiterroriste en Algérie", in Colloque international d'Alger sur le terrorisme, 26-28 October 2002.

    7 Article 2 defines self-defence as "individual or organised response against any aggression, terrorist or subversive act". Article 3 establishes that those responses must be framed, led and controlled by the authority in charge of public order.

    8 Some sources claim that the GLD victimised families that had links to the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS).

    9 For example, General Mohammed Touati (advisor to the president on national security affairs) broke a taboo by recognising the right of all citizens to criticise the ANP as a public institution, which needs to be controlled by the civilian political authority.

    10 Since January 2000, hundreds of 'terrorists' surrendered and benefited from unknown 'clemency measures'. According to Amnesty International they were set free. The law granting forgiveness is still in effect.

    11 See Amnesty International report, Algérie: La vérité et la justice occultées par l'impunité (28 November 2000).

    12 The massive participation in 1995 presidential election was considered as a 'shelter vote' in favour of a retired military candidate.

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