The Algerian Hirak movement has persisted since its beginning in February of 2019. Restrictions on large public gatherings associated with COVID-19, arrests of journalists and movement leaders, and an unpopular election have not thwarted the mass movement’s calls for a new transparent, democratic system of governance. Much attention has been given to the social movement’s lack of leadership and ability to remain peaceful. In contrast, other popular protest movements resulted in street combat between security forces and demonstrators. However, not enough attention has been given to the larger context of historical violence in Algeria precipitating the Algerian Hirak’s steadfast commitment to peaceful dissent.
The Black Decade, a period of ten years (1992-2002) where conflict between the state and the GIA (Armed Islamic Group), resulted in mass killings, over 200,000 casualties, and fostered a deep sense of historical trauma. This period of conflict has primarily made Algerian society unwelcoming to extremist organisations like those active in neighboring Libya, Tunisia, and the Sahel. However, the inhospitable character of Algerian society to jihadists groups has not stopped these organisations from trying to insert themselves into contemporary society
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has historically been led by Algerian Salafi-Jihadists appears to view social unrest and calls for systemic change as an opportunity. Since the beginning of the Hirak movement, AQIM has published several written communications and recorded speeches, providing commentary on the movement. These commentaries have largely been characterised as supportive but hands-off.
Three of the early commentaries, Algeria Getting out of the Dark Tunnel (10 March 2019), We Advise you with God, not to Retreat (4, April 2019), And the Battle to liberate Algeria Continues (22 February 2020), are critical of the Algerian government, while also advising protesters to remain peaceful. These commentaries also appeal to the security forces, asking that they defect and come to the aid of the people. However, one of the more recent June 2020 commentaries, A Word of Advice for our Defiant Algerian People, electronically published in al-Qaeda’s online magazine, One Ummah, differs significantly. The piece makes explicit calls for a partnership between the Algerian people and the mujahideen. The commentary suggests that the Algerian people welcome martyrdom, marking a sharp departure from the calls for peace and military defection.
This appeal to violence appears to have been corroborated by an arrested AQIM member, who publicly advised that AQIM should attempt to penetrate the protests and spur protesters on Algerian State television. The admission potentially demonstrates how online behaviours can result in offline harm. Although there has been a sharp decrease in terrorist attacks in Algeria, attempts still occur. If true, the allegations would point towards a shift from strategic patience (AQIM) to an active push toward violence.
Still, AQIM publicly refuted the claims, declaring to Algerians that the confession resulted from torture and that the group never attempted to encourage a shift from peaceful protests to violence.
These commentaries and counter-messaging on the part of the state exemplify the conversation occurring between AQIM seeking to remain relevant and rehabilitate its image in the eyes of Algerians, the state, and the Hirak movement. This conversation melds virtual platforms with the streets of Algeria, demonstrating AQIM’s use of the Internet and awareness of events on the ground.
These online and offline conversations can be viewed as a complex and muddled struggle over the country’s future and claims to legitimacy. Although both AQIM and Algerians question the State’s legitimacy for separate reasons, the State, on the other hand, views AQIM and the Hirak as illegitimate. Furthermore, protestors have outright rejected AQIM viewing them as a looming threat. The struggle for legitimacy is most likely why the Algerian President, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, stated that separatists and extremist groups had taken advantage of weekly protests. This statement given during the High Security Council is likely a pretext for repression. Although Algerian society is unlikely to warm to AQIM, AQIM attempts to ingratiate itself to the Hirak are worth further exploration. The group’s recorded online speeches where leaders are pictured with national flags demonstrate their desire to exploit local strife. The Algerian case presents a situation in which previous violence has provided some sense of inoculation, while also displaying extremist organisations’ difficulty in rehabilitating their image.