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Islamist De-Radicalization : Successes and Failures

The Phenomenon of Islamist De-Radicalization

In October 1997, the self-declared armed wing of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS),
known as the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), declared a unilateral ceasefire. That ceasefire
led to disarmament and demilitarization processes that attempted to reintegrate
the AIS members as well as other armed Islamist factions into Algeria’s civil ranks.
The demilitarization process included subgroups from the notorious Armed Islamic
Group (GIA) and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). These groups
and factions issued several communiqués to explain and legitimize their decisions to
dismantle their armed wings ; however, they did so without the production of ideological
literature to legitimize the transformations.

The phenomenon of armed Islamist “de-radicalization” is not only confined to Algeria.
In Egypt, Al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya (Islamic Group — IG) successfully dismantled
its armed wings and abandoned its fiqh al-‘unf (Islamic jurisprudence justifying violence)
literature between 1997 and 2002. A decade later, in 2007, al-Jihad Organization
initiated a similar de-radicalization process. Those Egyptian transformations have influenced
several British and other European Islamist leaders who revised their views
on violence and democracy. Additionally, Islamist de-radicalization took place in several
other Muslim-majority states in the late 1990s and the 2000s, albeit on a smaller
scale compared to Egypt and Algeria. These de-radicalization cases include Libyan,
Jordanian, Saudi, Yemeni, Tajik, Malaysian, Singaporean, and Indonesian armed Islamist
groups, factions, and individuals.

The aforementioned armed Islamist movements have shown remarkable behavioral
and ideological transformations towards non-violence, and the “de-radicalization” processes
of these movements has removed tens of thousands of former militants from the
ranks of al-Qa‘ida’s supporters and acted as a disincentive for would-be militants. However,
the topic is not sufficiently analyzed in the literature, in spite of the great interest in
explaining Islamism and the huge volume of literature produced after the 9/11 attacks.

The Algerian Theatre : Between Jihadism and Counter- Jihadism (1997 – 2008)

Algeria provides two cases of de-radicalization, one of which was successful while
the other was a failure. The successful case was that of the Islamic Salvation Army
(AIS), the self-declared armed wing of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). This process of de-radicalization took place
between 1997 and 2000. The leadership of that organization not only was able to dismantle the AIS, but also was able
to influence smaller armed organizations and factions to join the de-radicalization process. Currently, the leaders of
that organization are attempting to re-enter the political process peacefully through a political party.

By contrast, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) is a case that has seen mixed results. Whereas some of its affiliated militias
joined the AIS-led process, the bulk of the group failed to de-radicalize. Instead, part of the GIA was completely
destroyed by 2005. Another part broke away as early as 1998 and in 1999 renamed itself the Salafi Group for Preaching
and Combat (GSPC). By 2007, a part of the GSPC was still negotiating disarming and abandoning violence (behavioral
de-radicalization), but the largest faction underwent even further radicalization by internationalizing their cause and
allying with the al-Qa‘ida network. That splinter of the GSPC called itself al-Qa‘ida in
the Islamic Countries of al-Maghreb (QICM).

The AIS and the GIA started their armed action in the same crisis environment
that plagued Algeria after the January 1992 coup. However, the two organizations
ended up in very different positions. This Policy Brief attempts to account for the
discrepancy in the behavior of both organizations and to answer the question of why
the AIS-led de-radicalization process was successful. The argument in this Policy
Brief rests on the empirical fact that both organizations were subjected to intense
state repression and were offered several types of selective inducements. However,
the AIS had a consolidated, charismatic leadership that was willing to de-radicalize.
That leadership was influential enough to disarm the 7,000 militants that made up
the organization, without causing any splits, as well as to influence several hundred
militants from other smaller militias and factions. The GIA did not have this type of
leadership at any point in its 13-year history (1992-2005). Additionally, the AIS was
able to interact with other armed organizations, FIS factions, moderate Islamist figures
and political parties to support de-radicalization and reconciliation. The GIA had very limited interactions with
the “other,” mainly due to its excessively violent behavior. The violence of the GIA was not only directed against the
“other” but also against GIA figures and factions who were supportive of interaction.

The Lost Opportunities for Peace in Algeria (1992–1997)

Before 1997, the year in which the AIS declared a unilateral ceasefire, there were at least three attempts to negotiate a
peaceful resolution to the Algerian crisis with the FIS leadership. These three attempts took place in 1993, 1994 and 1995.
They all had the following common characteristics. First, all were negotiated by the political leaders of the FIS, rather
than its military commanders. Second, there was a near-consensus among these political leaders that armed resistance
to the junta only should be halted if the FIS was reinstated and the electoral process was continued on the basis of the
1991 elections. Third, there was a belief among FIS political leaders that they could actually control or at least strongly
influence the armed organizations that operated in the aftermath of the coup. That belief would be shattered later in 1995
when the FIS leaders, ‘Abbasi Madani and ‘Ali Belhaj, were removed from the Consultative Council of the GIA and when
Muhammad Said and ‘Abdul Razzaq Rajjam, the two former provisional leaders of the FIS, were killed by the GIA on the
orders of its leader Djamel Zitouni. Finally, there was no consensus on the regime’s part about the idea of negotiating
a peaceful settlement with the FIS. Until 1997, the so-called “eradication trend” had the upper hand in the decisionmaking
processes and the internal bureaucratic wars. Therefore, even while the negotiations with the political leaders of the FIS were ongoing, there were several acts that showed “bad faith” on the part of the regime.

The De-Radicalization Process of the AIS

The failure of the 1995 talks between the regime and FIS leaders and the “victory” of General Zeroual in the
presidential elections of November 1995 had several consequences for de-radicalization and reconciliation in Algeria.
First, bolstered by the electoral victory, Zeroual and the presidential establishment felt that there was no need for dialogue
with the political wings of the FIS. The presidential establishment thought that the regime could win the battle
against the armed Islamist opposition through military means, regardless of the opposition’s objectives, backgrounds,
and orientations. In other words, it shifted from a policy of dialogue to one of eradication.

The second consequence arising from the failure of these talks was that the AIS leadership
arrived at the conclusion that the political leaders of the FIS had by then failed
three times to negotiate a resolution to the crisis (in 1993, 1994, 1995). In Medani Mezraq’s
words,10 FIS leaders “did not rise to the level of the crisis and its severity” and that they were
acting as if they were “captives of the GIA.” Given that, the AIS took over the negotiation
process and relegated the political leaders to a mere advisory role, so that the 1997 reconciliation/
de-radicalization process was imposed by the AIS leaders on the FIS leaders.

As a result, the AIS readjusted its approach to the calls for negotiations. For the first
time since the beginning of the crisis, it did not request any authorization from the political
leadership of the FIS. Also, the AIS did not address the President, the presidential
establishment or the leaders of the army — thus the negotiation attempt this time was a
bottom-up process. The AIS sent a message to several mid-ranking officers in the military
establishment’s fifth zone (the eastern regions of Algeria), many of whom had blood
ties with several AIS commanders from the eastern areas (mainly from Jijel province).
These contacts became increasingly significant, from the mid-ranking officers to the
army commanders of the fifth zone, and finally ended up on the desks of the military intelligence generals. The meeting
with the Deputy Head of Military Intelligence, General Isma‘il Lamari, in the headquarters of the AIS in Jijel’s Beni Khattab
mountains was crucial to the initiation of the de-radicalization process and reconciliation in Algeria. It addressed the
security dilemmas of both parties, built confidence measures, and reassured both sides that there were at least two factions
within the two warring camps who were committed to reconciliation and willing to take risks for a peaceful settlement.

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Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.