What’s Old is New Again: The Legacy of Algeria’s Civil War in Today’s Jihad

When longtime Algerian jihadist and recently-removed AQIM commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar announced in December the creation of a new combat unit, al-Mouwakoune Bi-Dima (“Those Who Sign with Blood”), much of the media coverage focused on what Belmokhtar said about the new group’s role. As part of Belmokhtar’s Katibat al-Moulathimin, the new group would, in his words, attack “those planning the war in northern Mali.” Belmokhtar also said that an eventual intervention in Mali would be “a proxy war on behalf of the Occident.” He also explicitly threatened not only France, but also Algeria, calling the country’s political, military, and economic elites “sons of France” and saying “we will respond with force, we will have our say, we will fight you in your homes and we will attack your interests.”

At the time, few noted Belmokhtar’s important historical reference point in choosing this name for his new faction: the name al-Mouwakoune Bi-Dima was originally used by a group of Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) fighters who conducted a series of attacks in Algeria and in France against French targets. Most notable was the Mouwakoune group’s December 1994 hijacking of Air France Flight 8969, an incident that ended when elite French gendarmes stormed the plane on the tarmac in Marseille. While few sources discuss this group in detail, a brief discussion of the attackers and their relationship with the GIA leadership appears on pages 194-196 of al-Hayat journalist Camille Tawil’s book on the GIA, an authoritative source on the group which has never been translated from the original Arabic. (My thanks to Jihadica blogmaster Will McCants for translating and summarizing relevant passages for the purposes of this post.)

Citing the first communiqué issued by the GIA about the incident, Tawil notes that the group called the attack a “response to French support [for the government of Algeria] that has no military, economic, or political justification.” The communiqué further called for France to stop internationalizing the conflict in Algeria, and threatened to blow up the plane if its demands to release a number of prisoners — including GIA and Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) leaders as well as notable Saudi preachers Salman al-Awda and Safar al-Hawali and the Egyptian “blind sheikh” Omar abd al-Rahman — were not met. On page 196, Tawil adds that according to then-GIA emir Djamel Zitouni, the same Mouwakoune group executed four Catholic missionaries in Algeria following the French operation to free the plane.

On the surface it might seem odd that Belmokhtar, one of the GIA’s first leaders to split off and form the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) in response to the GIA’s brutal tactics and blind attacks on civilians, would so openly reference the GIA Mouwakoune group. But in light of last week’s attack on the In Amenas gas facility in southeastern Algeria, two interesting parallels between the two Mouwakoune groups emerge:

  • In both the Air France attack and last week’s assault, hostage taking may have been an ancillary instead of a primary goal. In the Air France hijacking, the attackers quickly killed three hostages to prove their seriousness before demanding the release of the aforementioned prisoners, but it later emerged that their true goal was always to detonate the plane over Paris, possibly in order to destroy the Eiffel Tower. Similarly, though the group that assaulted the In Amenas plant also demanded the end of French attacks in Mali and the release of more than 100 prisoners from Algerian jails as well as jihadi causes-célèbres Aafia Siddiqui and Omar Abd al-Rahman, they reportedly killed a number of hostages outright, forced some hostages to wear explosives and mined the plant. Algerian authorities have said the group’s goal was to destroy the facility, though they may have also hoped to escape with at least some hostages.
  • In both attacks, the stated goal (separate from other possible explanations) was to target one country for supporting war in another. The GIA justified the Air France hijacking and subsequent Paris Metro bombings, not to mention the killing of French citizens in Algeria, as a reaction to France’s support for the Algerian government during the latter’s civil war. Likewise, both the In Amenas attackers and Belmokhtar himself characterized the In Amenas attack as a reaction against Algerian cooperation with France’s intervention last week in Mali.*

Notable also are how the two Mouwakoune attacks differed. Tawil indicates (pp. 257-258) that Zitouni and his successor Antar Zouabri encouraged attacks on the Algerian energy industry as well as those working in that industry. Yet the In Amenas attackers deliberately separated the Algerian workers from the expatriates, reportedly telling Algerian workers that they were not targeted in the assault, and that “we know that you are oppressed, we have come to help you, so that you can have your rights.”

This attitude reflects shifts that have taken place in how jihadist groups and advocates view attacks on Muslim civilians, and the need to avoid targeting them. While many trace this shift to the intensely negative reaction in the Muslim world to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s wanton massacres of Iraqi civilians in 2004 and 2005, this shift can again be traced back to the Algerian civil war, and the disgust generated by the GIA’s even more violent attacks against civilians and widespread declarations of takfir that eventually encompassed all Algerians who were not allied with the group. The failure of the Algerian civil war in turn helped push a number of key figures and theorists, particularly Abu Qatada and Abu Musab al-Suri, away from the GIA. While al-Suri would later become famous for his theories underpinning the “global jihad”, the GIA was, along with al-Qaeda, one of the first proponents of this strategy. In his masterful book about al-Suri, Architect of Global Jihad, Brynjar Lia highlights al-Suri’s claim to have advised then-GIA leader Sherif Gousmi in 1993 to attack France in order to (pp. 155-156):

Deter her and punish her for her war against the GIA and for the French support for the dictatorial military regime [Algeria]. I told them that it would be beneficial to draw France into an openly declared support for the Algerian regime, a support which existed, but only in secrecy. This will unify the Islamic Nation around the jihad in Algeria as it unified the Islamic Nation in Afghanistan against the Soviets. To strike against France is our right. We are at war, and we do not play games, and our enemies should know that.

For the moment, only Mokhtar Belmokhtar knows why he decided to make reference to the GIA’s Mouwakoune in adopting the same name for his new group. Perhaps he was making reference to his renewed desire to attack Algeria, after years of operations in other Sahelian countries. Perhaps he could have been trying to subtly include Algeria and Algeria-focused jihadist groups as part of the global jihad, after years in which AQIM was derided for its focus on the removal of the Algerian government. But what is clear is that the influence of the Algerian civil war, one of the least-studied and least-understood periods in the history of modern jihadist groups, continues to resonate to this day.


*The attackers also said they planned the assault two months in advance, in preparation for such an eventual intervention. Algeria had not publicly provided any support for French intervention plans, meaning either that Belmokhtar assumed Algerian cooperation (as described in his December communiqué) or was planning on attacking Algeria regardless.

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14 Responses

  1. An interesting and well thought through piece that deserves to be expanded into an essay. It points out certain pertinent connections and undercurrents that could easily get lost in the clamour to find some simple explanations for complex problems.
    I would be interested in reading more work from this source as it would help in analyzing the global Jihad movement as it stands now, and might suggest areas of analysis that might provide indications of where the movement is going, and how it funds and motivates its operations worldwide. I’m not sure how to file this, maybe as intelligence or maybe as current affairs. Analysis in depth would require a whole new database that is perhaps overdue. One thing is certain, this influential new leader has the credentials to succeed Bin Laden. Oh, and he’s young too, relatively speaking and experienced and clever. Perhaps just the very person Global Jihad has been waiting for.

  2. The GIA is simply a penetrated group fully & remotely controlled by the Algerian Intelligence Services (DRS).The DRS game is to target anyone who poses a real threat to its power in Algeria and uses Islamic group terrorist attacks to send its message.When you look at the Air France attack in the mid 90s you would think this is a GIA message to France to stop its support of Algerian Regime, but it is the other way around.The GIA hijacking of Air France and the Paris metro attack is simply a DRS message to the west saying “If you do not support us against the islamists, here is what you will face, the war will come to your homes.”

    The attack is fully planned and executed by the Algerian Intelligence Services (DRS) who is controlling everything in Algeria.This attack was an inside job gone wrong,and that’s why the DRS acted immediately to limit the negative effects of such operations.We live in Algeria and we know who is the creator of all this “Islamic Groups”.The DRS is well known for its ability to create terrorist groups, its ability of controlling them remotely, and finally its ability to kill group members once the job is done.What has not been said is that there is a fierce and silent war between the Algerian Intelligence Service leaders and the President of the republic “Bouteflika” and his allies.This war is always translated into a series of terrorist attacks to Embarrass the other clan and force him to accept the new game rules.What happened last week was a result of the president Bouteflika allowing French military aircraft to fly over Algeria, this decision was received by the military and the DRS as an attempt to bypass the military and liaise directly with the french.The DRS acted immediately and slaughtered both the captives and the terrorists to send a clear message to the president that the country is, and will always be controlled by the DRS and that he can not do anything without their approval.

    The war in Algeria is more than just a conflict between the Islamists and the regime.The existence of the Algerian Intelligence Services DRS transformed this war into a bloody conflict that is going on for decades and will never end if this criminal cell is not eleminated. The hijacking of the Air France in 1994, the killing of the french Monks of Tibhirine in 1996 and the Paris metro attacks all bear the hallmarks of the DRS penetrated groups.These groups are simply penetrated and replicated copy of real Islamic groups.The Algerian Intelligence Services DRS is the creator of all fake Islamic groups that were later involved in massacres against the civilians in Algeria.The DRS agents used to ask ordinary soldiers to escort them in the mountains in their way to the remote villages before wearing beards and Afghan clothes (a sign of Islamic warriors).When entering the villages, the DRS agents would ask Real Islamic prisoners (who would already have been brought from their prison) to run away in front of them so that the eyewitnesses would tell in the next morning that the Islamists were behind the massacre.The DRS would always ignore the first tens of houses in the entrance of the villages as these people will be the witnesses the next morning, and then they would massacre the rest of the village

    It is very sad that the western analyst are still sticking to classic theories where their anaylsis is more like a state media propaganda.

    For those interested to learn about the link between the Algerian Intelligence Services DRS and the terrorist groups, “Jeremy Keenan” can tell you more about this story.Just video google this name.

    1. Thank you. I hope some many more people read this comment of you. I appreciate Andrew Lebovich’s analyses and comments. Same as you mention it, western analysts can miss some points of view. Regarding Jeremy Keenan I miss his voice in this conflict. Did not hear/read any word from him.

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