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Dr. Charles G. Cogan Headshot

Algeria: The Land of No Quarter

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Algeria, it has often been noted, has escaped the Arab Spring. This is because it had its own, and extremely bloody, Arab Spring throughout the decade of the 1990s. An estimated 200,000 people were killed after the Islamic Armed Group (GIA in the French acronym) rose in rebellion when the Algerian army cancelled the second round of parliamentary elections which the Islamist political party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) seemed likely to win.

Unlike the more recent uprisings in the Arab World, the GIA failed, and the Islamists were driven into southern Algeria and beyond. After renaming itself as the Salafist Armed Group for Preaching and Combat, and then as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), these Algerian terrorists, whose ranks were swelled by those of other nationalities, settled into northern Mali, in the so-called Sahel, or savannah, area south of the Sahara, subsisting through a cycle of kidnappings and ransoms of mostly French expatriates, and coexisting with other dissidents, chiefly the Berber-origin Tuaregs, a number of whom had fought under Gaddafi and after his fall moved southward into Mali, bringing their weapons with them. These fighters were not, however, powerful enough to challenge AQIM. The Tuaregs already existing in northern Mali have long had a grievance about being excluded by the dominant black Africans in southern Mali.

In the meantime Algeria's lucrative oil and gas installations in the interior of the country remained largely untouched -- until, that is, on January 16, 2013 and the mass terrorist attack against expatriates working in the In Amenas gas field near the Libyan border.

Algeria has a legacy of French occupation starting in 1830 and a successful, eight-year war against that occupation from 1954-1962, a period marked by atrocities on both sides, occupier and occupied. Algeria became associated with the term "Kabylie smile," which supposedly is how one looks when his throat has been slit. (Kabylie is the mainly Berber area of central Algeria.)

Algeria thus has a long tradition that is revolutionary, xenophobic and anti-Western that it has overcome only gradually as the country has proceeded to modernize the exploitation of its oil and gas reserves.

Algeria's operation at its gas field at In Amenas, which terrorists threatened to blow up, ran into four days, and was ended at an extremely heavy cost: 37 expatriates killed, plus one Algerian; and 29 terrorists killed plus three taken captive. Algeria's policy has long been is one of no quarter with terrorists; that plus the legacy of a brutal independence struggle would have made it unlikely that Algeria would have accepted any counter-terrorism assistance from outside powers that in any way would have been seen as an infringement of the country's sovereignty.

Prof. Mansouria Mokhefi, the head of the Middle East and Maghreb Program at the French Institute for International Affairs in Paris, noted (per the New York Times of January 22) that "the legitimacy of this government in Algeria is in its fight against terrorism and the security of the country." She added that criticizing the Algerians for their harsh tactics, as the British and Japanese have done, simply shows "a deep lack of knowledge about this regime, of its functioning."