Monday, June 18, 2007

How To Fight Radical Muslims

These days, Islamic fundamentalism seems impossible to beat: we can’t not fight it, but if we do fight it, it only creates more radicals. We can't figure it out, the Europeans can't figure it out, even the Israelis can't figure it out. There is, however, one instance when a militant Islamist movement was defeated: the Algerian Civil War. It’s a story that is not well known in the western world, but holds important lessons for fighting radical Islam.

Ten years ago, the government of Algeria was mired in a brutal civil war against a radical Islamist insurgency. From 1992 until when the situation began to stabilize in 1999, approximately 150,000 people were killed, most of them civilians. Today the war is all but over. The government estimates that there are 300 to 500 insurgents remaining. Defeating a radical Islamist insurgency that enjoys a wide base of popular support is no small feat, as many involved in counterinsurgency efforts in countries like Iraq and Israel have discovered. The government succeeded by isolating the most radical elements of the insurgency and turning the more moderate groups against them. The key to this effort was an aggressive reconciliation program that had as its centerpiece an amnesty for all but the most brutal insurgents, and programs to reintegrate these individuals back into society. Subsequent offers of amnesty gradually encouraged many of the increasingly demoralized hold-outs to disarm.

The two primary militant Islamist groups in Algeria were the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). The FIS began the war in 1992 after the military cancelled an election that the FIS was on the verge of winning. Throughout the conflict, the FIS maintained clear political objectives and was always willing to negotiate with the government. The GIA, on the other hand, saw armed struggle as the only way to establish their desired Islamic state. The GIA developed a reputation for targeting foreigners and Algerian civilians, while the FIS only espoused armed struggle against the government and security forces. Although the two organizations started out on friendly terms, soon the FIS criticized began criticizing the GIA for “distorting the Islamic Plan, committing crimes and deviating from the legitimate programme,” and complained that the GIA’s brutal tactics were damaging the reputation of the FIS. Bloodshed between the two groups started in 1994 and 1995, with the assassinations of several leaders from both sides. By 1997, the FIS had had enough, and began aligning with Algerian security forces against the GIA.

The Algerian president, Bouteflika, who the military installed in 1999, took advantage of these rifts in the insurgency to isolate the GIA. Within months of coming to office, Bouteflika granted blanket amnesty to FIS militants, and released thousands of Islamic militants from prison. The military wing of the FIS responded by “surrendering to the authority of the state.” Further amnesties led to desertions from within the ranks of the GIA. To further build trust, Bouteflika released another 2000 prisoners this year, and championed a new Charter for Peace and Reconciliation that provides for compensation for detainees. The GIA has splintered and gradually dissolved as a result of these measures, and now in 2006, only disorganized, scattered militant groups remain.

The path that Bouteflika has advocated is inherently a very uncomfortable path to take because the most important and effective policies have also been the most morally suspect. The most recent amnesty excludes only those who are guilty of rape, mass-murder, and detonating bombs in public places. Furthermore, the new Charter absolves the military establishment of wrongdoing, and in return, offers rehabilitation to the Islamists. With both terrorists and government war criminals walking free, Bouteflika’s policy has left some very raw wounds unhealed. Opponents from both sides of the war have argued that there can never be true peace until those who committed atrocities are held accountable. They fail to realize, however, that this is in fact the essential ingredient of the ceasefire: when everyone has sinned, the only way to start over is if nobody is being held accountable.

Although the future of Algeria is still unclear, for the first time in nearly fifteen years, the country is stable enough to develop its economy and society. The key to Algeria’s stabilization has been the government’s willingness to grant amnesty to those with blood on their hands. The US rejected a similar amnesty plan in Iraq in 2004, and Israel faces a similar problem in terms of how to deal with Palestinian detainees and militants. The Bouteflika approach may not be appropriate for all countries, but at its core it is just the age-old strategy divide and conquer. Dividing terrorists, however, requires an honest dialogue and a willingness to forgive them. It feels wrong, but it’s the only way.

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