Algeria mulls new amnesty to weaken al Qaeda


Support is building among Algeria‘s ruling elite for a plan to offer a new amnesty to al Qaeda militants if they abandon violence that in the past few weeks has killed tens of people including a British hostage.

But the proposal could face resistance from people who have lost relatives in the militant attacks, and security analysts say there is a risk that fighters who accept the amnesty will exploit it to regroup and then return to violence, Reuters adds.

The plan is to widen a limited amnesty already on offer to include the leaders of Algeria‘s insurgency — excluded from previous offers on the grounds they had too much blood on their hands after nearly two decades of violent attacks.

A similar amnesty was used in Saudi Arabia as part of a strategy that helped defeat a three-year al Qaeda campaign there to destabilise the ruling family, and Yemen is trying to implement a similar scheme.

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has raised the possibility of a wider, “general” amnesty in the past few months but statements from senior aides and members of the ruling elite indicate the idea is now closer to being implemented.

“Any measure, including a general amnesty, that could help to stop violence is welcomed,” Abdelaziz Belkhadem, influential leader of the ruling National Liberation Front and personal representative of Bouteflika, said earlier this month.

An upsurge in violence in the past few weeks showed the militants, operating under the banner of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), are still able to threaten stability in Algeria, an OPEC member and the world’s fourth largest gas exporter.

The group this month killed a British hostage, Edwin Dyer, it had been holding in Mali, to the south of Algeria. In Algeria itself, insurgents killed five paramilitary gendarmes southwest of the capital and a week later shot dead nine soldiers.

Overall though, security analysts say the number of attacks has declined sharply in the past few years and security forces have been gaining in strength.

The thinking behind the amnesty is that against this backdrop, many militants are ready to surrender if they are offered immunity from prosecution.

In an interview with Reuters, a leading lawyer with ties to Bouteflika said the amnesty offer should go up as far as Abdelmalek Droukdel, the leader of al Qaeda’s North African wing and the man blamed for hundreds of killings.

“I believe that a general amnesty is a great idea. It is a solution to demobilize terrorists,” said Farouk Ksentini, President of the National Advisory Commission for the Promotion of Human Rights, which is sponsored by the government.

“After 15 years of violence, we should put an end to the crisis. But it is up to the president to decide about it,” Ksentini told Reuters.

“All al Qaeda chiefs (in North Africa) should be included in the general amnesty including Abdelmalek Droukdel,” he said. If the government goes ahead with the amnesty plan, it is likely to put the issue to a referendum.

Officials and media reports say hundreds of militants have handed themselves in under the amnesty already on offer. Apart from immunity from prosecution, some have been given financial assistance to help them re-integrate into society.

The authorities though have not published any figures on how many have taken up the amnesty.

The amnesty in force now does not apply to anyone involved in rapes, collective massacres or bombing in public places, excluding AQIM’s leaders and the group’s most hardcore fighters.

“If the government is serious about writing off al Qaeda’s crimes, I do believe a lot of militants will give up the fight,” said Boualem Ghomrassa, a security expert who writes for Algeria‘s El Khabar newspaper.

Matthew Hunt, intelligence analyst with London-based Janusian Risk Advisory Group, said there were risks.

“One prominent AQIM figure claimed he repented in January this year and then only a month later was seen in a (militant) propaganda video,” he said. “Even in the Saudi example you have had recidivists.”

Unlike Saudi Arabia, where the militants primarily attacked foreign targets, Algeria‘s insurgents have killed large numbers of their own nationals. That has set many people against the idea of an amnesty.

Mohamed Koceir, an unemployed 35-year-old, said his serviceman brother was killed in a militant ambush in 1994. “He was 25 years old, and was about to get married,” Koceir told Reuters. “The killers must go on trial, not be pardoned.”