ISS: Lessons from Algeria on foreign terrorist fighters


Over the past two and a half years, Algeria has convinced many of its citizens fighting in the Sahel to surrender. While this alone won’t end the region’s conflicts, for peacebuilding to succeed the presence of foreign fighters must be addressed. Algeria’s programme shows a way of doing so.

The security situation in the Sahel is getting worse, as a network of conflicts driven by terrorist groups, insurgents and local militias spreads across Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. Most combatants are from those three countries, with many fighting close to their homes. However, a small cadre of foreign fighters linked to al-Qaeda or Islamic State are also present. In the wake of Islamic State’s losses in Syria, there are fears these numbers in the Sahel will grow.

Algerians in particular stand out for their involvement in the Sahelian conflicts. Their presence poses a security challenge for Algeria, and has led the government to institute a programme to demobilise Algerian terrorists in the Sahel. Since 2017 close to 200 Algerians, mainly active in Mali, have surrendered.

In exchange for surrendering, Algerian fighters are granted immunity from prosecution. Algeria reportedly coordinates with Mali and France to allow surrendering terrorists to move unmolested to rendezvous points in Algeria’s southern provinces.

Algerians in particular stand out for their involvement in the Sahelian conflicts

Algeria’s approach to foreign fighters in the Sahel is part of a reconciliation strategy towards terrorists dating back to the country’s 1990s civil war. This practical approach to deflating the power of terror groups achieved significant success in the 1990s and 2000s, leading tens of thousands of combatants to demobilise and reintegrate into society. While operationally effective, the strategy was and remains socially divisive within Algeria.

While much about the Algerian programme is opaque, the Algerian military has released some information on 156 terrorists who have surrendered in the south. This includes names and assumed names, and the years they joined terror groups. Similar information exists on terrorists who were killed, captured or who surrendered in Algeria’s north. This data underscores several salient points.

First, there is a divide between ageing terrorists in Algeria and far younger and more vibrant Algerian fighters in the Sahel. More than half of terrorists killed or captured in northern Algeria for whom data is available became involved in terrorism during the 1990s. Only 16 joined terrorist groups this decade.

Among those Algeria has demobilised from the Sahel, the trend differs significantly. Eighty percent joined between 2011 and 2016. Forty-one out of the 156 became involved with terrorist groups in 2012 alone. This suggests that most Algerians fighting in the Sahel are not long-time militants who were driven from their country into the Sahel. Instead they were new fighters pulled into the Sahelian conflict in the wake of 2011.

Even terrorists with significant experience are susceptible to appeals to demobilise

This timing partly reflects the conflict dynamics in northern Mali, which accelerated during these years, and the strong social and ethnic connections between southern Algeria and Mali that helped mobilise some Algerian fighters. However the arrest of 11 young men in north-western Algeria in November for trying to join Sahelian terrorist groups shows that the attraction of fighting in the Sahel isn’t restricted to Algeria’s south.

Rather there is continued susceptibility of some young Algerians to terrorist recruitment. Eschewing fighting within the country, or – as many Tunisians did – heading to Syria, most Algerian foreign fighters have headed south.

The second key trend is that even terrorists with significant experience are open to appeals to demobilise. Most of the demobilised fighters became involved with terrorist groups between 2012 and 2016, while few had joined before 2011 or after 2017. Organisational disenchantment or exhaustion among more experienced fighters could have led them to accept the opportunity to demobilise.

Third, Algeria’s programme has had a practical impact on the ground, though not enough to significantly alter the overall dynamics of Sahelien conflicts. Héni Nsaibia, founder of Menastream, notes that demobilising Algerian foreign fighters has weakened the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb unit in north-western Mali, near Timbuktu. It has also impacted the Islamic State-linked Katiba Salaheddine in Mali, whose leader and associates surrendered in 2018.

The demobilisation programme’s impact on the combat capacity of terrorist groups is significant

Even as terrorist groups hosting foreign fighting units have been weakened, inter-communal conflict and locally recruited militant groups have surged. This has obscured the Algerian programme’s impact.

Finally, the demobilisation programme’s impact on combat capacity of groups with many Algerian fighters is probably more significant than its numbers imply. Algerians are over-represented in the leadership of some Sahelien terrorist groups. The surrender of commanders can disrupt the capacity and unity of terror groups. Even non-leaders who have surrendered are experienced fighters with significant operational and institutional knowledge that’s difficult to replace.

While foreign fighters do not constitute the majority of combatants in the Sahel, they are part of the conflict ecosystem. Efforts to build peace through negotiation with local militants or tackling underlying conflict drivers won’t fully end the conflicts as long as fighters remain organised and armed.

The challenge for Sahelien governments and the international community is how to address these combatants. Strategies focused on tracking and eliminating them – such as those of France and the United States – aren’t enough.

Ways to deal with the challenge of foreign fighters must be thought out and implemented as part of an overall peacebuilding strategy. Algeria’s demobilisation efforts should be more closely studied by other states whose nationals have joined terrorist groups in the Sahel. By removing their nationals from the battlefield, these states can help reduce the duration and intensity of the conflicts raging in the region.

Written by Dr Matthew Herbert, Senior Research Consultant, ISS.

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original article can be found here.