The people in this village in Algeria’s mountainous Kabylie region have for decades lived in fear of the Islamist insurgents who made it into their stronghold. Not any more.
When the rebels kidnapped a businessman from the village of Ait Koufi last month and demanded a 3 billion dinar ($4.2 million) ransom, hundreds of local people headed to the hills with loudhailers to urge his captors to release him.
The hostage is still being held but for villagers, there was something bigger at stake.
“We were not armed, we just wanted to send a strong message to the rebels,” said Madjid, a 24-year-old villager, who did not want to give his full name. “Doing nothing will encourage the terrorists, and one day they will kidnap our women,” he said.
Algeria has for nearly two decades been gripped by conflict between Islamist militants and government forces that at its peak in the 1990s killed about 200 000 people.
The violence has declined in the past few years and support for the militants now operating under the al Qaeda banner has dwindled. But the insurgents still use violence and intimidation to hold sway over many rural communities.
However, the Ait Koufi incident could mark a turning point because it is the first time residents have stood up to the insurgents on such a scale in the Kabylie region, traditionally a militant safe haven.
“Enough is enough”
The fight-back in Ait Koufi began on March 22 when the militants seized Ali Hassani, an 83-year-old entrepreneur who is well known in the area.
The standard practice is for a hostage’s family and friends to pay the ransom. People know the militants use methods: abductions, beheadings, slitting the throats of civilians who do not cooperate.
Local people do not go to the gendarmerie, or police, because officers rarely venture into far-flung corners of the Kabylie region.
But this time the militants, widely known by their old name of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) touched off a nerve with local people.
“Enough is enough. We can’t let the GSPC kidnap our people,” said one of a group of young local men who took part in the first sweep through the mountains a few days ago.
Madjid, the 24-year-old villager, pointed a finger up at the green, tree-covered mountainside where he spent several hours searching for the hostage and his captors.
“Several hundred people, representing most of the villages of the region, took part in the sweep,” he said.
Local people said the kidnappers later sent a message to the villagers identifying themselves as Islamist militants and saying they would retaliate unless the ransom was paid. But the villagers reacted with defiance.
“We will not pay and we’ll continue our pressure until the old man is freed,” said Madjid.
Under pressure from security forces, Al Qaeda’s North African wing has already shifted its focus south to Sahara desert states like Mali and Mauritania, where it kidnaps foreigners and stages small-scale attacks on Western targets.
Security experts say if it loses its strongholds in the Kabylie region, it could be forced to pull out entirely from its traditional heartland along Algeria’s Mediterranean coast.
The Kabylie region became an insurgent safe haven after the gendarmerie withdrew in 2001 in the face of an uprising by local people angry at what they saw as excessive brutality by security forces hunting militants.
But in the law and order vacuum left behind, crime flourished and investment dried up. Unemployment is now extremely high, especially among young men. This is one reason residents are now determined to end the insurgents’ dominance.
“People are fed up,” said Hassen Zizi, a local correspondent for Algeria’s Echorouk newspaper. “They know that insecurity doesn’t mix with economic development.”
Pic: Algerian forces