A former leader of Algeria’s Islamist insurgency has for the first time urged members of al Qaeda’s North African wing to declare a truce. The appeal by Hassan Hattab, who gave himself up three years ago, appeared to be part of an Algerian government strategy aimed at ending a two-decade insurgency during which an estimated 200,000 people have been killed.
Hattab was the founder of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, the precursor to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) which continues to mount sporadic attacks and kidnaps, though the violence has subsided significantly, Reuters reports. Since he surrendered he has made several appeals to AQIM fighters to lay down their arms under a government amnesty but this is the first time he has spoken of a truce.
“We invite you to announce a truce for a couple of months,” Hattab said in the appeal to the insurgents, which was broadcast on national radio late on Wednesday. “The truce will be an opportunity to discuss with Muslim clerics the future of Islam in Algeria,” the appeal said.
A security crackdown, amnesty offers and waning public support have reduced the insurgents’ numbers from 35,000 in the 1990s to between 1,000 and 1,500 now, according to estimates from security analysts. Hundreds of al Qaeda rank-and-file fighters, as well as dozens of the group’s leaders, have accepted the government’s amnesty offer in the past few years.
They still periodically ambush security service patrols in the north of the country but have switched much of their activity to the Sahara desert areas of northern Mali and Mauritania, where they have kidnapped dozens of Westerners.
Hattab’s appeal was also published in several Algerian newspapers, where it was co-signed by senior former rebels and a leader of the Islamic Salvation Front, a banned radical Islamist party which inspired many of the insurgents. It was the first time an appeal to insurgents issued by Hattab has been broadcast over the radio.
“Some rebels do not trust written appeals, this is why using the radio is a good move to convince them that the appeal is genuine,” Samer Riad, a journalist with El Khabar newspaper who specialises in security issues, told Reuters.
The timing of the appeal may be significant because it was made just before Algeria celebrates the Muslim feast of Eid el-Fitr, marking the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan.