After the Arab Spring, there was genuine hope of democracy and freedom, but also fear that the experiment could fail to intolerance and terrorism. The chaos that is taking place in Syria and Libya today is the extreme demonstration of the most negative scenarios – a true descent into hell – while the democratic backsliding in Egypt is an example of political immaturity in the Arab world. Tunisia remains the only “success story” despite all the uncertainties surrounding the figure of Badji Caid Essebci, the new boss at the Carthage Palace.
The collateral damage of the Arab Spring, however, did not stop with the protagonists of the event. The new age of terrorism that developed in its aftermath is embodied by the emergence of ISIS, attacks against Christian minorities in the Middle East and the recruitment of youth to jihad both in the fight against the Syrian regime and in attacks against the West. If we consider the September 2012 assassination of the US Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, by terrorists protesting against a film deemed insulting to Islam, we can easily conclude that the attack against Charlie Hebdo is the second declaration of war against the West since the beginning of the Arab Spring.
European jihadists as the new generation of terrorists
Europol Director Rob Wainwright estimates that between 3,000 and 5,000 Europeans have gone to jihad in countries like Syria and could pose a threat back home. “Clearly, we are dealing with many, mostly young men, who have the potential to return and the potential, or the intention and ability, to carry out attacks like those in Paris”, Wainwright said in an interview by the Committee on Home Affairs of the British Parliament and quoted by AFP. Europol has amassed a list of 2,500 suspects from information assembled by EU intelligence sources. In an interview with AFP in Brussels, the EU coordinator for the fight against terrorism, Gilles de Kerchove, said that according to data on nearly 3,000 Europeans enlisted in jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq, 30% have returned to the EU.
The Arab chaos and the Algerian-French connection
In this chaotic scenario, the January 7th attack carried out by the Kouachi brothers – who were of Algerian descent, but who were born and lived in France – raises the issue of how to interpret and counter Islamist movements in the world. We can easily state that the Arab Spring failed to integrate Islamist parties into the democratization of political life with the ultimate hope of alleviating the phenomenon of Islamist violence. It is a diverse phenomenon that has produced the 9/11 attacks, but also (among other local conflicts and civil wars) the black decade of the 1990s in Algeria, which left more than 200,000 dead.
The attack in Paris, executed by elements claiming allegiance to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, is proof that terrorists have changed their strategy and persons close to radical movements who have been only partly detected by security services can carry out attacks. In other words, anyone in jihadist circles can carry out an attack against targets identified “remotely” by the more structured extremist organizations.
According to experts, sponsors choose weak candidates as perpetrators, individuals who have no major life projects and who dislike the social model they live in. That is why Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra, when traveling to Paris to attend the January 11th solidarity march, clearly stressed that “talk about the origins was already the beginning of the amalgam” and that the Kouachi brothers were born and raised in France and were not known by Algerian consular services. In other words, the tilting of the Kouachi brothers towards terrorism has nothing to do with the situation in Algeria on the one hand, and on the other shows a very problematic reality surrounding Salafist propaganda across a very broad region, north and south of the Mediterranean.
The threat, in fact, exists not only in the Arab sphere, but even (and mainly) in European countries where, paradoxically, Islamist propaganda is used in the name of freedom of expression and human rights. For the Kouachi brothers, and many other Arabs and Africans born in the EU, being European is practical as it makes traveling around the world – including in the Middle East – possible without the restraint of needing a visa.
Beyond the historical legacy of colonization that continues to weigh on relations between Algeria and France, security cooperation between the two countries has always been strong. The fact that Algerian security services had warned their French counterparts of a probable attack in Paris is not new in itself. Cooperation between the two countries goes back to 1995 when the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) organized several attacks against the Paris metro leaving eight dead and more than 200 injured. The Algerian expertise in counterterrorism is recognized worldwide. Having faced the most violent Islamist insurgency in the history of the Arab world (in the 1990s the veterans of the war in Afghanistan formed the first terrorist groups in Algeria), Algerian secret services possess important know-how in the international war against terrorism. At the same time, Algeria has lived painfully through multiple mutations of terrorist groups who switched from the methods of the GIA (collective massacres of civilians), the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, or the GSPC, (suicide attacks), Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (spectacular operations such as the attack against the Tiguentourine gas site in January 2013) and more recently Daesh (beheadings).
In fact, Algeria has not yet experienced a real return to peace. When speaking about the 1990s, we should not forget that the 2000s were also macabre. In July 2005, Al-Qaeda, led at the time by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, kidnapped and killed two Algerian diplomats in Baghdad – a crime confessed to in Algeria by the GSPC of Abdelmalek Droukdel who later pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda in 2007 and remains active in the Sahel. In 2007, the government in central Algiers was the target of a suicide bombing. The UN headquarters and the Constitutional Council were also the targets of car bombings the same year. The Arab Spring complicated the situation further as the fall of Colonel Muammar Gheddafi completely destabilized Libya. Thus, the Sahelian crisis weighs on the stability of the sub-region and poses a serious threat not only to the countries of North Africa but also to Europe. The Algerian security services follow these dangerous developments and cooperate very closely with the West, as well as Arab countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, to help Libya to find a political solution and to strengthen the military presence at the borders.
How to fight extremists
It is clear that this is an important moment in the international campaign against terrorism. The US government changed its perception of the nature of this phenomenon in September 2001 after admitting that it was politically, not religiously, motivated and after highlighting that despite its power it could not fight terrorism alone. In fact, political Islam has been repeatedly exploited by Western powers against nationalist movements and Arab governments with strongly “sovereignist” positions. That’s why the foundation of any new global counterterrorism strategy should include two key elements if we are to win the war against violence.
First, the West must stop all appeasement policies vis-à-vis fundamentalist organizations that advocate violence and its sponsors including the monarchies of the Persian Gulf which, under the guise of donations to religious charities, fund the expansion of the doctrine of the Muslim Brotherhood and Wahhabism. Secondly, Western governments must revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in order to pull the rug out from under the feet of all extremists who continue to use the Palestinian issue to justify terror attacks. The US, a sponsor of the peace process, should act for peace in the Middle East by forcing the hand to Benjamin Netanyahu whose presence in the global public display of solidarity in Paris should constitute a step towards ending its colonialist policy in some Palestinian-populated areas. In the words of Abdelaziz Rahabi, former Communications Minister and Ambassador, “The Palestinian issue is central and essential in any search for the normalization of relations between the West and the public opinion in the Arab world”. It is certainly not a new or original reasoning, but one which remains valid nonetheless, all the more so in the current climate.