Focus on Leaders? Insights from the Algerian Experience
The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs
abstract
The Algerian experience shows that fighting terrorism and extremism requires a plurality of instruments rather than a simple focus on a single instrument, as this kind of threat is intrinsically multifaceted and multidimensional. In this wider framework, focusing on leaders is only one aspect among many others, although symbolically it may bear rather strong importance in the process of defeating the enemy.

Following the emergence of the Arab revolts of 2010-2011, labelled immediately with the rather unlucky brand of the "Arab Spring" revolutions, several authors noted that Algeria escaped the "Arab Spring fate." That was somewhat unexpected, as Algeria was considered a particularly "strong candidate" to face a violent popular uprising.1 The "rising public expenditures" explanation2-more subsidies and welfare public spending in return for political acquiescence-and the psychological burden of the two civil wars that have characterised contemporary Algerian history-the struggle against the French coloniser between the 1950s and the 1960s and the bloody civil war of the 1990s-are by no means essential to understanding why Algeria escaped the fate of other Arab regimes over the past two years.3 However, looking at the Arab Spring events in a different time framework, the perspective is likely to be diverse: the Arab Spring moment and its aftermath signalled the emergence of new social cleavages, the advent of new processes and political players and a tumultuous process of change of elites. Whether that will lead to more liberal-democratic regimes or to a re-proposition by other names of the former pre-Arab Spring regimes is something that will become clear in the medium term, though the final stage of these transitions remains pretty much unclear.

Algeria experienced the emergence of new social and political cleavages earlier than some of its regional peers. Indeed, the 1988-1992 events leading to the civil war of the 1990s may have been the Algerian Arab Spring. That was a moment of dramatic change caused by the visible emergence of new social cleavages and political demands that were exacerbated by the fiscal crisis that the Algerian state had to face during the 1980s. A popular uprising started in October 1988, and the events that followed-reforms, political liberalisation, elections, the Islamist victory and the military coup d'état supported by Western powers-pushed Algeria into the toughest period of its recent history4-the "lost decade," 10 years of a bloody and ruthless civil war which caused more than 100,000 deaths and is still a bleeding wound in the political-psychological soul of Algerians.

These events also led Algeria to face the emergence of a radical jihadist threat, which would have turned into a major enemy of the Algerian state in the next 20 years. Although this threat has yet to be completely defeated, it nevertheless has a changed face: what was a major, direct, internal and structural threat to the stability of the Algerian regime-and likely the most dangerous threat ever faced by independent Algeria since its establishment-now has the features of a loose and erratic coalition of small terrorist groups acting mainly outside of Algeria's borders.

This story then is a successful, although troubled and bloody, story of counter-terrorism efforts. The focus on leaders-specifically, killing and arresting them-seems to be a feature of the Algerian approach to Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA). This focus seemed to be less strong concerning those groups that followed GIA, including splinter groups GSPC and AQIM, although the January 2013 crisis in Aménas suggested that Algeria, when facing the direct threat of terrorism on its own soil, is still keen to face terrorists without compromise, killing terrorists and rejecting any possible negotiate with them.