On Mar. 9 and 10, al Qaeda social media channels publicized a new speech by Abu Ubaydah Yusuf al-Anabi, a high-ranking official in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Al-Anabi’s talk, entitled “Algeria…Getting Out From the Dark Tunnel,” is intended to take advantage of the wave of protests against President Abelaziz Bouteflika and his corrupt government. AQIM did not spark the protests, but the group seeks to inject its jihadist agenda into the story.
The US State Department designated al-Anabi, an Algerian citizen, as a terrorist in 2015. State noted at the time that he is the “leader of AQIM’s Council of Notables” and has also served as “AQIM’s Media Chief.” Al Qaeda channels often describe him as a religious figure.
In the past, al-Anabi has called for violence against France, as well as others. But in his latest address, al-Anabi struck a different tone. He seeks to capitalize on the widespread anger directed at Bouteflika and his security forces. Al-Anabi describes the president as a “mummy,” arguing that he is an illegitimate ruler whether he is judged according to Islamic sharia or “the supposed Algerian constitution.” He points to the poor political and socio-economic conditions in the country as an indictment of the “tyrant and his criminal gang.”
Al-Anabi’s critique of Algeria’s living conditions is not all that different from the popular critique of the ruling government, except with respect to one key point. He and AQIM want the Algerian people to call for the installation of an al Qaeda-style Islamic government.
Al Qaeda’s view, as expressed by Ayman al-Zawahiri and others, is that the first Arab revolts of late 2010 and 2011 failed because they did not lead to true Islamic governance. Al Qaeda used the temporary political vacuums caused by the uprisings to expand its base, but the jihadists haven’t succeeded in creating stable Islamic emirates in North Africa or the Middle East.
Al-Anabi seems to have this critique in mind as he offers suggestions to the Algerian people. He begins his talk with references to the conditions that would lead to the formation of a proper Islamic emirate, which can only be headed by a religiously-minded figure who governs according to sharia. The “original infidel or apostate” cannot be a leader of Muslims, and must be removed from any position of authority.
Later, in the first of several pointed recommendations, al-Anabi says the Algerians should make toppling of the Algerian government their “primary goal,” such that it is removed “completely.” The “end goal must be that Algeria is ruled” according to Islam and Islam “alone,” meaning al Qaeda’s version of the faith and law. This means that AQIM seeks not only Bouteflika’s ouster, but a removal of his entire system of governance.
Al-Anabi wants Algerians to “unite” as Muslims, rejecting any regional or tribal identities that could drive them apart. The people are all the “sons of Islam,” he says, and shouldn’t think that there is a meaningful difference between Arabs and foreigners as long as they share the same faith. This is contrast to the longtime Algerian president, because he is “loyal to the Jews and the Christians.” Al-Anabi encourages the Algerian people to stress these religious demands, employing “Islamic morals and sharia ethics” in their demonstrations, while avoiding criminal looting and arson.
Al-Anabi tells members of his intended audience that they should organize themselves in “groups” and “committees,” making sure to guard themselves against infiltrators who could “sow chaos” and create pretexts for the security services to “oppress” and “torture” them.
The AQIM man offers a potentially interesting remark concerning the use of violence. He alleges that the Algerian government could resort to committing various “crimes” that are then blamed on the “mujahideen.” In other words, al-Anabi accuses the Algerian security forces of intending to carry out false flag operations that would discredit the protesters and “prevent the demonstrations from going well.”
Al-Anabi does not say what AQIM itself will do in the wake of the protests. But he espouses the jihadists’ supposedly populist approach to violence, arguing that they will “have nothing to do with any criminal act” that impacts the “lives of our people and their properties.” The jihadists’ arms have been aimed solely at the “criminal gang,” which has revealed its “infidelity” and hostility toward the people.
The AQIM official concludes on a hopeful note, claiming that the current unrest is part of the “same battle” fought by the jihadists in Algeria for decades. He encourages the people to join the jihad, describing it as a “resistance” against the Algerian government. But he warns that the people should patient when it comes to waging war, as now is the time to “expand” the “circle” of opposition and spread it throughout the country. Al-Anabi claims that “victory” under Allah is close at hand, as the “signs have appeared” all across the country.
Al-Anabi’s message was released days before Bouteflika announced that he wouldn’t run for a fifth term as president. It remains to be seen how AQIM responds to the political turmoil in Algeria going forward.
In Feb. 2011, AQIM issued a message saying that it would rise to the defense of the Libyan people, who were then seeking to topple Muammar Gaddafi. AQIM expanded its footprint in Libya during the months that followed, often working through cutouts, including the Ansar al-Sharia groups. AQIM used such organizations to proselytize for the jihadists’ cause. Depending on how events unfold in Algeria, AQIM could employ a similar model once again.
While AQIM made early gains in Libya, Tunisia and other countries, the jihadists failed to gain total political power. Al-Anabi clearly knows that recent history very well.