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Armed Islamic Group (Algeria, Islamists)

(a.k.a. GIA, Groupe Islamique Armé, or al-Jama'ah al-Islamiyah al-Musallaha)

Author: Lauren Vriens
Updated: May 27, 2009

Introduction

The Armed Islamic Group, known by its French acronym, GIA, waged a violent war against Algeria's secular military regime during the 1990s. Though terrorism continues to plague Algerian society, the GIA's role in current violence appears to have abated. The GIA grew out of a 1992 decision by Algeria's military government to cancel an election in which it appeared that a moderate, mainstream Muslim party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), was headed for victory. The backlash took many forms, including formation of the Islamic Salvation Army, a militant group linked with the FIS. But the separate and more radical GIA soon gained a notorious reputation for mayhem and murder, targeting those affiliated-even remotely-with the military and the government, as well as innocents and foreign nationals. The GIA vowed to raze the secular Algerian government and, in its place, establish a Muslim state ruled by sharia, or Islamic law. The ensuing civil war ranked as one of the most violent in the world during the 1990s but petered out in 2002 following a cease-fire declared by the Islamic Salvation Army, a group that never condoned the civilian violence perpetrated by the GIA. In its most active period in the 1990s the GIA established a presence in France, Belgium, Britain, and Italy. While the GIA is now largely defunct, it remains designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. Algerian and Western counterterrorism officials say that many members may have defected in recent years and joined al-Qaeda or its sister organization al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

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Whom does the GIA target?

One of the GIA's leaders, Antar Zouabri, has proclaimed: "in our war, there is no neutrality. Except for those who are with us, all others are renegades." International press during the 1990s focused on the large number of journalists and intellectuals who were beheaded or whose throats were slit during Algeria's civil war. GIA leaders were quoted as saying, "those who fight against us by the pen will die by the sword." Journalists were considered to be supporters of the military regime and a secular society. The GIA had enormous animosity toward the media, and particularly Algerians who wrote in French, the language of the former colonial power.

The extremist Islamic background of the GIA also included a disdain for liberated women. Women not wearing the hijab, or headscarf, women in professional careers, or women who refused mu'ta, the practice of temporary marriages of pleasure, were often murdered. The GIA was especially known for—and received much criticism for—killing the female relatives and children of the military. The group justified this by citing an extremist concept called takfir, which is a form of excommunication. In these cases, takfir was used to label a Muslim associated with the military regime as an infidel and therefore game for attack.

The group also expressed a vehement opposition to the presence of foreigners in Algeria. During the civil conflict, over 120 foreign nationals were killed by the GIA. France, which supported the military government, became a target as well. The GIA orchestrated international terrorist attacks in the country, most notably the 1994 hijacking of an Air France plane and the bombing of two Paris Metro stations the following year. Other Western countries were also accused of meddling in Algerian affairs; in 1995 the GIA issued a threatening communiqué demanding that all Western embassies and foreigners leave the country.

Jews, Christians, and even moderate Muslims were also among the GIA's targets. Al Ansar, or The Supporters, a weekly GIA newspaper with headquarters in Europe, frequently published inflammatory rhetoric against Jews and Christians. Several Muslims who professed their wish to use diplomacy with the government were killed and their deaths publicized to set an example. The wantonness with which the GIA killed Muslims contributed significantly to its demise.

What are the origins of the GIA?

Like lots of violent Islamic movements around the world, many militants in the GIA appear to trace their radicalization to Afghanistan, where they fought as mujahadeen, or Islamic guerillas, against the Soviet army from 1979 to 1989. As Afghan returnees, these radicals sought to transplant the idea that secular government is, by definition, illegitimate and repeat their success in Afghanistan against the Algerian regime. Other GIA members included advocates of violent political change who were disenchanted with the moderate FIS's reliance on rigged political processes. William B. Quandt, a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, categorized the GIA as "a home-grown phenomenon," facilitated by the training of the mujahadeen. Several other experts agree that the GIA rose to such massive proportions due to a general disaffection with the political environment of the time.

But as a group, the GIA only became coherent in 1992 when the military preempted the FIS electoral victory. Many members of the FIS were arrested and several paramilitary groups formed in response to the government's crackdown. The GIA emerged as one of several radical FIS splinter factions and quickly became the dominant terrorist organization in the country. By 1994, it was recruiting upwards of five hundred young men a week into its ranks.

What is the status of the GIA as of 2009?

The U.S. State Department dates the GIA's last significant terrorist attack to 2001, but this is debated. Some sources attribute the group with unclaimed terrorist attacks up until 2005, though the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) is the more likely culprit. The Salafists, who ultimately became Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, eclipsed the GIA in numbers and popularity in 1998 by denouncing indiscriminant violence against civilians - a trademark of the GIA. The Salafists subsequently subsumed most of the GIA's networks and financial resources in Europe. The final blows came in 2004, when Algerian police forces launched a widespread crackdown (PDF) on all local terrorist groups. Over four hundred members of both the GIA and the Salafists were arrested in that sweep.

Does the GIA have ties to al-Qaeda?

Sayyed Imam Al-Sharif, one of the chief ideologues of the global jihad movement, writes that leaders of al-Qaeda extolled the GIA's actions to further popularize global jihad. Ayman al-Zawahiri, a prominent al-Qaeda leader, even provided religious justification for the GIA's violent tactics. On the other hand, some experts say that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden distanced himself and al-Qaeda from the GIA and instead supported the more popular GSPC, further contributing to the GIA's decline.