AIS, from Surrender to dissolution

AIS, from Surrender to dissolution

Algeria Interface, december 30, 1999

After a two-year ceasefire and recent wrangling prompted by the controversial about-turn of its chief, Madani Mazrag, the future of the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS) looks no clearer.

Algiers and Jijel, 30/12/99 – Escorted by troops like lost boy scouts being led to safety, fighters from the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS) climbed into the waiting minibus that was to take them to a youth hostel in the east Algerian village of Taher, 18 kilometres from provincial capital Jijel.

On arrival, some hid their faces while others looked away as the villagers gazed at them through the bus’s windows. The dominant emotion was a sense of bitterness tempered by a feeling that things could have been worse.

The villagers had known for a week that their return was imminent. They looked on with a mixture of contempt and relief on this December Friday as the first group of AIS terrorists, pardoned under the terms of the Civil Harmony Act, returned to the fold. There were some 50 of them in turbans and Afghan gear, unarmed and uneasy.

Vow of silence
There had been no official forewarning that a first wave of fighters from the AIS, the military wing of the outlawed Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), were to lay down their arms. Its men had been observing a truce for two years, billeted in camps that were little more than deserted villages and hamlets dotted around the north of the country.

Neither the government, AIS officials or politicians have made any statement or comment about the surrenders which have been taking place on a regular basis at different locations according to a secret schedule since that Friday in December.

The choice of Taher was heavy with symbolism. The village is in the Beni Khettab mountain chain, where the AIS came into being in November 1994. The region still houses 11 AIS camps – about 1,200 men – and the imara (headquarters) of the rarely seen AIS military chief Madani Mezrag.

It was Mezrag who negotiated the terms of the 1997 ceasefire and it is exclusively with him that Algerian military chiefs talk. Few of the guerrillas who have turned themselves in dare to break the vow of silence demanded of them by Madani Mezrag in return for the terms of surrender he negotiated.

These include exemption from prosecution, the assurance that the security forces will take no reprisals against them and that those guerrillas who had jobs before going underground between 1992 and 1994 will get them back.

Surreal atmosphere
What little comment there has been has revealed profound differences within the AIS as to its future. Not all its fighters are ready to renounce the beliefs which drove them to take up arms against the state after it robbed the FIS of victory in the elections in 1991.

In the absence of official information, there are rumours that some of the AIS’s younger, more committed troops will stay on in the mountains. Under the aegis of the Algerian army they will fight their allies of yesterday, the Armed Islamic Groups (GIA), as “reinforcements”, “reconnaissance troops” or “new patriots”.

Madani Mazrag might have sought to shroud the terms of and reasons for his agreement with the army in secrecy. Nevertheless, Islamists close to him assert that there is a groundswell of revolt among fighters who do not understand such an inexplicable about-face. How can they now be allies of the army in the fight against the enemies of Allah, who are now none other than their “brothers from the mountains”?

It is in this surreal atmosphere of confusion and silence from the authorities that it is rumoured the AIS is quite simply to be disbanded in the next few days.

Daikha Dridi