Civil War: Algeria (1992-Present)

Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 1, ABC-CLIO, 2007.


The Algerian civil war that began in 1992 has gained notoriety for several reasons. It originated in a democratic process that came to an abrupt halt and had massacres of civilians that were shocking in their scale and atrocity. The government received significant amounts of external support despite accusations of widespread abuses relating to its prosecution of the conflict, and many recognized the possibility that Algeria represented another foothold for “radical Islam.”

In part because analysts often choose to investigate puzzles pertaining to one or another of these attention-catching aspects, research on the conflict has generated a number of seemingly competing perspectives, each with its own conclusions about the causes of the war and the logic of its conduct. Approaching Algeria from a comparative perspective on civil wars allows a synthesis of the insights of previous research and a comprehensive understanding of the war. Attention to the details of the Algerian civil war also offers a promising opportunity to refine theories of civil war. War duration as a consequence of the interaction between governments and insurgents rather than of determining structural factors, the role of diasporal communities defined on the basis of factors other than national identity, and the nature of opportunity costs to war emerge as important areas of future inquiry.

Country Background

Algeria’s war for independence from France, fought between 1954 and 1962, brought to a close more than one hundred years of colonial rule. Power struggles within the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), which—along with its military organization, the Armeé de Libération Nationale (ALN)—was the force behind the struggle for independence, continued during the conflict.

By the time Algeria gained its independence on July 2, 1962, the confrontation between the general staff of the armed forces and the provisional government had grown particularly intense as forces loyal to each group fought for control. This period is coded as a civil war (Doyle and Sambanis 2000; Fearon and Laitin 2003). In August, the provisional government offered to surrender, but the military faction continued to press the fight, successfully taking Algiers by September 8. Ahmed Ben Bella was chosen as president of the republic and Ferhat Abbas as president of the National Assembly in the elections that followed on September 20, 1962 (Laremont 2000). Ben Bella thus took control of what was, through a referendum on proposals for the constitution, a one-party state in which the executive and the FLN had exclusive power, the National Assembly standing without any functions of consequence. In the years following independence, Ben Bella worked to consolidate his power, and by September 13, 1963, he held the offices of commander-in-chief of the military and prime minister in addition to his original presidential portfolio.

Ben Bella was opposed by other personalities from the war of decolonization, who founded the Front des Forces Socialistes (FFS) later in the month. The FFS carried out attacks in early 1964, even attempting to assassinate Ben Bella. Although the FFS did not successfully mount its challenge to Ben Bella’s government, late in 1964 Houari Boumedienne, formerly head of the ALN and the minister of war under Ben Bella, carried out a military coup against Ben Bella on June 19, 1965. Boumedienne’s rule lasted for thirteen years until his death in 1978. He was succeeded by Colonel Chadli Bendjedid, who was nominated by an FLN party congress and won 94 percent of votes in a referendum on February 7, 1979. Bendjedid’s rule was similarly long-lived, and he remained in office until 1992. Although economic and political liberalization occurred at various points in the period following independence, Algeria remained firmly a dictatorship throughout the period.

Algeria’s economy at independence faced a grave problem: The departure of Algerians of French descent left the country without qualified administrators or professionals in many fields. Unemployment at independence stood at approximately 45 percent. Ben Bella began a process similar to nationalization, under which workers attained self-management but were for all intents and purposes employed by the state because of the institutional arrangements used. Ben Bella did not, however, address modernization of the agricultural sector. Industrialization became a key priority during Boumedienne’s presidency, along with redistribution of land and continued nationalization. The 1973 oil price increases by OPEC facilitated the plans for “state-led development” (Entelis 2000).

Although progress was made in carrying out Boumedienne’s economic plans, agriculture continued to get little governmental attention. And, although some of the progress carried over to the early years of Benjedid’s presidency, that period saw a general worsening of the economic situation. Increasing unemployment, particularly problematic for young, well-educated Algerians, encouraged participation in the informal economy (known as trabendo). As the global prices of oil and gas fell through the mid-1980s, dramatically reducing the revenue available to it from these sectors, the government under Bendjedid realized the importance of moving away from a centrally planned, socialist economy toward a market economy. The government was no longer able to sustain its provision of social welfare to the public—which up to that point had been part of an implicit deal between the government and the public, the public contributing its support or at least lack of demands on the government. In the face of these changes, the government drew up plans to encourage private sector growth and participation in development and foreign investment. Interestingly, the gradual opening of Algeria’s economy that began during this period ended up playing an important role in generating additional revenues for the government and in increasing funds available to the insurgents once conflict broke out (as elaborated later in this article). Directly prior to the war, Algeria’s real gross domestic product (GDP) per capita was US$4,902.

Conflict Background

Algeria’s war of independence from France is often taken as a reference point for those analyzing the conflict that began in the 1990s. The form of the opposition insurgent organizations in both wars is seen as similar: The FLN in the war of independence, like the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS), served to unify the diverse interests against the incumbent government; the Armée Islamique du Salut (AIS), viewed as a military force serving the goals of the FIS, could thus perform a function akin to that of the ALN, the military wing of the FLN. The two wars have also both served as examples of the violent nature of insurgency, owing to the behavior of the insurgent groups and the repressive apparatus brought to bear against them by the government. And, although the current conflict is not a war for independence, similarities persist, too, in the type of conflict. Although some researchers code the war that began in 1992 as an “ethnic/religious/identity conflict” (Doyle and Sambanis 2000), it is not clear that the conflict can be understood within this framework. The insurgent groups in Algeria clearly professed a religious agenda at a superficial level—they discussed the role of religion in governance, used religious terminology to discuss the situation in Algeria, and incorporated the word Islam into the names of their organizations. However, the extent to which the conflict itself concerned the role of religion is more ambiguous. Even supporters of the insurgents who emphasized the importance of the groups’ religious stance characterized their reasons for supporting the insurgents in terms of the changes they wanted to see in the form of governance provided by the regime and the distributional arrangements extant in the economy. If the vocabulary used to describe this position happened to be religious, or even if these supporters understood their stance as a religious one, it does not follow that the conflict itself was of a religious nature. Similarly, although supporters of the government and the government itself couched their opposition to the Islamists in terms of their perception of the Islamist platform as an extreme one, this perspective was often used to discredit the Islamists and gain support for the government from outside powers (mainly France and the United States). Thus it is not entirely a true characterization of the nature of the conflict itself.

Outside these analytical understandings of the conflict are harsh facts about what it actually meant for Algeria and Algerians. The conflict itself is ongoing and has so far taken the lives of as many as 150,000 people, mostly civilians (Martinez 2004; Stone 1997). If this figure is correct, it represents the death of more than 4 percent of the prewar population. Approximately 40,000 people either have left the country or have been internally displaced. A large percentage of Algerians also participated in the conflict: The Algerian armed forces numbered approximately 130,000 in the mid-1990s, and at their height armed insurgent groups may have had as many as 40,000 members (Martinez 2000; Stone 1997). These figures, of course, say nothing of the effects that death, migration, or participation in the conflict have had on the social networks of the victims, immigrants, or participants. Finally, although one of the main insurgent groups, the Armée Islamique du Salut (AIS), signed a truce in 1997 and ultimately surrendered in January 2000, political violence has by no means vanished from Algeria. The Groupes Islamiques Armées (GIA) and perhaps other small insurgent groups remain active, though on a smaller scale compared to the mid-1990s. Even as of 2005, violence persists.

The Insurgents

Armed insurgency against the Algerian government began in earnest following the military coup that deposed President Chadli Bendjedid on January 11, 1992. The previous three years had seen demonstrations and riots leading to the first multiparty elections in Algerian history; a significant victory by the FIS, an umbrella organization of Islamist groups that opposed the government; further demonstrations against government interference with the elections results and, following these, the institution of martial law; and a final round of elections, which the FIS seemed poised to win. In short, prior to the coup, Algeria was on a rapid course toward fundamental changes in the distribution of power in society through the increasing power of the FIS in government. When the army stepped in to end this process by seizing control of the government from President Bendjedid and canceling the election results, armed Islamist groups that existed even prior to these developments saw an opportunity to mount a direct challenge to the government. As the army consolidated its power and attempted to repress the Islamists, declaring a state of emergency in February 1992 and banning the FIS in March 1992, these groups began to attack the government and security forces and to assert control over areas sympathetic to the FIS. As the conflict continued, new groups formed, bringing new goals and new tactics to the conflict.

Sources: Doyle and Sambanis 2000; Economist Intelligence Unit, various years; Hafez 2000; Heston, Summers, and Aten 2002; International Crisis Group 2004; Lowi 2005; Marshall, Jaggers, and Gurr 2004; Martinez 2000, 2004; Stone 1997.
War: MIA, AIS, MEI, GIA, GSPC, and other groups vs. the Government of Algeria
Dates: 1992-present
Casualties: 150,000
Regime type prior to war: −2 (ranging from-10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
Regime type after war: Not applicable; from 1/1992-11/1995: -7; 11/1995-: -3
GDP/capita year war began: US $4,902 (constant 1996)
GDP/capita 5 years after war: Not applicable
Insurgents: Armed Islamic Movement (MIA), Islamic Army of Salvation (AIS), Movement for the Islamic State (MEI), Islamic Armed Groups (GIA), Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), Islamic Front of Jihad in Algeria (FIDA), Salafi Combatant Group (GSC), Salafi Group for the Jihad (GSPD), Guardians of the Salafi Call (HDS), and Islamic League for Preaching and Jihad (LIDD).
Issue: Failed liberalization of governance
Rebel funding: Import-export companies, extortion of individuals and businesses, illegal automobile imports, diaspora, and sympathizers
Role of geography: Insurgents established bases in mountainous interior; government used prisons in southern desert and was able to isolate and protect the hydrocarbon sector, a main source of revenue in that area.
Role of resources: Hydrocarbon sector and investment in it was a large source of revenue for the government.
Immediate outcome: Ongoing
Outcome after 5 years: Not applicable
Role of UN: None
Role of regional organization: None
Refugees: 40,000 (including internally displaced persons)
Prospects for peace: Favorable
Table 1: Civil War in Algeria

The insurgents can be grouped according to their political orientation, following Martinez (2000): groups that sought to force the government to reinstate the political process through which the FIS had been gaining power prior to the military coup, and revolutionary groups emphasizing jihad, which sought the complete overthrow of the state. To these may be added a third category: local groups acting in the context of civil war whose principal purpose was to take advantage of the economic opportunities created by the war.

The groups that sought to force the return of the political process that would have brought the FIS to power were active principally at the beginning of the conflict. The first of these, the Mouvement Islamique Armé (MIA) had originally been active between 1982 and 1987. In 1990, the MIA began preparations for insurgency, establishing infrastructure and training camps in the Blida Atlas mountains. Although it agreed with the FIS not to interfere with the elections, the MIA’s preparations for war intensified as the government’s repression of the FIS increased, with MIA members withdrawing from the cities to the mountains after the arrests of FIS leaders in June 1991. With the repression of the FIS in 1992, the MIA and other armed groups took the opportunity to bring a military confrontation with the government to the fore, the electoral approach of the FIS having been discredited in light of the government’s response. MIA was selective in its recruitment process and explicitly did not allow perhaps thousands of eager volunteers to join it, particularly out of fear that the Securite Militaire would infiltrate it. In 1992, the MIA had approximately 2,000 members but by 1993 was thought to have grown to 22,000. Initially, it competed with smaller groups such as Takfir wa-1 Hijra, also established before the military coup, but of these groups the MIA alone was able to survive the counteroffensives of the government’s security forces, making it the center of the insurgency. By 1994, however, the MIA was considerably weaker and was seen as unsuccessful in challenging the government.

Given the large numbers of people eager to participate in the insurgency, the creation of additional armed groups was possible, and in 1994 the AIS was established. The AIS did not have the first-mover advantage that the MIA had in attracting recruits, but it benefited substantially from the release of prisoners from prison camps in the south in 1993 and 1994, and estimates put its membership in 1994 at 40,000. The AIS continued the MIA’s focus on insurgency to reinstitute the political process, concentrating on attacking the government and security forces. However, its assessment was that the war could not be won in the quick and limited fashion that many thought possible . Thus, the AIS sought to work on a much broader scale than the MIA, and it planned for a long conflict with the Algerian government.

Radical groups emerged in 1993 that challenged the idea, taken up by the MIA and the AIS, of returning to the political process and, to that end, of focusing on targeting the government. Established in 1991, the Mouvement pour l’Etat Islamique (MEI) focused on taking the battle to the people of Algeria. Rather than viewing the conflict as one between the elite of the MIA against the government, the MEI hoped to win over the people of Algeria and, in so doing, deprive the government of any support. With this outlook, the MEI accepted all those who wished to fight for it. The GIA took a similar approach to the MEI, which divided civilians into “enemies of Islam” and “supporters of the jihad,” the former being legitimate targets. Targeting civilians forced them to choose between supporting the government or the Islamists. The GIA’s strategy in the war is understood as one of “total war,” the destruction of the ruling regime by eliminating all bases of social support for it. In contrast to the MIA and AIS, the GIA was active for the most part in urban settings, whereas the MIA and the AIS were firmly established in and conducted operations from mountainous areas. From 1998 on, the GIA and a splinter group from it, the Salafi Combat Group (GSPC), as well as other groups related to the GSPC have been active.

Despite the clear ideologies of the different insurgent groups, it is not possible to extend the understanding of these ideologies to their actual behavior. It is here that the role of local organizations and leaders, often mentioned in detailed accounts of the conflict, emerges. First, given the secret nature of the groups, it is not possible to judge the degree of organization with which they operated and the degree to which decisions were made centrally. The MIA and the AIS exhibited a higher degree of control in this regard than the GIA, which allowed the leaders of local groups to act in its name without hesitation. Second, local armed groups, extremely active in the suburbs of Algiers, played a significant role in the conflict in its day-to-day conduct. Although these may have operated in the name of one of the larger players, often the considerations that drove their conduct were purely local.

A final caveat concerns the role of the government in the development of the armed groups. It is clear that the government repression in response to the challenge of the insurgents played a key role in the development of the conflict—a process noted by many observers of political violence outside the Algerian context (delia Porta 1995; White 1989). However, an often-mentioned and more controversial possibility is that the government played an active role in the development of the armed groups—for example, by carrying out atrocities and then blaming the GIA, or by infiltrating the GIA and encouraging massacres and killings of public figures in an effort to turn public opinion against the Islamists. These allegations are difficult to assess; although there seems to have been an incentive for the government to act this way, firsthand accounts report that those carrying out the attacks were indeed members of the groups that the government blamed. Still, it is important to understand the role of the government in a more complex way that goes beyond its own official statements on the conflict. Martinez (2004) provides an example of such an analysis, noting that the government’s war-fighting strategy may have been indirectly responsible for the massacres of civilians during mid-1990s. Unable to occupy the territory needed to wrest control from the insurgents with its own forces, the government created local militias as a surrogate force. Although the militias were a successful tool in combating the insurgency, it is possible that through militarizing the population they generated a retaliatory dynamic in which insurgents attacked civilians to punish them for participating in the conflict through the militias.


As mentioned earlier, the local dynamics of the conflict were extremely important, nowhere more so than in its financing. In areas directly under their control, the armed groups acted as a parallel government, essentially collecting taxes from the populace and carrying out administrative functions. In contested areas, the armed groups put together finances through extortion of business owners and collection of bribes from operators in the transit sector in return for allowing them to continue to operate. Through supporters and their own members, the groups also drew in large amounts of revenue from the often-informal import-export sector of the economy. At times, this revenue stream was linked to illegal activity, as when leaders of the armed groups were able to obtain revenue through illicit imports of cars from France using the networks established for the drug trade from Morocco. Finally, the groups received funding from the Algerian diaspora in Europe. The effects of financing can be seen in the patterns of activity of the armed groups throughout the conflict. Most active in the southern suburbs of Algiers, home to relatively wealthy businesspeople, the groups did not operate in the more central, poorer areas of Algiers, even though these were areas that had strongly supported the FIS and continued to remain a base of support for the Islamists.


As in the war for independence, the mountains of Algeria played a key role in the current civil war. They provided a base of operations for groups such as the MIA and AIS, which established themselves securely there and then carried out operations elsewhere in the country. The relationship between terrain and the conflict extends beyond the basic idea of safe havens. The mountains of Algeria proved to be an important element in the development of the conflict particularly because some, like the Blida Atlas, were located close to important areas of operations for the insurgents. Thus, the MIA and the AIS could operate in the southern suburbs of Algiers, important for their revenues and symbolically in that they were part of the capital, and then retreat to the mountains. Forest cover may also have served a similar function, though in a less extensive manner.

Related to the control armed groups could exert, the existence of a small number of important highway routes for commerce allowed the groups to use a system of checkpoints to demarcate territory as well as to draw revenues. As for the GIA and local armed groups, the city’s terrain facilitated their operations in urban areas. The absence of an urban plan privileged local knowledge of the layout of the neighborhood in battles with the security forces, and this worked to the insurgents’ advantage.

Nevertheless, it would be too simplistic to view terrain in Algeria as solely benefiting the insurgents or proving a direct asset to them. The government made extensive use of desert prison camps in the south, allowing it to effectively remove large numbers of suspected combatants and sympathizers to a location remote from the theater of operations. Even the terrain of use to the insurgents was by no means a secure tool for them. The government was able to defeat insurgents in the mountains by using air power and local militias, and it also developed security forces specializing in counterinsurgent operations in the urban areas. The conclusion drawn by Fearon and Laitin (2003)—that rough terrain is a risk factor for civil war—seems to hold in Algeria on its surface: The insurgents did indeed make use of the mountains in developing their organizations at the beginning of the conflict. Had it not been for the mountains, the MIA and the AIS might have faced severe challenges in mounting an armed assault on the government and may not have attempted it. However, Algeria demonstrates that the role of terrain may be more appropriately considered in its interaction with the strength of the government. In this analysis, terrain was beneficial to the insurgents when the government’s repressive apparatus was insufficiently developed to deal with their challenge. The government’s subsequent defeat of insurgent forces in the mountains, coming as it did after an extensive overhaul and reconstruction of the security forces, is not surprising in this view.


The brutality of the Algerian civil war, as evidenced by the massacres of civilians in the mid- to late 1990s, was one of the most notorious features of the conflict. The vast majority of observers understood this violence as “irrational,” but in fact patterns of violence have been related to the dynamics of control used by the combatants (Kalyvas 1999). Although ultimately an explanation of the intertemporal and spatial variation in the violence is desirable, it is instructive to understand the ideology of the armed groups as it relates to the tactics they pursued in the war and the resulting patterns of violence, and key aspects of the interaction between the government and the insurgents that also shaped the violence. Finally, related to these questions is the puzzle of why the insurgents appeared not to attempt to strike at the Algerian government directly in order to depose it.

As discussed earlier, the MIA and the AIS focused almost exclusively on attacking security forces and government officials, while the GIA and the MEI put civilians squarely in the middle of the conflict. The decision to target civilians came largely out of the GIA and MEI radical perspective on the conflict as a “total war,” one in which civilians would need to choose sides and one that would be won by winning the populace, not be eliminating the security forces in a war of attrition, a strategy more akin to that of the MIA and AIS. Even more specific targeting decisions may be attributed to the radical perspective, which held that the entire order supporting the current regime would need to be destroyed. Thus, the competition between Francophones and Arabic speakers in the economic arena carried over to the armed conflict itself, and armed groups threatened and killed journalists from French-language media outlets.

The widespread involvement of civilians and their deaths can also be attributed to the exigencies of fighting that the insurgents and the government faced. Both tried to force civilians to choose a side by employing violent tactics, such that violence became a recruiting tool. Both sides also involved the civilian populace in providing financial and logistical support. This resulted in civilian deaths either as part of the establishment of the authority of a group or due to competition between groups, including the government, a dynamic explored in depth by Kalyvas (1999) . As noted earlier, the government’s tactic of establishing civilian militias may also have accentuated these dynamics by making civilians more direct participants in the conflict and thereby subject to retaliatory actions by the insurgents (Martinez 2004). Overall, these characteristics of the war in Algeria fit within the theoretical perspective proposed by Azam and Hoeffler (2002)—that civilians become targets either because of the extortive activities of the parties to the conflict or because targeting civilians serves a direct military purpose.

At another level is the question of why the insurgent groups, when attacking the government and the security forces, focused throughout the conflict on sabotage, assassination, and more peripheral attacks than any all-out attempt to wrest control directly from the entire government. The guerrilla war fought by the insurgent groups can be attributed largely to the resources available to them. Numerically far fewer than the government’s security forces and without the heavy weaponry and air support available to the government, the insurgents likely focused on actions in which they could succeed. Nevertheless, this led to frustration among civilians, who questioned why the violence seemed always to be that of a war of attrition played out at the local level rather than a direct confrontation with the power center of the government (Martinez 2000). Still, although resource constraints may have been behind the tactical choices of insurgents, these choices have not been explored in detail by analysts of the conflict. They merit further attention, given that an explanation would illuminate the motivations of the insurgent groups and would therefore validate broader claims about the nature of the conflict, some of which are discussed below.

Causes of the War

Analysts of the Algerian civil war commonly attribute it to a combination of the economic and social crises the country experienced in the 1980s, the failure of the regime to address these crises, and the military’s refusal to allow the electoral process bringing the Islamists into power to continue (see Testas [2001] for a development of the economic perspective and a summary of other arguments; see also Martinez [2000] for a summary of the standard arguments). A related analysis that probes the mechanisms of this process suggests that that the Algerian government, as a rentier state, was unable to address persistent conflicts in Algerian society (see for example Joffé [2002] and Lowi [2004]). Martinez disputes such perspectives as flawed in that economic and social inequality cannot on their own account for the war, as their persistence during the entire postindependence period (if not at a constant level) demonstrates, nor can problems of governance. Rather, the opportunities available through war, combined with these factors, provided the basis for the war. This analysis places understanding the Algerian civil war squarely in the middle of an ongoing debate in the literature on civil war onset: Do grievances or opportunities explain conflict? The causes of the Algerian civil war can be further illuminated by taking an overview of this debate and highlighting where these accounts validate extant understandings of the war in Algeria or suggest new avenues of analysis. Finally, the nature of the war in Algeria suggests areas in which these theories can be refined, specified with greater detail, or perhaps rejected.

Current work on civil wars and civil war onset follows a rational choice approach, examining the decision calculus of would-be insurgents and weighing the factors that might prompt them to launch an insurgency against the deterrent that the current government can mount. In itself, this framework allows the possibility of the effect of both grievances and opportunities. However, cross-national studies of civil war have found that opportunities (rather than grievances) appear to be the significant factor in predicting civil war onset (Collier and Hoeffler 2002; Fearon and Laitin 2003). Chief among the predictors of civil war onset are thought to be per capita income (negatively related), whether a state was new (positively related), mountainous terrain (positively related), population (positively related), and fossil fuel exports (positively related) (Collier and Hoeffler 2002; Fearon and Laitin 2003; see also Hegre and Sambanis 2006 for an evaluation of robustness of results in the empirical literature). Miguel, Satyanath, and Sergenti (2004) call into question the specific variables posited as significant in previous studies, using a more appropriate estimation strategy in their work on civil wars in sub-Saharan Africa. Their principal findings were that GDP growth is negatively related to the incidence of civil war and that the effect of income shocks on the incidence of civil war appears not to vary with other factors previously thought important (for example, GDP and oil exports). These findings are consistent with views that draw connections between civil war and opportunities.

The perspective just outlined is instructive in the case of the Algerian civil war. It incorporates the focus of Martinez (2000) on the opportunities available in Algeria through war but also articulates how the opportunity structure that potential combatants face can determine whether or not they act to address any extant political, social, or economic problems through conflict. The calculation of the armed groups to begin an insurgency against the government after the cancellation of elections in January 1992 may be seen as a careful evaluation of their prospects for survival and success in a war against the government, and as an evaluation of the opportunities available to them under the government at the time or under an alternative regime of their choosing. This view stands in contrast to other evaluations of the conflict as stemming from mounting grievances against and frustration with the government, touched off by the repressive actions of the army. Potential financial resources through informal trade, extortion, and external sources, combined with the refuge of the mountains close to areas in which they might wish to operate and the dire financial situation of the government, may well have convinced the armed groups of the possibility of their survival—and perhaps even success— against the government. The opportunity to profit from conflict, as well as the ability to redistribute economic wealth to their supporters, may also have motivated both the insurgents and the government to take steps that led to conflict, particularly in the context of an economy that was on the decline.


Conflict Status

The Algerian civil war has lasted approximately fourteen years and is ongoing. Recent cross-national data sets of civil wars code the war as ongoing through 1999 (Sambanis 2004; Fearon 2004; Fearon and Laitin 2003). Since that point, although it is clear that the level of conflict has been decreasing steadily, violence continues. President Boutleflika, who took office in 1999, quickly extended an amnesty offer to insurgents, provided that they surrendered. The AIS received a full amnesty for its members on January 13, 2000, leading to what amounted to its surrender. In addition to an estimated 3,000 AIS fighters thereby removed from the conflict, perhaps 2,000 to 3,000 other insurgents surrendered under the amnesty.

The GIA and the GSPC rejected the amnesty and continued their activities, the GIA in the west (Tipaazza, Chlef, and Ain Delfa provinces) and in areas to the south of Algiers, and the GSPC in portions of the east and Kabylia. In 2000, an estimated 1,500 to 3,000 insurgents continued to operate, with civilian deaths and deaths on both sides of the conflict occurring on a weekly basis, totaling perhaps 200 deaths per month in 2000. As the GSPC “avoid[s] targeting civilians,” civilian deaths are attributed to the GIA (Economist Intelligence Unit 1996 -2004). From January through July 2001, approximately 1,300 people lost their lives in the conflict, whereas the GIA appeared to bring the conflict back into urban areas after an explosion in the Casbah of Algiers in August, an attack on a resort near Algiers, and a bomb that was planted in a market but later defused. The government struck the GIA by killing its leader, Antar Zoubri, in February 2002, although with little perceptible effect on the group. During 2002, GIA violence continued against towns and smaller villages in its areas of operation, and GSPC violence continued against government personnel. Algiers saw a series of explosions, but these did not cause much damage.

By 2004, infighting had broken out in the GSPC; its leader, Hassan Hattab, who apparently opposed creating better ties with al-Qaeda, was killed. The government pressed its campaign against insurgents and in June “claimed to have killed [the GSPC’s] new leader,” Nabil Sahraoui. Still, this appeared not to affect the GSPC, which attacked a power station in Algiers, although without success, and was seen by the government as a potential threat to oil installations in the south. As of 2005, the insurgents were thought to be able to draw on external supporters, particularly in Europe, for resources, leading analysts to note that the insurgency “is not over and attacks on security personnel and civilians are likely to continue for some time.” However, the situation appears to have turned entirely in favor of the government. Despite the external support insurgents enjoy, they are thought to be without significant support within Algeria, and the government has successfully regained control over many parts of its territory formerly controlled by the insurgents (Economist Intelligence Unit 1996-2004, 2005).

Duration Tactics

Although the duration of the Algerian civil war by 1999 (eight years) was below the mean duration for ongoing wars coded in a data set of 128 civil wars for the period 1945 to 1999 (almost sixteen years), even then its duration was above the mean duration for all civil wars in North Africa and the Middle East (Fearon 2004). Work on civil war emphasizing the possibility of benefits accruing to participants during conflict reinforces analyses of Algeria suggesting that the dynamics of Algeria’s war economy are important in explaining why the war has continued.

One perspective on civil war duration, which takes into account the possibility that the rebels benefit from the conflict during its conduct, not solely upon its conclusion, seems to fit well with accounts of the conflict in Algeria. Here, profitability during conflict is crucial in explaining conflict duration. Variables that influence the ability of the insurgents to operate at a profit and to hold out against the government are significant in determining its duration but not significantly related to the initiation of conflict, and variables significantly related to its initiation tend not to influence its duration.

This stands in contrast with predominant explanations that have examined the relative military capabilities of the warring parties, and particularly their expected postconflict benefits, as crucial in determining the duration of the war (Grossman 1991 , 1995; Collier and Hoeffler 1998). It also contrasts with the opportunities account of civil war initiation in that, although opportunity-related variables influence the initial outbreak of conflict, they are thought to be unrelated to the duration because once the insurgents establish themselves, initially making use of opportunity variables, it is their ability to protect their initial setup or to adapt it and hold out against the government that determines duration (Collier, Hoeffler, and Söderbom, 2004).

Turning to the Algerian civil war, then, we should expect variation in financial support for the government and the insurgents to have a large effect on the duration of the conflict. Indeed, financial support for the government, as explained in the “External Military Intervention” section, may have caused the war to last for a long time. Had the government been unable to finance its repressive activities against the insurgents, it may have been forced to come to some accommodation with them in the mid-1990s, rather than pursuing, as it did, an “eradicationist” approach throughout the period. Financial support for the government is also likely to have enlarged the financial stake of the security services in the ongoing conflict such that there may be a disincentive for the government to decisively defeat the insurgents or pursue a settlement. The persistence of the “eradicationist” perspective in the government through the 1990s, and the government’s continued refusal to negotiate with the insurgents (see “Conflict-Management Efforts”), reflect the possibility that the war was proceeding in this way. Looking to the insurgents, financial support from sympathizers and the Algerian diaspora abroad, and increased revenues from the import-export trade stimulated by the International Monetary Fund’s Structural Adjustment Package (SAP) in 1994, likely increased the ability of the insurgents to resist the security services during the period. Finally, much as they did for the government, rents available to the insurgents as a result of the conflict may have provided an incentive to pursue the conflict for financial gain rather than conclude any sort of agreement.

Changes in structural conditions in the economy and the society might also increase the duration of the war by making the opportunities of conflict relatively more attractive. Although economic reforms from 1994 on resulted in macroeconomic improvements for Algeria, they have been linked to large levels of unemployment, particularly among those under thirty years of age, and to higher levels of poverty (International Crisis Group 2001; Joffé 2002). These changes may have provided more potential recruits to insurgent groups. Additionally, they exacerbated the conditions of social conflict that characterized Algeria prior to 1992 and that were not resolved by the military coup in 1992, thus strengthening the basis of opposition to the Algerian government.

External Military Intervention

There has been no clear external military intervention in the Algerian civil war in the conventional sense of use of force by a third party. However, both sides have received assistance from third parties that highlights the need for deeper analysis of external interventions in civil wars: either the assistance was covert, and thus our ability to recognize and measure it is severely hampered, or the assistance may not have been perceived at the time as being related to the conflict but in fact had a concrete influence on its course. It appears that external economic support for the insurgents and the government may have allowed the war to continue for a longer period than would otherwise have been possible. This fits well with the empirical results of Regan (2002), who notes that external interventions, whether military or economic, tend to increase the duration of civil wars.

The insurgents, coming out of the FIS’s Islamist movement in Algeria, derived support from third parties with an Islamist agenda. The exact nature of this support remains unclear, pointing to the need to deal properly with it in cross-national analyses. Some support for the insurgents appears to have come from states. Stone (1997, 190) notes that Iran appears to have officially supported the insurgents “as part of its policy of exporting the Islamic revolution throughout the Muslim world.” Stone also states that Iran was likely involved in the bombing of the airport in Algiers in 1992, according to the Algerian press, other activities supporting the insurgents, including training of insurgents in Hezbollah (or Hizb Allah, as it is translated from the Arabic, meaning the Party of God) camps in Lebanon. The Algerian government, in addition to denouncing Iranian involvement, also pointed to Sudan, although Stone (1997) judges that there was likely no Sudanese support for the insurgents. The Algerian government’s position was motivated by the general role the Sudanese played in support of Islamist movements in the region. Finally, it officially acknowledged Saudi support for the FIS prior to 1991 (Martinez 2000 , 23) yet the fact that no link between the Kingdom and Algerian armed groups after the beginning of the civil war has been established raises the possibility of (as yet undetected) covert support for the insurgents.

External support for the insurgents has also come from private citizens outside Algeria. The Algerian government has demanded more cooperation from European governments in cracking down on militant networks, likely composed mostly of Algerian migrants, in their countries (Economist Intelligence Unit 1996-1998, 2005). The alleged support of the FIS by Saudi businessmen based in Jeddah (Economist Intelligence Unit, 1997) shows that private support for the armed insurgent groups in Algeria from sympathizers would have been all too easy, yet decidedly hard to verify.

The external support that the Algerian government received likely dwarfs all possible support garnered by the insurgents from their supporters in the government or private sector. Through debt rescheduling and economic liberalization, additional foreign aid, and investment, the Algerian government in essence was able to obtain funds for its security operations against the insurgents and was able to tie in supporters economically to its success against the insurgents. Between 1993 and 1994, the Algerian government negotiated a debt program with the IMF, as by 1993 Algeria, with its debt service of $8 billion per year and annual revenue of only $9 billion in 1993, was on the verge of bankruptcy. Debt rescheduling and an SAP that included privatization initiatives and trade liberalization allowed the government to reverse its financial situation. The government was able to obtain some 40 billion francs (roughly at least US $8.3 billion, taking the lowest exchange rate for the period) “in the form of loans, credits, gifts and other financial arrangements” from the international community under the IMF’s SAP. By 1995, its debt service amounted to 37 percent of its earnings from exports, whereas in 1993 that figure had been 93 percent.

The government, through the revenue these programs freed up in its own budget and what they brought in, was able to finance an overhauling of its repressive apparatus. Thus, by 1995 the Islamists, who at one point had “the electoral capital of three million voters and an enemy in a state of bankruptcy… lost their relative advantage after three years of fighting” (Martinez 2000 , 92-3, 238). Economic liberalization under the SAP was also likely of benefit to the government in a quite specific way: As army officers were among the main beneficiaries of privatization, it had effect of aligning their own personal financial interests with the survival of the government (Martinez 2000, 125). It would be difficult to determine how much this affected the government’s position, but it is likely that it played a role in helping the government consolidate its advantage against the insurgents and perhaps even in ensuring that a particularly hard-line stance was adopted against them. Still, it is important to note that liberalization, particularly in opening trade, also benefited the insurgents, who made use of import-export companies as additional revenue sources (Martinez 2000). Thus, although on the whole economic assistance and policy changes by the government likely worked in its favor, some doubt remains. A conservative analysis, and indeed a skeptical one, would suggest that external support, rather than being linked to the ability of either side to prevail, has been more related to the duration of the conflict and has prolonged it due to the financial benefits both sides have gained as a result of it. As Martinez (2000, 168) suggests:

This consolidation of the armed forces, due partly to the unconditional backing of Algeria’s international political and economic partners, nonetheless raises questions: does the continuation of the “eradicating” policy not conceal interests involved in a war economy that ensures a hegemonic role for the army and market openings in the private sector for the army’s patronage networks? In short, are the Islamist groups and the military not in the process of becoming “complementary enemies” finding in the violence of war the way to achieve their aspirations?

France also has played a large role in supporting the Algerian government during the conflict, providing extensive financial backing (Martinez 2000). Its aid to Algeria nearly doubled between 1990 and 1994, and because of the leading role it took in shaping European Union (EU) Algerian policy, Algeria received US $40 million in EU development aid in 1994, a fourfold increase from 1990. Particularly during the initial stages of the conflict, EU members stayed behind French support of the Algerian government, at least tacitly, despite the fact that this conflicted with the EU’s emphasis on democratization during the period (Olsen 1998). Finally, private companies investing in the hydrocarbon sector have provided additional revenues to the Algerian government. These companies have even taken part in the defense of their own assets by employing mercenaries. Having the industry protecting its own interests alleviates some of the government’s security burden (Martinez 2000 , 229-31).

Conflict Management Efforts

The Algerian civil war saw no conflict management efforts from either the international community or specific third parties. The Rome talks of 1994, probably the last attempt to achieve a political solution to the conflict, were not attended by the Algerian military and therefore failed to involve the principal player in the conflict. Particularly after the horrific massacres of the late 1990s, the international community, including the United Nations and the EU, expressed a desire to become involved in settling the conflict. However, the Algerian government firmly rejected any mediation efforts, including an offer extended by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in September 1997 (Olsen 1998) perhaps due to the prevalence of the “exterminator” viewpoint within it or because of interest groups that continued to benefit from the conflict.

The utter failure of mediation in the conflict suggests a point of note for research on peace settlements. Although in the Algerian case this appears to have entirely prevented the institution of negotiations, it may well be that interests in continued conflict, whether on the part of the insurgents or the government, end up undermining efforts at a negotiated settlement. This contrasts with a typical view taken in the literature on peace settlements that holds that failure to achieve a settlement is typically a commitment problem, and that means of overcoming this problem, such as third-party security guarantees, can be effective in obtaining and securing a peace settlement (for this view, see Walter 2002).


The Algerian civil war indicates several avenues of research worth pursuing to elaborate the dynamics of civil wars that are not adequately captured in the literature on civil wars, even though this literature informs a balanced understanding of the war itself. Analysts have neglected to address the interaction between the government’s forces and the insurgents as having a critical effect on the duration of the conflict. Although contraband financing, as in Fearon (2004), is likely to allow an insurgent organization to function for a longer period of time, the economic dynamics of the conflict in Algeria demonstrate that financial benefits accruing to the government may lead to strategies that prolong the conflict if parties within the government have financial interests in the conflict itself.

Second, the researchers must cast a wider empirical net in examining the financing of insurgent groups. Fearon (2004) notes that contraband financing of insurgent groups is associated with longer-lasting conflicts. Yet a binary coding of whether the insurgents made use of income from illicit sources (in Fearon, production or trafficking in narcotics or gems) is surely a blunt instrument. Such a coding misses the sources of income for insurgents not involved in contraband financing that may prove just as potent, or at least potent enough, in sustaining the insurgency. As Algeria illustrates, insurgents derived income by playing off of the structure of the economy using both licit and illicit trade and extorting rents from civilians. These tactics are not unique to the Algerian case. The complex role of the government in the Algerian war economy also underscores the obscure nature of the causal relationship of contraband financing to war duration. Rather than simply providing a source of income to insurgents, contraband may very well involve the government in profitable activities possible only under the conditions of conflict.

The role of diaspora support, cited as a potential factor in Collier et al. (2004), can also be drawn out in future empirical work. Fearon (2004) does not even address the issue of diaspora support for insurgent organizations. And, although Collier et al. attempt to estimate the role of diaspora support on conflict duration, albeit unsuccessfully due to lack of data, their operationalization of it is confined to co-nationals living abroad. Not only was the Algerian diaspora in Europe a source of funding for insurgent groups, but it appears that parties sympathetic to the insurgent groups, whether individuals or states, also played an important role in providing finances and perhaps even other support. The Islamist networks that may very well have been utilized by the Algerian insurgents suggest that external support and financing for insurgents should be investigated more broadly, and not confined in a strict sense to national diasporas. Instead, it is likely that communities of sympathizers abroad play an important role. Private, external support of the insurgents could then be operationalized as the presence of persons who sympathize with the insurgents and share their preferences for political change (Schulhofer-Wohl 2004). Attention to such detail would be instructive not only in uncovering the role of external support for insurgent organizations but also in casting light on the tactics of insurgents. Pursuing the idea of sympathetic communities financing the insurgents in Algeria, it may be that Algerian insurgents continued to use Islamist rhetoric and even modified the type and targets of violence they used in order to gain external supporters or to maintain current relationships.

Finally, the analysts’ emphasis of the Algerian civil war on the role of lucrative opportunities in a war economy in explaining the occurrence and duration of war underscore the need for a fully thought-out concept of opportunity costs in the context of war. Henderson (2005), in his study of mobilization of individuals in Connecticut during the American Revolution, develops the idea that individuals may have opportunities available to them through warfare that are unavailable in peacetime. Even though it may appear that the opportunity costs of war are high for these individuals because of relatively high levels of income or perhaps educational attainment, in fact the opportunities available through war that have no corollary in peacetime make war a desirable activity. In the Algerian civil war, unresolved puzzles relating to the opportunity costs of the participants remain. A theory like Henderson’s might help sort out why violence developed precisely when it did following the 1992 coup, and why and how the conflict has persisted, particularly after the disintegration of the large insurgent groups in the late 1990s.

Refining the characterization of opportunity costs, diasporal communities, and the dynamics of the interaction between governments and insurgents as it relates to duration may at times seem to be a rather arcane activity compared to the immediacy of an ongoing violence that has killed, scarred, and displaced a large segment of the population of Algeria. Yet it is instructive to remember that making such refinements would bring the means of preventing and quickly resolving civil wars one step closer to the hands of policy-makers. Each gradual improvement in the comparative understanding of civil wars advances the understanding of the Algerian civil war itself. Not only do analysts of Algeria owe this to Algerians, but it can empower Algerians by allowing them to make sense of and thereby build a future that leads away from an immeasurably damaging portion of their past.