In October, 1988, the most serious riots in Algeria since independence in 1962 broke out. The rioters were members of the young urban poor in a country where 24 million were under the age of fifteen (40% of the population), where the urban population was more than 50% of the total population, and where the unemployment rate was in excess of 18.1%. (See Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2002), 159)
On March 10, 1989, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was formed from a coalition of leaders including the more moderate Abassi Madani and the radical firebrand preacher Ali Benhadj among whose supporters were veteran mujahideen ("jihad fighters") from the 1980s war in Afghanistan. The FIS emerged to challenge the National Liberation Front (FLN), which had dominated Algerian politics since independence in 1962.
Radical Islamists had begun to make their mark on Algeria as early as 1982. Their leader was Mustafa Bouyali, born in 1940, who had fought in the war of independence. He supported a war of jihad to uproot the regime and inaugurate an Islamic state ruled according to sharia law. Ali Benhadj became one of Bouyali's most prominent disciples.
Madani and Benhadj were both charged with sedition and jailed on June 30, 1991 because they had led a general strike that month. They remained jailed throughout the civil war and were released on July 2, 2003 (however, they were banned from all political activity).
In January 1992, alarmed by the success of the Islamic revivalist "Islamic Salvation Front" (FIS) in elections the previous month, the Algerian army forced President Chadli Bendjedid to resign and canceled a second round of elections scheduled for January 13. Chadli was succeeded by Mohammed Boudiaf. Algeria began its descent into civil war as violence between the FIS and government forces escalated. Shortly after this time, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) emerged as one of the most extreme factions. By 1995, 30,000 had perished. Boudiaf himself had been slain on June 29, 1992 by an alleged FIS assassin. He was succeeded by army officer Liamine Zeroual.
By 1997, the organized jihad in Algeria had disintegrated into criminal thuggery. Massacres of civilians were carried out during Ramadan (January-February) by axe wielding assassins who also slit the throats of their victims.
On January 3, 1998, the Associated Press reported the worst single massacre of civilians in the six year struggle between Islamist militants and government forces in Algeria. Gangs dressed in baggy Afghan-style pants (many of them reportedly fought in the Afghan war against Soviet occupation) and armed with axes, hoes, and knives slaughtered 412 peasants in four western villages near the town of Relizane, 180 miles west of Algiers. The massacre started at sunset just as the inhabitants were ending their daily Ramadan fast. The killers slit the throats of victims, cut off their heads, and bashed children to death against walls.
By June, 1999, more than 100,000 had died in the civil war which in recent years had intensified during the holy month of Ramadan, a time when militants traditionally escalated what they regarded as their jihad. (background)
One of the most effective resistance groups was the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which broke away from the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in 1996. GSPC was responsible for kidnapping a group of European tourists and holding them hostage in the Sahara for a period of weeks in the spring of 2003. Their leader was a veteran of the jihad in Afghanistan named Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
By early 2004, the situation in Algeria had improved considerably. Security in and around the capital was much better, although attacks were continuing in other areas. Economic growth at 6% was reported for 2003, a figure that economists were predicting would be repeated in 2004. (New York Times, Feb. 16, 2004) On April 8, President Bouteflika, credited with putting down the uprising which had cost more than 100,000 Algerian lives, won reelection by a margin of 83% in polls which Western diplomatic observers credited as being the fairest since multiparty elections began in Algeria in 1989 (BBC, April 9, 2004).
By early 2007, however, there were signs of renewed activity on the part of the Algerian GSPC (see above) which had reorganized itself as a branch of al-Qaeda and had pulled off a pair of car bombings in mid February. This branch, calling itself the Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb (more on this group from the BBC), struck again in April, 2007 with a double bombing in Algiers that killed at least 17. Bombings continued throughout 2007. Two bombs on December 11 killed at least 26 in the capital. The same pattern of rising militancy could be seen elsewhere across North Africa, too, notably in Morocco.
On August 19, 2008, a suicide car bomb attack resulted in at least 43 deaths at a police academy near the Algerian capital, and the following day, eleven more were killed in twin car bomb attacks in Bouira.