The Kabyle Berbers

When UK Prime Minister David Cameron stood before Parliament in London and announced a “generational struggle” against Islamic terrorism, he unwittingly tied the future of his country with that of a little known people of northeastern Algeria – the Kabyle Berbers. Speaking in the wake of the Algerian hostage crisis at a gas plant in which over eighty people were killed, he mobilised the international community to confront al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an organisation founded by a Kabyle and based in the mountainous Kabylie region. Cameron had elevated these mountain tribes, in the eyes of Europe and the West, to an existential threat to their way of life.

Yet, his grandiose rhetoric of a great battle against “Islamists” and “jihadists” only serves to further cloud the history of the Kabyle people and their struggles against the Algerian centre. Today, the world remains in a state of ignorance about the Kabyle. This ignorance has consequences, as not only is it impossible to comprehend Algeria and its history without understanding the Kabyle and their relationship with central authority, but it is also impossible to make any sense of the US-led war on terror in North Africa.

Resistance to assimilation and colonialism

The roots of the current crisis in Kabylie lie in Algeria’s history and the Kabyle struggle to preserve their identity and independence. The Kabyle, who constitute 10 percent of Algeria’s population and approximately two-thirds of Algerians who self-identify as Amazigh, or Berbers, are an assortment of tribes with a heritage stretching back thousands of years. Divided into various clans tracing descent from common ancestors, the Kabyle live by a code of honour with its notions of hospitality and revenge. When the Arabs arrived in the area after the coming of Islam, they found it impossible to penetrate the eastern mountains. The people they encountered came to be known as Kabyle, derived from the Arabic term for “tribe”. Though the Kabyle largely became Muslim, they resisted the kind of assimilation experienced by the Berbers of surrounding areas who came to adopt an Arab identity.

With the advent of French colonisation beginning in 1830, the Kabyle came under central rule for the first time. The French colonial policy in Algeria was one of military conquest to make way for French settlement, posting one third of their entire army there and instituting what was called the régime du sabre, or “government of the sword”.

The stiffest resistance came from the Kabyle. In response, the French perpetuated massacres, which included two incidents in 1845 where the French set fires at the entrances to caves in which Kabyle were hiding, killing 800 and then 500 by asphyxiation. Witnesses recorded a grisly scene including the corpses of infants still clinging to their dead mothers’ breasts. The first forty years of French rule saw the deaths of 2 million of Algeria’s 3 million people.

In 1945, on the day that France celebrated the surrender of Germany in World War II, tribesmen in the Kabyle town of Setif demonstrated for independence and were met with a ferocious French crackdown in which 45,000 people (perhaps as many as 90,000) were killed.

French actions in places like Setif helped instigate the war of Algerian independence. Between 1954 and 1962, between 1 million and 1.5 million people were killed and two million imprisoned in concentration camps. The Kabyle, who lost 10 percent of their population during the war, formed a critical part of the resistance.

A united Algeria divided

Independence brought rejoicing across Algeria as the country charted a new course of freedom. Yet the Kabyle were horrified when Algeria’s first president, Ahmed Ben Bella, returned from imprisonment in France to declare three times in succession “We are Arabs!” The new Algerian government, ruled by the military elite, forbade the use of the Berber language in the media, schools, and government offices and banned Berber names for children. Berber leaders were arrested and killed.

The Kabyle soon found themselves fighting the very government they had helped make possible, with a rebellion breaking out the year after independence. In 1980 massive protests known as the Berber Spring followed the banning of a lecture on Kabyle poetry by a Kabyle academic. In 1982 a rebellion broke out led by Mustafa Bouyali, a Kabyle leader in the independence war against France, following the shooting death of his brother in view of his brother’s children. For five years, Bouyali’s Armed Islamic Movement (MIA) waged an insurgency until he was killed.

In 1988 students rioted across the nation, demanding reform. In what became known as Black October, security forces fired on protesters, killing 500 people and arresting 3,500. Outraged, two of Bouyali’s associates created the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which sought to compete in elections the Algerian military was under pressure by the West to hold.

When it appeared the FIS would win the election in 1992, the military nullified the vote and declared martial law. Several groups led by men who were associated with Bouyali then launched an insurgency, leading to a civil war which killed as many as 250,000 people. In protest of the wanton killing of civilians by insurgents, Hassan Hattab, a Kabyle, formed a new organisation, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) in 1998, which would refer to its fighters as “saplings” of Bouyali.

The Kabyle population was caught between the government – which used tactics of gang rape and torture, including ripping out nails and opening legs and stomachs with drills – and vicious insurgent attacks. Reports soon appeared in the international press indicating that the government had massacred whole villages and blamed “terrorists”. In the midst of the brutal violence, the government strengthened Arabisation policies making Arabic the only official language and prohibiting Amazigh.

In April 2001 Massinissa Guermah, a 19-year-old Kabyle student, was arrested in the town of Beni Douala and shot dead while in police custody. The ensuing uprising, in which as many as 200 people were killed and 5,000 injured, became known as the Black Spring. In June 2001, a Kabyle organisation advocating the revival of traditional councils of tribal elders as a locally-based solution to the region’s problems staged a protest in Algiers involving half a million people, Algeria’s largest since independence.

After the 9/11 attacks, the United States entered into a new alliance with the Algerian military government, and the GSPC was declared a terrorist group by the US. The US stationed Special Forces in Algeria, with an eye on the vast Sahel region in the south, where some GSPC operatives had married into local Tuareg Berber tribes and were kidnapping Westerners.

In 2007, the GSPC changed its name to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and stepped up its fight against the government in and around the Kabyle mountains. Deadly strikes included a December 2007 suicide bombing of UN headquarters in Algiers that killed 37 people and an August 2008 suicide attack on a police academy in Issers in Kabylie that killed 43 people. After a July 2010 suicide bombing that killed thirty-six Algerian soldiers, AQIM announced it had targeted the soldiers “in revenge for the deaths of our Kabylie brothers and children” in Beni Douala, where Massinissa Guermah was killed.

Preserving their identity

Kabylie’s low levels of development only exacerbate the misery of the population. In the Kabyle province of Boumerdes, at least 107 development projects registered for several years have not begun while 400 others have experienced significant delays. There are dire water shortages and many villages are not connected to natural gas supplies, leading to much suffering in the harsh mountain winters.

These frustrations contributed to the eruption of the Kabyle areas in protest in 2011. Much of the activity associated with the “Arab Spring” in Algeria was by Berbers and included self-immolations. Kabylie has the highest suicide rate in Algeria, with the Canadian magazine ?L’actualité reporting in 2012 that not a day goes by in the region without a case of self-inflicted death by hanging.

Kabylie remains plagued by insecurity. Kidnapping is rife, with over 70 businessman kidnapped in Kabylie in 2012, leading to the departure of desperately needed investment. The numerous recent attacks include a January 2013 strike on a gas pipeline in Kabylie that killed three guards.

The dominant thinking among the Kabyle, many of whom have boycotted the political system in recent years, is to advocate for some form of autonomy, whereby the Kabyle can preserve their identity and better benefit from their natural resources while remaining part of Algeria. Proposals incorporating aspects of autonomy and federalism form the platforms of political movements including the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) and the Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylie (MAK).

The importance of preserving Kabyle identity and achieving cultural autonomy is displayed by the mass outpouring of grief at the recent death of the Kabyle film director Abderrahmane Bouguermouh. On February 5, 2013, thousands of people solemnly marched beneath snow-capped peaks through the streets of Ouzellaguen, in the Kabylie region, to pay their final respects. Bouguermouh’s crowning achievement was La Colline Oubliée (The Forgotten Hill), which he finally released in 1996 after trying to produce it for three decades. It was Algeria’s first Berber language film, based on a classic Kabyle novel about the lives of ordinary villagers struggling to preserve their way of life during a period of rapid change in the colonial-era 1940s. He was beloved by his people as a champion of their culture.

To resolve the simmering conflict between centre and periphery, the Algerian government must accommodate its own citizens and extend to the Kabyle their full civil and human rights, including recognition of their language and culture. The US, UK, and other Western powers fighting the war on terror should encourage Algeria to take these crucial steps. It is clear from the past two centuries of history that a heavy-handed “military solution” in Kabylie is doomed to failure and only results in greater suffering and instability.

All parties should take the discussion about autonomy seriously. Autonomy does not have to mean a weak and divided Algeria but can make it stronger, encourage economic development, and point the way to lasting peace.

The implementation of justice, human rights, democracy, and pluralism are crucial to ending the scourge of terrorism and building a safe, secure Algeria. Such policies are also in the spirit of Islamic compassion, which the Berbers have so often been denied. For the Kabyle people, who have endured the most horrific of abuses and denial of their identity and humanity, the time for change is now.

This article is based on research for Akbar Ahmed’s book The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a War on Tribal Islam, to be published in March by Brookings Institution Press.

Frankie Martin, an Ibn Khaldun Chair Research Fellow at American University’s School of International Service, conducted research for The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War On Tribal Islam by Ambassador Akbar Ahmed and is currently pursuing postgraduate studies at the University of Cambridge. 

Professor Akbar Ahmed is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, DC, the former Pakistani High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow with Brookings Institution.