Algeria’s Hirak movement has persisted since its launch in February 2019. From large urban cities to rural towns, the peaceful movement mobilized Algerian citizens throughout the country. Although some analysts feared that the popular social movement would result in a return to violence and create space within the country for violent extremists, the movement has exhibited a strong aversion to extremist groups. Thus, these fears have been largely unfounded, as protestors actively reject groups like the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which participated in the country’s decade-long civil war (1992-2002). 

The GIA was a Salafi-Jihadist organization that engaged in open warfare with the Algerian government and eventually Algerian society during the country’s civil war. The GIA’s defeat during the civil war and the contemporary Hirak movement’s aversion to extremist organizations can be linked to the GIA’s attacks on civilians and its campaign of kidnapping, sexual violence, and forced domestic servitude. 

Photo Courtesy of LePoint

When scholars discuss Algerian citizens’ aversion to groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, they situate the conversation in the number of deaths during the black decade. The organization’s unrestrained violence against civilians led to the group’s defeat and to members defecting into what is now al-Qaeda. Although Algerian citizens point to the legacy of the Armed Islamic Group’s (GIA) violence, these killings are not the only reason al-Qaeda and the like are not welcome in Algeria.

The stories of Algerian women subjected to organized sexual violence are infrequently discussed and primarily lost. A discussion of the GIA’s sexual violence is often absent from the framing of the country’s inoculation to terrorism. The erasure of this history reflects a lack of nuance in how terrorist groups are often studied. 

Therefore, delving into the history of the GIA requires uplifting the stories of women victimized by the group through its systematized sexual slavery in the mountainous hinterlands of Algeria. Revisiting this history also rejects the novelty assigned to other violent extremist organizations’ violence against women and shows a continuity of gender-based violence. 

Although ISIS has frequently been credited with being the first Salafi-jihadist terrorist organization to declare a caliphate (Islamic State), the GIA declared a caliphate nearly 20 years before ISIS in August of 1993. Furthermore, ISIS is frequently credited with setting the precedence for a Salafi-jihadist group institutionalizing sexual slavery

Although ISIS’ system of sexual slavery was innovative and highly bureaucratic, the GIA’s use of summer marriages predated the so-called Islamic State by two decades. During the civil war, the Algerian military pushed the GIA and other extremist groups out of the cities and into the hinterlands. Once in the hinterlands, young Algerian men who made up the majority of the GIA and similar groups experienced extreme frustration because of their repeated defeats. 

In their book, Algeria Anger of the Dispossessed, Martin Evans and John Phillips argue that “the armed groups, as male societies based on the cult of the strong, were under constant pressure to assert themselves as fighting men.” Evans and Phillips argue that young men broken by defeat expressed their masculinity by kidnapping women as young as fifteen. Kidnapped women were raped, forced into temporary marriages, and compelled to engage in domestic servitude. These women were considered to be “Sabayas,” parts of the spoils of war. 

It is difficult to know the exact number of victims, as many refuse to speak about their experiences, risking the shame within Muslim Algerian society, which came with being raped. From 1993 to 1997, fundamentalists battling the Algerian state abducted thousands of women.  Five thousand rapes were reported, including those that occurred during organized massacres. 

Human rights groups estimate that hundreds or even thousands of women were raped and sold into marriage, although very little reporting was devoted to the issue. The GIA systematically planned and theologically justified the rapes. The group’s emir and commanders assaulted the women before passing them on to other fighters. This process is eerily similar to Yazidi activist and survivor Nadia al Mansour’s telling of the sexual crimes of ISIS members in her book.  

Although there are several similarities between the GIA and ISIS’ use of sexual violence against women and girls, there are significant differences in their treatment. There is very little documentation of the GIA’s gender-based violence in Algeria during the black decade, especially in English. There is much more documentation of the stories of survivors of ISIS’s sexual violence and the group’s corresponding institutions, bureaucracies, and theological underpinnings that sanctioned it systematized sexual slavery. Furthermore, there are instances of ISIS members being tried in judicial proceedings as a result of these human rights abuses. However, there are still difficulties in prosecuting ISIS members for war crimes and human rights abuses. 

Yet, these successes, although limited, are likely a result of increased attention due to the global war on terrorism and increased visibility of crimes due to advances in social communications technology in a more connected world. Therefore, current geopolitical conditions likely account for the discrepancy between records of the GIA and ISIS gender-based violence. 

Thus, when interrogating the lack of recorded history and contemporary treatment of survivors of gender-based violence during the Algerian civil war, several issues arise. The international community must do more to support survivors of gender-based violence at the hand of violent extremists. This may facilitate the conditions that support survivors who want to tell their stories and who demand accountability.

Second, it is vital that we responsibly discuss how terrorism and human trafficking intersect (both sex and labor/domestic servitude). A nuanced conversation may prevent the securitization of human rights issues while addressing the root causes and precarity that undergird vulnerability to trafficking and recruitment into terrorist organizations. 

Finally, we must continue to examine how organized sexual violence, masculinity, systems of sexual rewards, assigned gender roles during conflict, and societal dynamics may contribute to the erasure of survivors’ stories and the persistence of sexual violence against women. Increased understanding and support for survivors may significantly reduce the difficulty of enforcing international laws and protecting human rights during conflict. 

Sammie Wicks has a MA in International Security from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He has ten years of law enforcement experience, focusing on crisis intervention, mental health, community engagement, and targeted violence prevention. He serves on the board of a nonprofit focussed on combatting human trafficking and has experience as a human trafficking task force member focused on data and research. He has spent time in the MENA region studying and attending international conferences. His research interests include transnational organized crime in diaspora communities, violent social movement organizations, and human trafficking in the Sahel and Maghreb.