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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Algeria politics: Al-Qaida debut


The newly rebranded Islamist underground in Algeria has carried out its first operations, involving the simultaneous detonation of seven car bombs just before dawn on February 13th outside police and gendarmerie facilities in two provinces to the east of the capital. The attacks, which left six people dead according to the Ministry of the Interior, followed the announcement last month of the formation of al-Qaida in the land of the Maghreb--a region encompassing Morocco, Mauritania, Tunisia and Libya, as well as Algeria--with the official blessing of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri, al-Qaida's founding fathers. The new organisation is a reincarnation of the Groupe salafiste pour la pr├ędication el le combat (GSPC), the only significant Islamist armed group still active in Algeria following the bloody civil conflict that reached its climax in the mid-1990s. A statement claiming responsibility for the attack in the name of al-Qaida in the Maghreb was monitored by international news agencies in Dubai.

The chief concern of Western powers is not so much the existence of a serious threat to stability in Algeria itself, but rather the prospect of disparate groups in North Africa and the Sahel region coming together under the al-Qaida banner and opening a new base of operations for Islamist terrorism. Mr Zawahri has hinted at such an outcome by calling for the GSPC to become "a bone in the throat of the American and French crusaders".

Last hurrah?

The government has sought to play down the significance of these attacks, and of similar operations in and around Algiers in December and October. State-owned newspapers reported the bombings on their inside pages, although the independent media gave the event more prominence. The interior minister, Yezid Zerhouni, claimed recently that the GSPC had lost some 800 of its membership since the referendum on the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation in September 2005, either through militants taking advantage of the amnesty on offer or as a result of actions by the security forces. He said that the resort to car bombs was a sign of weakness, and that the GSPC had been reduced to only a few hundred militants operating in the mountainous Kabylia region, where the latest car bomb attacks were carried out. His deputy, Dahou Ould Kablia, told a regional security conference in Tunis at the end of January that the government was not giving the GSPC's announcement of its affiliation to al-Qaida more importance that it deserved. "Al-Qaida ally or not, it is an organisation on its way to being eradicated," he said. "They could decide to attack a foreigner or what they consider to be their enemy, but this would be an isolated act, and we have taken the precautions necessary to prevent that happening."

The synchronised car bombs in Boumerd├Ęs and Tizi Ouzo provinces clearly indicated that GSPC/al-Qaida have the means and inclination to carry out multiple attacks, but this does not mean that the government's analysis of the level of threat posed by the group is entirely faulty. A number of Algerian commentators have noted that the attacks all occurred in a relatively small area, in which the GSPC has long been known to have the bulk of its forces. The explosives used in this attack and in the previous operations--targeting two police stations outside Algiers on October 29th and an attack on a bus carrying foreign oil contractors within the city on December 11th--have also been homemade, rather than industrial or military grade, and all of the operations have been carried out under the cover of darkness.

The most worrying of the operations from the point of view of the security services and Western allies of Algeria was the attack on the bus carrying contractors working for a local affiliate of Halliburton of the US. This attack appeared to be modelled on the roadside bombings that have become a major feature of the Iraqi insurgency, and it took place in a heavily policed part of the city. It was also the first time that the GSPC had chosen to attack foreigners. A few weeks later, Tunisian security forces claimed to have foiled plans by a group of Islamist militants, some of whom had infiltrated from Algeria, to attack a number of Western embassies and hotels in Tunis.

Al-Qaida connection

The adoption of al-Qaida's name is the culmination of a shift in GSPC's outlook since the emergence of Abdelmalek Droukdal (also known as Abu Musaab Abdelouadoud) as leader of the group in early 2004. His aspiration to link the group to the wider Islamist campaign as represented by al-Qaida is said to have been opposed by GSPC's founder Hassan Hattab, as a diversion from the primary goal of establishing an Islamic state in Algeria. A number of local newspapers have reported over the past two years that Mr Hattab has indicated that he is ready to turn himself in, but it is not clear whether the statements attributed to him are genuine or part of a disinformation campaign by the security services. Similar considerations apply to the spate of reports in the Algerian press at the end of December about conflict between Mr Droukdal and one of his deputies over the use of funds raised from protection rackets.

The portrait painted by the Algerian authorities is of the GSPC as a desperate and divided organisation, with most of its active members bottled up in Kabylia, and the remainder spread thinly through the Sahara desert in the deep south of Algeria and in the countries of the Sahel region. However, the symptoms that led to the rise of a formidable Islamist political movement in Algeria before its suppression by the military in the 1990s have by no means disappeared, despite the immensely improved economic position of the state thanks to buoyant oil and gas revenue and the appearance of a more settled political scene. The peace and reconciliation initiative of the president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, has brought a measure of relief, with more than 2,000 Islamist militants released from jail and compensation being paid to families of victims of state violence, but former Islamist activists have been excluded from taking part in public political life. Disaffection with the Algerian state and the enduring appeal of al-Qaida's call on true Muslims to resist the US and France are likely to ensure that Islamist violence will continue. The test for the Algerian authorites and their concerned Western allies will be to make sure that it is contained.
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