September 3, 2008 | Family Security Matters
Al Qaeda’s Surge in Algeria
Over the course of the last few weeks, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has undertaken a surge operation of its own, so to speak. As I reported more than a year ago, AQIM has its origins in Algeria’s Islamist insurgency of the 1990s, a conflict that left at least 200,000 people dead. And, as I noted four months ago, since the hardcore elements of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (usually known by its French acronym GSPC, Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat) formally pledged their allegiance to Osama bin Laden two years ago and rebranded their organization al Qaeda’s franchise in the subregion, it has been responsible a number of spectacular attacks, including the attempted assassination of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika one year ago this week and the bombing of the United Nations offices in downtown Algiers last December. However, with the recent spate of attacks the question arises as to whether or not what is being observed is not just heightened activity, but an altogether new phase in a broader insurgency targeting not just the Algerian government, but also other countries in the region and beyond.
The following is a partial list of attacks in Algeria carried out by AQIM in the course of the last month:
▪ On August 10th, a suicide bomber, driving a car packed with between 200 and 300 kilograms of explosives and screaming “Allahu akbar!” (“God is great”), slammed into a police security station outside a coast guard facility in the town of Zemmouri el-Bahri, east of Algiers. Eight people, six of them civilians, were killed, while 19 others were injured.
▪ Four days later, on August 14th, the district military commander in Jijel was killed in an ambush in the mountainous area about 350 kilometers east of Algiers.
▪ Just three days later, on August 17th, in Skikda (the former Philippeville), a port city and major petrochemical terminal in eastern Algeria, an armed group ambushed a police convoy, killing eight police officers, three soldiers, and a civilian, and injuring a dozen other policemen.
▪ On August 19th, another suicide bomber drove an explosives-laden car into a crowd of young people waiting outside to take the entrance examination at the police academy in Issers, about 55 kilometers east of the Algerian capital. Forty-eight people were killed and at least that many injured.
▪ The next day, August 20th, bombs went off nearly simultaneously just before dawn in the provincial capital of Bouïra, 90 kilometers southeast of Algiers. The first suicide bomber drove his vehicle into a local military command post before detonating it, wounding seven soldiers and one policeman. Fifteen minutes later, a second attacker detonated his car bomb alongside a bus taking on passengers outside a hotel, killing 12 people and injuring at least two dozen others. The bus was carrying employees of the SNC-Lavalin Group, a Canadian engineering and construction firm based in Montreal, who were working on a water treatment project in nearby Koudiat Acerdoune.
▪ Less than a week later, on August 26th, one roadside bomb exploded, seriously injuring a trucker, while three others were discovered and defused outside the provincial capital of Boumerdès, 50 kilometers east of Algiers. The next day, two bombs went off in two outlying villages. The first detonated prematurely in Naciria, killing the terrorist who was carrying it to its destination. The second, an improvised explosive device (IED), exploded as a police patrol passed in Souk el-Hed, albeit fortunately causing no casualties.
▪ One day later, on August 27th, government forces were engaged in gun battle by militants who had set up a fake military checkpoint on a road leading through the hill country of Batna province (wilayah), 450 kilometers southeast of the Algerian capital. Five soldiers and two police officers were killed and at least a dozen wounded.
▪ A soldier was killed by a remotely detonated bomb the same day in Aïn Defla, 160 kilometers west of Algiers.
▪ On August 28th, a group of extremists, disguised as police officers, raided a bar in the town of Boghni in Tizi Ouzou province, about 120 kilometers east of the Algerian capital, robbing the patrons at gunpoint. When the identification papers in the wallet of one of them revealed him to be a prison guard, the militants beheaded him. Another patron, an Algerian-born emigrant, was kidnapped, presumably to be held for ransom.
▪ A overall bloody month closed last Sunday, August 31st, with a roadside bombing near Tebessa, 370 kilometers east of Algiers, which killed a businessman and a police officer.
Having been down this bitter path of escalating terrorist violence less than a decade ago, the Algerian government of has responded forcefully to the attacks. At an August 25th press conference. Communications Minister Abderrachid Boukerzaza declared that “victory over terrorism…will be hastened by mobilizing everyone into a strong national front against the scourge of terrorism which is foreign to our values and which spares no one.” The government spokesman also asserted that the terrorists were “criminals in the employ of foreign terrorist organizations” whose suicide attacks “prove that they are cornered by our armed forces.”
While whether AQIM is actually cornered or not might debatable, there is no doubt that Algiers has responded vigorously. Recent counterterrorism operations have scored some successes, include the following:
▪ In early August, acting on intelligence that a number of AQIM leaders were in Tizi Ouzou, the Algerian military deployed more than 2,500 specially-trained troops to the province. In coordinated operations around Beni Douala on August 8th, the army killed more than a dozen AQIM members, including several commanders.
▪ On August 24th, the Algerian army surrounded and killed ten militants near the town of Tarek Ibn Ziad, in the province of Aïn Defla. Following the operation, soldiers recovered five Kalashnikov automatic submachine guns, four semiautomatic rifles, and a grenade launcher.
▪ On August 25th, a strike by the Algerian air force on an encampment near Skikda took out four militants.
▪ Following the Boumerdès bombings, an army sweep of the region led to the killing of two other militants.
▪ On August 30th, three militants were ambushed and killed by the army in the Lakhdaria Hills in Bouïra province.
Furthermore, in an attempt to secure its frontiers against both terrorist infiltration and criminal networks in Africa – both of whom, as I noted in this column earlier this year, have been “largely forced to find their own funding sources as well as obtain their own documents, transport routes, and safe houses, while perhaps still looking the erstwhile central leadership for inspiration” and this found “the boundaries between criminality and ideological extremism have blurred as operatives seek alliances of convenience” – the Algerian government adopted legislation last month authorizing the establishment of 85 new security posts along its 6,343 kilometers of land borders to be manned by specially trained units which integrate both police and customs functions. Helicopter patrols will also be increased along desert stretches. (The need for better control of the borders is illustrated by the case of two Austrian tourists, Andrea Kloiber and Wolfgang Ebner, who were kidnapped by AQIM while vacationing in Tunisia in February; according to reports in the Algerian press last weekend, the couple is thought to be held in the Oued Zouak area where the borders of Algeria, Mali, and Niger meet – more than 1,000 kilometers from where they were kidnapped. The Austrian government, unfortunately, has made the ill-advised decision to pay the terrorists over $7 million in ransom for their release.) The Algerian government also announced this week ambitious plans to recruit and train 80,000 new police officers by the end of the year in order to beef up neighborhood policing.
The recent affirmations of the Algerian government’s resolve in the face of the challenge presented by the Islamist militants and the reports of some initial successes are, of course, welcome news. However, there is also no denying that the fight has significantly escalated. In an interview last month, Dr. Luis Martinez, director of research at the Center for International Studies and Research (CERI) at the elite Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po) in Paris and an expert on violence in Algeria, ascribed the escalation to the affiliation of the former GSPC with al-Qaeda:
Previously, suicide attacks, which are the trademark of al-Qaeda, were nonexistent in Algeria. In the last two years, they have appeared as a new means of action. It is a way to hit hard with limited means and this means of warfare tends to increase. Another important evolution: the Algerian terrorists have been professionalized. In the 1990s, they consisted have enthusiastic, but disorganized, radical youth. Today, they appear hardened, notably because the al-Qaeda network has…taken [them] under its mantle.
As AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdal admitted in a July interview with the New York Times, the then-GSPC was faltering when, in 2004 or 2005, he reached out to al Qaeda through the terror network’s then leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Being subsequently acknowledged by Usama bin Laden’s deputy, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, as an affiliate of al-Qaeda was a turning point for the Algerian extremists who renamed themselves “al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” (Qaedat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Maghrib al-Islami) in conscious imitation of Zarqawi’s Iraqi franchise operation, “al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia” (Qaedat al-Jihad fi Bilad ak-Rafidain). Not only did the al Qaeda brand name allow Droukdal and his lieutenants to shed some of the opprobrium which, since the massive atrocities of the 1990s had attached to Algerian Islamist militants, and to raise money among al Qaeda’s financing networks in the Arabia, but it also helped with their recruitment efforts, especially with Algerian youth who would otherwise have been attracted to join jihadist groups in more “high profile” conflicts elsewhere. AQIM thus also became a point of reference for Algerian militants who trained or fought in Iraq, but who have filtered back to North Africa following the success of the United States troop surge over the course of the last year (previously, U.S. military sources reported that some 20 percent of suicide bombers in Iraq were Algerian). Furthermore, as Droukdal told the Times, AQIM has also expanded its reach, drawing “a considerable number of Mauritanians, Libyans, Moroccans, Tunisians, Malians, and Nigerians.”
And just as al Qaeda has reconstituted itself in the border regions of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas and its North-West Frontier Province, places where the writ of the central government in Islamabad is virtually non-existent, AQIM has exploited the vast ungoverned spaces of the Sahara Desert and the Sahel belt to establish training camps, bases, and support networks in Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia, and other North African states. Just last week, Moroccan authorities broke up a network with cells operating in several cities which linked a local group, Fath al-Andalus (“conquest of Andalusia”), with “foreign extremists who have pledged allegiance to the al-Qaeda organization” – an apparent reference to AQIM. (For more on the Islamist challenge in Morocco, see my August 7 column.) In fact, the U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2007, released April 30, 2008, singled out the Pakistani tribal areas and North Africa as the top two hot spots in its strategic assessment, noting with regard to Algeria that:
The most alarming trend was the evolution of tactics to include the use of suicide bombers to conduct attacks in Algeria. We have witnessed a shift in Algeria to tactics that have been successfully employed by insurgents and terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan. The use of suicide car bombs, suicide vests, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by Algerian terrorists indicated a greater level of cooperation and training by AQIM. Of greater concern was the degree that AQIM consistently changed its profile throughout the year… The proliferation of tactics used in Iraq has had a profound effect on the level of organization and sophistication employed by the terrorists in Algeria.
This analysis accords with that of leading European observers. Ali Laïdi, a research fellow at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) in Paris, has argued that the leadership of al Qaeda will encourage AQIM to step up its operations in order to “compensate for the lost of the Iraqi front.” Louis Caprioli, a former official with the French domestic intelligence and counterterrorism agency, the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST), has noted that AQIM has “moved beyond its purely national environment and attempted to confer an international dimension to its struggle in order to legitimize the massacres it commits within the context of a global jihad.”
In fact, while there is some truth in the fact that weakness prompted the former GSPC to subordinate itself to the leadership of al Qaeda, one should not forget the example of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Egyptian Jihad Organization (Tanzim al-Jihad) which, after the failure of its attempted insurgency against the government of President Hosni Mubarak, “the near enemy,” revised its strategic vision to target the United States as the “far enemy” which propped up the “apostate regime” it was fighting. Thus, after being effectively defeated in the mid-1990s, Zawahiri’s group sought out transnational ties which eventually led to its merger with Usama bin Laden’s nascent al-Qaeda and the conflagration that followed. Therefore, unless totally rooted out, a weakened AQIM may still pose a significant threat to domestic and international security.
Consequently, the threat posed by AQIM extends beyond the challenge it presents to Algerian government forces. In February 2008 testimony before the Select Committee on Intelligence of the U.S. Senate, the Director of National Intelligence, Vice Admiral Mike McConnell, gave a sobering assessment of the group:
We assess it represents a significant threat to US and European interests in the region. AQIM has continued to focus primarily on Algerian Government targets, but since its merger with al-Qaeda in September 2006, the group has expanded its target set to include U.S., UN, and other interests. AQIM likely got a further boost when the al-Qaeda central leadership announced last November that the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group united with al-Qaeda under AQIM’s leadership…Improvements in AQIM’s use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) suggest the group is acquiring knowledge transmitted from extremists in Iraq.
AQIM traditionally has operated in Algeria and northern Mali and has recruited and trained an unknown, but probably small, number of extremists from Tunisia, Morocco, Nigeria, Mauritania, Libya, and other countries. Although the degree of control that AQIM maintains over former trainees is unclear, [the Intelligence Community] assesses some of these trainees may have returned to their home countries to plot attacks against local and Western interests.
Consider that Algeria currently supplies Europe with approximately 15% of the continent’s natural gas consumption and is also an important petroleum producer, pumping about 1.46 million barrels of oil daily. With recent Russian actions underscoring Europe’s dependence on imported energy, any disruption of the Algerian hydrocarbon exports would have a devastating impact on European economies. (During the first six months of this year, Algeria also exported a monthly average of 16.24 million barrels of oil to the United States, making it America’s seventh most important foreign supplier.) Algeria will become even more important for Europe’s energy security as the Trans-Sahara Gas Pipeline, which is supposed to bring Nigerian production to the shores of the Mediterranean at Algerian terminals by 2015, comes online. And, as Gavin Proudley, the chief of intelligence at Quest, a London-based international business consultancy, told the Financial Times this week, “it takes very little in terms of resources and people for an armed group to make a huge impact” on this supply chain.
Moreover, while the primary center of AQIM’s recent activities seems to be in the hilly areas to the east of Algiers, its reach is felt not only in the rest of the country, but also among the extensive Algerian diaspora communities in Europe where, according to European intelligence sources, it has been reactivating a number of cells of the GSPC’s predecessor, the Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Armé, GIA), for fundraising and recruitment as well as possible terrorist attacks. Just this past June, Spanish authorities arrested eight AQIM members, all Algerian born, in raids in Barcelona, Pamplona, and in the Valencian province of Castellón. Ten other people were also detained as accomplices to the main cell members. During the raids, authorities seized 7,000 euros, evidence of multiple money transfers to Algeria, and assorted documents relating to the extremist activity. A similar AQIM cell was smashed last December by French authorities, who arrested eight suspects. A few years ago, according to media reports, French domestic intelligence estimated that the group had some 5,000 active sympathizers in France centered around 500 individuals who were deemed “hardcore.” In testimony before a European Parliament committee last November, Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s counterterrorism coordinator, noted that AQIM had “embraced international terrorism and represents a clear menace to Europe, especially considering the geographical proximity between Europe and the Maghreb.” And, of course, once militants associated with AQIM enter Europe, especially if they possess or acquire European Union (EU) passports, they have virtually unlimited access to the rest of the world.
What, then, is to be done?
In the short term, while the Algerian government has taken some firm measures, it also needs to increase its cooperation with European and American counterterrorism efforts. While, given the history of its struggle for independence, it is not surprising that Algiers might be reluctant to be seen as too closely aligned with Western countries, much less their intelligence agencies, but in the current situation, information-sharing and other collaboration is essential. There have been a few joint training exercises between U.S. Special Forces and the Algerian army and Algeria is a participant in the U.S.-led Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Program (TSCTP), on which I reported last year. The State Department’s fiscal year 2009 budget includes very modest requests for $800,000 for international military education and training (IMET) for Algerian personnel and $500,000 for nonproliferation, antiterrorism, demining, and related programs (NADR). Given such paltry offerings – especially when contrasted with the blandishments offered by countries like Russia which, as I reported two weeks ago, has offered Algeria a $7.5 billion arms deal in combination with a $4.7 billion debt write-off – it is no wonder that President Bouteflika has not exactly rushed into an open antiterrorism alliance with the West, a move which risks discrediting his government in the eyes of large segments of its population while bringing it little in return.
In the long run, however, more than military and intelligence cooperation is required if AQIM is to be effectively countered. Dr. Mathieu Guibère of the University of Geneva, author of the recent book Al-Qaïda à la conquête du Maghreb: Le terrorisme aux portes de l’Europe, noted correctly in an interview with the magazine Paris Match two weeks ago that “a purely security response is not enough” because “the causes of the violence run deep” in the fact that “the majority of youth remain discontented with the record of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika…[and] a political economy managed in such a way that the petroleum revenues do not always benefit the population.” And while it is unlikely that AQIM has the wherewithal to actually succeed in toppling the Algerian government, it can certainly cause serious disruption. While Algeria has stabilized significantly under the Bouteflika presidency, Dr. John P. Entelis of Fordham University, one of America’s leading experts on the country, has remarked that officials’ “claim that Algeria’s democratic transition is moving forward on a step-by-step basis…remain hollow.” Certainly maneuvers by Ahmed Ouyahia, who was appointed Algeria’s prime minister for the third time in late June (he had previously served in that capacity 1995 to 1998 under President Liamine Zéroual and again from 2003 to 2006 under the present incumbent), aimed at amending the constitution to allow President Bouteflika to run for a third term when his current term expires next year strengthen the current head of state’s personal power at the expense of stable – to say nothing of democratic – political institutions. As Dr. Entelis argued in an article earlier this year published by the journal Middle East Policy, because of France’s complex and controversial relationship with its former colony, “the only possible actor that can nudge the process forward in a potentially decisive way is the United States.” Unfortunately, he also observed, “for a range of geostrategic and energy-related reasons, Washington has remained relatively silent regarding Algeria’s inchoate democratic status.”
Be it as it may, it should not be forgotten that, whatever the proximate political and social factors motivating its individual members, AQIM is a group whose corporate identity is now profoundly shaped by its adhesion to al Qaeda’s Islamist worldview. If the last month has been marked by a surge on the part of the al-Qaeda franchise in Algeria which dramatically increased the level of its terrorist activity, one can only wonder what attacks the group might have planned for Ramadan, Islam’s holiest month, which began at sundown last Sunday – classical Islamic jurisprudence, after all, assigns greater value to meritorious actions (mandub) undertaken during the annual fast and, for the adepts of the jihadist ideology, there are no good deeds like violent ones in furtherance of their cause. In any case, both the rhetoric of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and threat it poses are likely to continue their global expansion.
-J. Peter Pham is fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies