Algeria Faces New Al-Qaida Threat

An al-Qaida-linked group claimed responsibility for deadly bombings in Algeria last month. The militants are hiding in mountains outside the capital and are dominated by a minority group that supports neither the government nor Islamic militants.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

A series of suicide bombings struck North Africa this spring, and that's led to fears that the bombings are a calling card for al-Qaida.

INSKEEP: The bombings took place in Morocco and in the country we'll visit next, Algeria. The army there is looking for terrorists in mountain forests outside the capital. Officials say the battle is going well, though local factors make the fight harder.

Here's NPR's Peter Kenyon.

PETER KENYON: Algeria has a history of sending its young men abroad to fight, only to find that when they return their new military skills are put to use in internal conflicts. Algerians who fought alongside their French colonial masters in World War II came home to lead the fight that finally ousted France from Algeria in 1962.

In the early 1990s, when civil war erupted between the army and Islamist insurgents, men who had learned to fight against the Russians in Afghanistan turned their weapons against their own government.

Now some fear that the war in Iraq may be instilling young Algerians with an al-Qaida-inspired willingness to blow themselves up in the cause of creating a fundamentalist Islamic state.

(Soundbite of explosions)

KENYON: This video posted on the Internet reports to show explosions that rocked Algiers on April 11th, leaving 30 dead and reawakening fears of a new round of violence. Since then security forces have launched a series of raids - killing or rounding up dozens of militants and seizing weapons. Mounir Boudjema, editor at Algeria's La Liberte newspaper, says the main target is the violent Salafist Group long known by the initials GSPC, which now calls itself al-Qaida in North Africa.

Mr. MOUNIR BOUDJEMA (Editor, La Liberte): (Through translator) We are in the logic of total war against terror, and therefore the army basically are striking, then trying to stop the recruitment of the young guys who are trying to join the GSPC. And the new method of the GSPC now is like - looks like really, really like al-Qaida.

KENYON: Boudjema says security services have developed intelligence capabilities that allow them to target individual leaders - avoiding the kind of full-scale confrontations that erupted in the 1990s. That view is endorsed by a Western diplomat who said the Algerians have captured both local and national Islamist commanders recently.

But the diplomat also said he doubts that the government really knows how many new Islamist recruits are out there.

(Soundbite of vehicle passing)

KENYON: Out there is in the hills east of Algiers, in the Kabylie region of this vast state. This is Berber country, home to a fiercely independent and secular people who hate radical Islam. It's extremely rare to see a woman here covered in the Islamic hijab and from time to time Berber militias have clashed with the Islamists.

But the Berbers have also risen up against the government and many people here can't decide whom they dislike more - the suicide bombers or the Algerian security forces.

(Soundbite of music)

KENYON: Instead of pictures of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, buildings here display pictures of the assassinated Berber nationalist singer Matoub Lounes. At a hole-in-a-wall cafe near the village of Beni Doula, villagers were contemptuous of both Bouteflika's promise of reform and his war against terror.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: Where's the peace? says one man. They're saying the terrorists - it's finish, it's over. What's going on?

From behind the counter, a man says it's not Bouteflika who's running the country, it's the generals and the mafia.

Another man interrupts to say there's a line in a song by Matoub Lounes, the famous singer; it goes: It's the regime who created the Islamists and it's the regime who gets rid of them.

That song lyric refers to the popular perception that the army's iron grip and the lack of economic opportunity here have alienated the public and provided a large pool of young unemployed potential recruits for the Islamists.

(Soundbite of car horn)

KENYON: When the government announced that 35 percent of voters took part in legislative elections earlier this month, that figure was greeted with hoots of derision on the streets of Belfort. This is a poor Algiers neighborhood, once known as home to young jihadis who fought in Afghanistan.

In a corner coffee shop, unemployed men crowd around to explain why they thought voting was a waste of time.

Kibar Hakim(ph), a tall man with heavy stubble around his jaw, said Algeria had squandered its hard-won independence by creating a government that stole the hope of the people.

Mr. KIBAR HAKIM: (Through translator) Me, I'm 50 years old. I'm a son of the (unintelligible) independence war - no children, no wife. You can see all the young people with no future. There's no future for this generation.

KENYON: Outside the cafe, Hakim's brother pulls a carefully preserved photograph from his wallet. It shows his father and his uncle posing proudly in uniform during the war for independence. He looks pained when asked what his father would think of today's combatants.

Mr. HAKIM: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: What he would say? He'd be asking God to make them stop this madness - killing babies, kidnapping women, blowing themselves up. This isn't right.

Shortly after the elections, a respected academic wrote that unless the government immediately restarts its stalled reform agenda, it risks a return to the widespread riots that broke out here in the late 1980s. Other analysts say they hope the situation isn't quite that urgent, but they say they can't be sure.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Algiers.

INSKEEP: Peter will continue across North Africa tomorrow, reporting from Morocco, where suicide bombings come as the country reaches out to the West for economic development.

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