Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images
The GSPC, formerly known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, claimed this April 26, 2007, attack on the National Gendarmerie, about 40 miles east of Algiers.
The GSPC, formerly known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, claimed this April 26, 2007, attack on the National Gendarmerie, about 40 miles east of Algiers. Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images
Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images
Algerian Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni speaks to media during a press conference Dec. 11, 2007, in Algiers. Bomb attacks killed 62 people across Algiers that day.
Algerian Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni speaks to media during a press conference Dec. 11, 2007, in Algiers. Bomb attacks killed 62 people across Algiers that day. Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images
In the five years since deadly bomb attacks in Morocco announced al-Qaida's intention to create a new, North African front in its campaign of terror, governments in Morocco, Tunisia and Libya have, to varying degrees, contained or subdued their Islamist militants.
In Algeria, however, the situation is more complicated. There, the military's long-running battle against Islamists shows no sign of ending soon, even though there is doubt about how much Algeria's insurgents have benefited from their alliance with al-Qaida.
Algeria for years has said next to nothing about how many Islamist fighters are still trying to topple the government. But last month, Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni appeared before reporters to assert that fewer than 300 terrorists remained at large.
The announcement appeared to be a response to a flurry of attention paid to the group calling itself al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, formerly known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC).
From Insurgency To Global Jihad
In a lengthy article July 1, the New York Times reported that by embracing al-Qaida, GSPC leader Abdelmalek Droukdal had transformed his group "from a nationalist insurgency to a force in the global jihad."
The Times' Web site posted Droukdal's recorded answers to written questions.
He boasted of his group's prowess in adopting al-Qaida tactics of targeting Western and Israeli interests. He alleged that the Americans have built bases in the southern desert of Algeria and are meddling in the country's policy.
"So did America leave us any choice with this flagrant aggression?" Droukdal said. "No doubt that the answer is going to be 'no.' Therefore, it became our right and our duty to push away with all our strength this crusade campaign and declare clearly that the American interests are legitimate targets to us."
Droukdal said those targets included military bases and oil facilities. Algeria denies having foreign bases on its soil, but Western oil workers and their heavily-armed guards are not an uncommon sight in the south.
Little Chance Of Hitting American Interests
The Droukdal interview provoked a furious backlash in the Algerian media. Mounir Boudjema, editor of La Liberte, says what he calls the GSPC's recent "publicity coup" doesn't change the fact that it doesn't have the capability to hit U.S. targets.
"There isn't a big concern, because the important American interests in the south are heavily secured and very difficult to access," Boudjema says. "Likewise, the U.S. diplomatic corps is in a bunker, as they are in all Arab countries. Thirdly, there simply aren't very many American tourists here. So in my opinion, the chances of the GSPC successfully attacking American interests in Algeria are practically zero."
But al-Qaida-style attacks do occur here more often than elsewhere in North Africa, and the GSPC occasionally expands its operations.
In the past eight months, European tourists have been killed in Mauritania and kidnapped in Tunisia by gunmen believed to be tied to the Algerian Islamists.
Most dramatically, a pair of bombs in Algiers last December ripped through a court building and the United Nations offices. And just last month, a suicide attacker slammed his motorcycle into a military truck southwest of Algiers, wounding 10 soldiers and killing himself.
Hard To Estimate Size
Western and Algerian analysts say the strength of the GSPC is difficult to pin down, but their numbers are probably closer to 1,000 members than the 300 the government claims.
Journalist Hamida Ayashi has followed Algeria's various Islamist movements for decades. He says the GSPC at its peak was an alliance of three clans with three leaders vying for power. That changed a few years ago, when the government launched its national reconciliation program, offering Islamist militants money and a return to society if they renounced violence.
"The GSPC, in 2001, it had about 5,000 to 6,000 members, but several years later it had only about 1,000 fighters," Ayashi says. "The authorities managed to have negotiations with two of the three clans. That left Droukdal and his clan on their own. But then he benefited from the invasion of Iraq, which was for him a miracle — a golden opportunity."
Declaring his alliance with al-Qaida, Droukdal set up training camps and gained access to a fresh supply of recruits eager to do battle against the West, experts say.
No Evidence Of Growth
Beyond that, however, there has been no evidence of significant new money and weaponry flowing to the Algerian militants. In the coastal city of Oran, analysts say the GSPC's tactics have alienated the public, including many of the desperate unemployed young men who once looked to the Islamists for inspiration.
Author Omar Derras says that without foreign financing, the GSPC has turned to criminal activity to support itself.
"In Afghanistan, the Taliban uses the drug trade to buy arms and such," Derras says. "Here, the Islamists use crime and rackets to finance themselves. A relatively new phenomenon is kidnapping. Last year, we had over 207 children kidnapped."
Confronted with a government they see as corrupt and Islamist rebels who seem to be pursuing a bloody campaign of terror that produces no benefits, young Algerians are leaving in droves, even more so than in the past.
Planning Their Escape
At a cafe in a poor Oran neighborhood, three young men crowd into a corner table. Mohammed has a shock of curly hair; Mehdi has a useless left arm, the hand curled into a gentle fist; Rayah is the shy one, murmuring to Mohammed and nodding his head. Mohammed says neither the government in Algiers nor the Islamists in the hills have anything to offer them, so they spend most of their time planning their escape:
"In Europe, there are many countries," Mohammed says. "Europe is great. We want to go there. Of course the best country is our own, but we can't stay here."
Abdelkader Lakjaa, a professor at the University of Oran, says that after years of studying the explosion in illegal emigration, he believes the recent rise is tied to disillusionment with the Islamist movement.
In the early 1990s, when the army aborted elections that likely would have swept the Islamic Salvation Front party to power, angry young Algerians flocked to the "maqi," the mountain hideouts of the rebels. But now, Lakjaa says, they've concluded that the Islamists have lost the war, so now they just want to leave.
"The explosion of illegal emigration to its current level came about in the wake of the failure of the Islamists in the maqi," Lakjaa says. "And this is very important. There was a huge transfer of energy among young people in the last 10 years. Their aspirations, their ambitions all shifted to escaping the country."
New Tactics May Backfire
In a suburb of Algiers, a stocky, bearded man named Midani Mizhrag quietly tends to his auto parts business. Once a high-ranking official in the Islamic Salvation Front, Mizhrag was among those who accepted an offer of reconciliation from the government.
The GSPC, or what's left of it, embraced al-Qaida out of desperation, he says, adding that he thinks the new tactics will backfire and give Western powers an excuse to interfere in Algerian affairs.
"They made stupid mistakes when they targeted the U.N., they targeted the press, innocent civilians," Mizhrag says. "They're making a lot of mistakes, and stupid mistakes. Of course it plays into the hands of the big nations."
Analysts say there will be more explosions, more attacks and kidnappings in the future, and scores of people will continue to die each month from political violence.
But they believe that even in blood-soaked Algeria, the use of al-Qaida-style suicide attacks, with their high civilian casualties, is a step too far.
Barring a sudden infusion of outside funding and resources, experts say al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb will be hard-pressed to pursue either its original nationalist goals or its newly adopted role as a key player in the global jihad.