STEVE INSKEEP, host:
We are going next to a country that's facing a long-running battle. The country is Algeria, and it's the one place in North Africa where al-Qaida has a significant foothold. The military has been fighting for years against Islamist insurgents. Those insurgents made an alliance with al-Qaida, though it is not clear what they gained from it.
From Algiers, NPR's Peter Kenyon continues his series on the terror group in North Africa.
PETER KENYON: For years Algeria has said next to nothing about how many Islamist fighters are still out there trying to topple the government. But last month, Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni suddenly 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 GSPC, the Salafist Group for Preaching in Combat.
In a lengthy article on July 1st, the New York Times reported that by embracing al-Qaida, GSPC leader Abdelmalek Droukdal had transformed his group, quote, "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 the Americans have built bases in the southern desert and are meddling in Algerian policy.
Mr. ABDELMALEK DROUKDAL (GSPC Leader): (Through translator) So did America leave us any choice with this flagrant aggression? No doubt 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.
KENYON: Droukdal said those targets include 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.
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 American targets.
Mr. MOUNIR BOUDJEMA (Editor, La Liberte): (Through translator) You know, there isn't a big concern, because the important American interests in the south are heavily secured and very difficult to access. 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.
KENYON: But al-Qaida-style attacks do occur here more often than elsewhere in North Africa, and occasionally the GSPC expands its operations. Within the past eight months, European tourists were killed in Mauritania and kidnapped in Tunisia, each time 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 in the capital. Just last month, a suicide attacker slammed his motorcycle into a military truck southwest of Algiers, wounding 10 soldiers and killing himself.
Western and Algerian analysts say the strength of the GSPC is difficult to pin down, but the number is probably closer to a thousand than the 300 the government claims.
Journalist Hamida Ayashi has followed Algeria's various Islamist movements for decades. He says the GSPC, for example, was at its peak in alliance of three clans with three leaders vying for power. That changed a few years ago, says Ayashi, when the government launched its national reconciliation program, offering Islamist militants money and a return to society if they renounced violence.
Mr. HAMIDA AYASHI (Journalist): (Through translator) The GSPC, in 2001, it had about 5,000 to 6,000 members, but several years later it had only about 1,000 fighters. 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.
KENYON: 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.
Beyond that, however, there has been no evidence of significant new money and weaponry flowing to the Algerian militants. And here 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 without foreign financing, the GSPC has turned to criminal activity to support itself.
Mr. OMAR DERRAS (Author): (Through translator) In Afghanistan, the Taliban uses the drug trade to buy arms and such. Here, the Islamists use crime and rackets to finance themselves. A relatively new phenomenon is kidnapping. Last year, we had over 200 children kidnapped.
KENYON: 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.
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.
MOHAMMED: (Foreign language spoken)
KENYON: In Europe, there are many countries, says Mohammed. Europe is great. We want to go there. Of course the best country is our own, but we can't stay here.
Professor Abdelkader Lakjaa at the Oran University says after years of studying the explosion in illegal immigration, 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.
Professor ABDELKADER LAKJAA (Oran University): (Through translator) The explosion of illegal immigration to its current level came about in the wake of the failure of the Islamists in the maqi. 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.
KENYON: 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 the government's offer of reconciliation.
He says the GSPC, or what's left of it, embraced al-Qaida out of desperation, and he thinks the new tactics will backfire, giving Western powers an excuse to interfere in Algerian affairs.
Mr. MIDANI MIZHRAG (Business Owner): (Through translator) They made stupid mistakes when they targeted the U.N. They targeted the press, innocent civilians. They're making a lot of mistakes, and stupid mistakes. Of course it plays into the hands of the big nations.
KENYON: Analysts say there will be more explosions, more attacks and kidnappings in the future, and tens of people will continue to die each month from political violence. But they feel that even here 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, they 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.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Algiers.