AL QAEDA IN ALGERIA
INTERNATIONAL TERRORISM MONITOR---PAPER NO.326
As pointed out by me in my past articles, a theme of the messages of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the No.2 to Osama bin Laden in Al Qaeda, during the last two years has been the need for a global jihad or intifada, which has to cover all lands in the world,which, according to him, rightfully belong to Islam.He specifies certain areas, which he thinks should receive special attention first.
2.Of these, he gives the topmost priority to Afghanistan and Iraq. He says the future of Islam and of the global Intifada itself will be decided in those countries. If they can defeat the Americans there, the jihadis' victory in the rest of the lands will be assured. After mentioning these two countries, he mentions certain other areas specifically. He believes that the victory of the jihadis in these areas would also be crucial for the ultimate victory of Islam. These areas are Palestine, including Gaza, the Lebanon, Somalia, Algeria and Chechnya in Russia. Hedescribes Somalia as the Southern garrison of Islam and Algeria as its Western garrison. (His message of Februatry 12,2007)
3.In his message of December 20,2006, he said : "And I also send my greetings and those of my brothers to our steadfast brothers in Algeria in the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, the guards of Islam’s western garrison. I ask Allah to accept their sacrifices, perseverance and resoluteness, to send down on them His victory which He promised His believing worshippers, and to conquer with them His enemies, the Crusaders and secularist sons of France. And I give them the good news that the winds of victory are blowing, that the Ummah has risen up,and that the era of humiliation has come to a close. So stand firm."
4. As would be noticed, he linked the jihad in Algeria with the jihad against "the Crusaders and the secularist sons of France", thereby giving the task of the Salafist Group an external dimension, in addition to its internal dimension of fighting for an Islamic State in Algeria to be ruled according to the Sharia. Al Qaeda and the International Islamic Front (IIF) have been using the Afghanistan-Pakistan region as a rear base for their Jihadi Intifada against the US and the UK. It has not been possible to use it as a rear base against France, Spain and Portugal. They are hoping that an active Jihadi Intifada in Algeria will help in overcoming this deficiency.
5. Another theme, which found prominent mention in his message of December 22,2006, was the UN as the enemy of Islam. He said: "The United Nations is an organization hostile to Islam. Its charter is based on the rule of other than the Shari’ah and obligates all UNmembers, including the governments of the Islamic countries, to recognize Israel, because it – like them – is a member of the UN. And it also obligates them to recognize Russia’s occupation of Chechnya and the Muslim Caucasus, China’s occupation of East Turkistan,Spain’s occupation of Ceuta and Melilla and the occupation of other Muslim lands by non-Muslim governments which are part of the UN.And furthermore, the UN is the one who established the Jewish presence in Palestine, the Crusader presence in Afghanistan, and theCrusader occupation of Iraq, and it is the international false witness which runs the rigged elections in Afghanistan and Iraq, and it is theone who today is attempting to enable the Crusaders to invade Darfur under cover of the UN. The United Nations is the one whoseinternational forces are today deployed on the borders of Lebanon, to prevent the meeting up of the Mujahideen from outside Palestine withthose within it, in order to complete the blockade against the Mujahideen in Palestine. The United Nations is a tool in the hands of theUnited States and its Crusader partners for taking over the world through intimidation, enticement and extortion, and it has a leadershipcomprised of the Big Five and a backyard called the General Assembly in which the weak states shout at one another."
6. It is in this context that one has to see the two explosions in Algiers on December 11,2007, in which more than 60 persons were reported to have been killed by suicide bombers. The target of the first of these explosions was against the local offices of the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees and Development Programme. The second attack occurred minutes later when a car packed with explosives was driven into a bus carrying law students outside the Algerian Supreme Court. A communique posted on the major jihadist message boards by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed the responsibility for the twin suicide bombings.
7.The current wave of renewed jihadi terrorism in Algeria has come after Algeria’s Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) pledged allegiance to Bin Laden on September 11, 2006, and changed its name to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in January,2007. Earlier, an organisation calling itself Al Qaeda in Algeria had disseminated on May 8,2005,a statement issued by Abu Soheib Miliani which, inter alia, said:" The jihad in Algeria is ready…we are targeting the Jews and crusaders, individuals, embassies, and interests that are the enemy's…The [Islamic] nation is united in attacking them everywhere.Now is the time for Al Qaeda in Algeria to regroup as well as the time to grow. Right now is open for everyone who wants to join in the field forming small cells… [however] They must show with every operation…. that they belong in a jihad organization in Algeria. They also must [arrange to] be covered by the media by sending videos of their operations to the station channels to publish or posting them on the internet."
8. It indicated the name of the leader of this group as Sheikh Ali Ben Haj and added: "…to mujahid Sheikh Ali Ben Haj: the nation trusts you. You are the leader of the mujahideen….you can fix it [the jihad]…. The solution is that you disappear. It does not matter where… Hide where you can continue guiding and preaching through the statements and visual recording…The young men trust you, your leadership is very important, especially in creating sharia law…Thousands of people will follow, and Islam and Muslims will be glorious."
9. Not many took this seriously. Some even suspected that this had been disseminated by the political opponents of President Bouteflika in the Algerian Government. What happened to the organisation calling itself "Al Qaeda in Algeria"? Has it changed its name to "Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb"? It is not clear. However, the responsibility for all the terrorist strikes after September 11,2006, has been claimed on behalf of the AQIM. The important among these incidents are:
October 30, 2006 Two car bomb attacks outside police stations in the eastern suburbs of Algiers kill three and injure 24. February 13,2007: Seven synchronised bombs explode in the northern region of Kabylie, killing six people. April 11,2007: Two simultaneous explosions in Algiers kill at least 30 people and leave 200 injured. Targets: the Government’s city-centre headquarters and a police station in an eastern suburb. July 11,2007: A lorry loaded with explosives rams into army barracks in Lakhadria, southeast of Algiers, killing ten soldiers and injuring thirty-five. September 6,2007: A suicide attack on the motorcade of President Bouteflika at Batna, in the east of the country, kills 22 people and injures more than 100. The President escapes unharmed. September 8, 2007 Thirty-two dead and forty-five injured in a car bomb attack on a barracks in Dellys, a port in the Kabylie region. November 8,2007:An attack on a military airport in Jant city that allegedly destroyed 3 military aircraft. December 8,2007: A double-bomb attack on a convoy carrying Russian troops and Algerian gendarmes. December 11,2007: The two attacks mentioned above.
10. The claimed attack on a convoy carrying Russian troops (if true) and the attack on the office of a UN organisation are the first instances of attacks on external targets since the GSPC started operating under the name AQIM. All other incidents (seven in all) were directed at domestic targets.Even in the case of the attack on the UN office, most of those killed were Algerian nationals working there. The AQIM, like Al Qaeda elsewhere and other pro-Al Qaeda organisations, claims that it targets only those Muslim civilians who collaborate with anti-Muslim forces and organisations. It looks upon them as apostates. It projects the other Muslim civilians killed during its attacks as martyrs in the Islamic cause.
11.In an interview, Mr.Hamida Layachi, the publisher of the Arabic daily Jazair News, published in Algiers and author of the book titled "Les Islamistes entre la politique et les balles (“The Islamists between Bullets and Politics”), has described the transformation of the GSPC into the AQIM in the following words: "The national reconciliation policy (of the Algerian Government) had a marked effect on the GSPC. In 2000, implementation of the Law of Civil Harmony resulted in the surrender of thousands of terrorists, including many from the ranks of the GSPC. The law coincided with a number of fatwas (religious rulings) from Muslim ulemmas—like those of the Saudi scholar [Muhammad Ben Ahmad] al-Uthaimin—which are considered doctrinal references for the Salafists and which called into question the religious legal foundation for the “jihad” in Algeria. These fatwas convinced whole battalions of the GSPC to lay down their arms. The most significant of these battalions is “Katibat al-Ghuraba,” the “Foreigners’ Battalion”, which operated around Boumerdès, near Algiers.
"Once the Law of Civil Harmony’s time limit for the surrender of armed elements had expired, the authorities launched “Sayf al-Hajaj,” an anti-terrorist operation that limited the activities of the GSPC, particularly in Kabylia, which was one of its fiefdoms. It also had a large impact on the GSPC’s logistical support networks. And a significant number of GSPC members were forced to leave Kabylia and go to other parts of the country.
"When the national reconciliation policy was being put in place in 2000, Hassan Hattab, then leader of the GSPC, seemed to hesitate between continuing armed struggle or negotiating surrender. His hesitation weakened his position in the organization, which for a while was rocked by a power struggle among his would-be successors. Factions began to form within the GSPC, including that of the “non-commissioned officers,” army deserters like Okasha, Abderezzak al-Para and others who led the GSPC’s militant wing.
"The deserters couldn’t benefit from the national reconciliation policy. They’d acquired a lot of autonomy in the southern and eastern regions without coming into conflict with Hassan Hattab, but by doing so they’d undoubtedly weakened the GSPC’s structure and degree of centralization. When the GSPC found itself in a strategic impasse, these men turned to attacks on foreigners with the support of an important leader, Mokhtar ben Mokhtar, the head of the “Sahara zone.” This was how they planned the kidnap of the European tourists in the desert in 2003. Their strategy didn’t pay off: Abderrezak al-Para, for example, was arrested as a result of the kidnapping. His arrest weakened the organization in the south of Algeria and, as a result, at the national level.
"The GSPC had also lost members: in 2003–2004, its operatives numbered between 1,000 (according to official sources) and 6,000 (according to its own figures). One of its important military leaders, al-Para, was in detention; the international siege against its networks was getting tighter; its propaganda cells in Europe (in Spain, for example) were dismantled. Reorganizing had become an urgent priority under these conditions. Hassan Hattab was removed from power. Nabil Sahrawi succeeded him, but was killed just a few months later, in June 2004.
"The wars in Afghanistan and, especially, in Iraq were like oxygen for the GSPC, from whose ranks Droukdel, the current leader of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, had begun to emerge. Droukdel belonged to a group operating in the Mitidja region south of Algiers. He had joined the Armed Islamic Group (GIA, predecessor of the GSPC) in 1996. He began to restructure the GSPC and took command after the death of Nabil Sahrawi. He surrounded himself with people from his region. He succeeded in rallying groups that had belonged to the GIA, particularly in the centre and west of the country. He maintained Kabylia as the “command zone” and moved people and groups there from other regions as necessary.
"The GSPC came into closer contact with Al Qaeda when the Algerian diplomats were kidnapped in Baghdad. After having kidnapped the diplomats, Al Qaeda’s Iraq cell consulted the GSPC on what should be done with them, and the GSPC okayed their execution.The contacts with Al Qaeda were made primarily through the Egyptian branch of Al Qaeda, which, in the mid-90s, had tried to enlist the GIA. This attempt had failed at the time because Djamel Zitouni, then leader of the GIA, had had Al Qaeda’s emissaries killed. This execution created a real legal-religious storm within the GIA. Droukdel, for example, the current leader of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, opposed it. The closer contact that followed the assassination of the Algerian diplomats in Iraq inevitably led to the GSPC’s allegiance to Al Qaeda."
12.He also said in his interview: " Before 2003, the situation of global Islamism was marked, contrary to appearances, by a real weakness. The occupation of Iraq made that country into exactly the kind of “jihad breeding ground” that jihadist networks had dreamt of. The young generation in Algeria today didn’t live through the ‘jihadist’ experience of the 90s. Their sympathy for the fight against the Americans in Iraq was a spontaneous sympathy. This battle excited a lot of young people who, without going through the Islamist networks, volunteered to fight the Americans. Some of them were killed in Iraq, others returned to Algeria. Among the latter, some joined the GSPC or became middlemen in recruiting other volunteers, a role they ultimately wound up playing in close collaboration with the GSPC. The Islamist networks in the prisons—those of ex-combatants from Afghanistan, for example—were also important in the recruitment of volunteers, who are often common criminals. After the GSPC pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda, it became the only vehicle for the recruitment of volunteers to Iraq.Al Qaeda in Iraq asked the Maghrebi Al Qaeda not to send it any more combatants and said what they really needed were suicide bombers. Since then, the Algerian volunteers have been swelling the ranks of the North African organization. The ex-GSPC doesn’t tell this to the volunteers that pass through its networks. It welcomes them, but keeps them as part of its own forces. These youths think that by joining the GSPC, they’ll eventually be sent to Iraq. But really, they stay within the GSPC."
13.The present head of the AQIM is Abu Musab Abdulwadood, also known as Abdelmalek Droukdel. He is a former university science student. He took over as the head of the GSPC in September 2004, after its then leader Nabil Sahrawi was killed by the Algerian security forces in June,2004.
14. The increase in the activities of the AQIM in Algeria should be a matter of particular concern to Tunisia, Morocco,France, Spain and Portugal.(18-12-07)
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org )