Merger with Al Qaeda deepens threat from Algerian radicals

Italian police said Monday they broke up a cell with ties to Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

It was a quiet Ramadan evening, the sunset casting a red glow on the white colonial facades along the city's seafront. With the call of the muezzin, the Muslim prayer crier, Algerians had returned home to break the fast with friends and family, leaving the city nearly deserted.

During this holy month of Ramadan, the quiet has become reassuring. Many here are anxious; the Islamist radicals of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, better known by the French acronym GSPC, have threatened attacks in the capital during Ramadan.

Already, officials blame the group for violence outside of Algiers. Overnight Friday, in separate incidents, two security officers were killed near a mosque and a bomb derailed a train, according to the Associated Press.

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Authorities have amassed some 3,000 police around the city. While the radical Salafist group has been active for years, officials have new cause to take greater precaution to its threats.

In a videotape released by Al Qaeda Sept. 11, 2006, Osama bin Laden's second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri announced that "the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat has joined the Al Qaeda organization ... may this be a bone in the throat of American and French crusaders, and their allies, and sow fear in the hearts of French traitors and sons of apostates."

Born out of Algeria's civil war, which began in 1992 when the army overturned an Islamist electoral victory, the GSPC has long expressed a willingness to join Mr. bin Laden. But not until now has Al Qaeda officially acknowledged a merger. Indeed, this alliance underlines the regional, rather than Algerian, focus of GSPC.

It also underscores concerns spelled out in the National Intelligence Estimate, parts of which were recently declassified, that said "several North African groups, unless countered, are likely to expand their reach and become more capable of multiple and/or mass-casualty attacks outside their traditional areas of operation."

For years, the GSPC has been moving units into the areas of the Sahara, away from the military pressure brought to bear in Algeria's north. A GSPC faction was involved in the desert kidnapping of 32 European tourists in 2003, and in 2005 the group overran a Mauritanian military base. GSPC activity has also been reported in Mali and Niger, and support cells have popped up in surrounding Muslim countries and Europe.

According to the French newspaper Le Figaro, the French Antiterrorist Coordination Unit (UCLAT) estimates that tens of indigenous Islamist cells have contacts with the GSPC, and, adding to their concern, Zawahiri exhorted the Algerians to strike at France in his Sept. 11 tape.

Monday, Italian police reported that they had broken up an Algerian cell that "financed and gave logistical support to Islamic terrorism responsible for massacres in Algeria," Reuters reported.

This internationalization, and the GSPC's attempts to rally militants in surrounding countries, has long worried the US. In 2002, the Pentagon announced the Pan-Sahel Initiative, assigning US military advisers to train and equip the militaries of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad. Also involved are Algeria and Morocco, though both governments deny reports of US forces stationed within their countries.

Some, however, take a less alarmist view of events. University of Virginia professor and Algeria analyst William Quandt, responding to questions via e-mail, describes it as "a pretty small, marginal group that is just struggling to survive," and says that "whatever links it may have to Al Qaeda must be quite tenuous." He estimates the group to have no more than a few hundred members.

But even if real contacts are scarce, official Al Qaeda status could still bolster the GSPC's standing. By linking their struggle to the Iraqi jihad, the organization is able to tap into popular anger at American foreign policy, and the widespread support for Iraq's armed groups that this has generated.

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