How did Al Qaeda emerge in North Africa?
A briefing on the violent rise of a new-old jihadist group in Algeria.
Algeria's ISLAMIC militants were finished. As recently as last summer, security officials thought they had subdued Islamic insurgents after nearly a decade of civil war. They were wrong. Nearly eight months ago, Algerian militants declared an alliance with Al Qaeda and have violently announced their resurgence with a wave of spectacular attacks. So far this year, at least 165 people have died in the ensuing political violence. The newly christened Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb presents a new challenge – and not just in North Africa. Staff writer Jill Carroll reports on the rise of this new-old group of jihadists.
How did Al Qaeda emerge in North Africa?
The Algerian militant organization Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, known by its French initials GSPC, officially joined Al Qaeda with the Sept. 11, 2006, announcement by Ayman Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's No. 2. Later, in a January statement, GSPC took on the name Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
With its new moniker and broader, global aims came increased violence. Last month, suicide bombers targeted the Algerian capital, Algiers, killing at least 33 people in the deadliest attack in that city in at least five years.
But long before the official union was announced, Algeria's radical Islamists were building ties with Osama bin Laden's group, according to terrorist experts.
The founders of GSPC fought alongside other militants in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. That battle not only gave rise to Al Qaeda, but dispersed fighters throughout the Middle East. The GSPC was formed in 1998 when its leaders split from Algeria's Armed Islamic Group, known by its French initials GIA. In 1993, a top member of Al Qaeda met with Islamist fighters starting to organize in Algeria and Mr. bin Laden gave factions of the GIA $40,000, Lawrence Wright reported in his new book, "The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the road to 9/11."
The GIA launched a brutal insurgency against the Algerian government in 1992 after the government canceled elections because an Islamist party was set to win. The GIA crumbled under intense pressure from Algerian security services and amid internal divisions about their harsh tactics, but not until at least 150,000 people had died.
Their brutality, particularly to civilians, drew criticism from the global jihadi community, including from bin Laden, which felt they were giving "holy warriors" a bad name. By the end of the 1990s, experts say, GIA had fallen out with Al Qaeda and other jihadi groups.
Today, it's difficult to quantify the membership of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Last year, the Algerian government said 800 jihadists were active in GSPC. But the group disputed that, saying far more were involved, according to Rita Katz, director of the Search for International Terrorist Entities (SITE) Institute in Washington.
"What we can say for certain is that [among] the jihadists online, the support for AQIM is growing. Adopting the name Al Qaeda brought the GSPC the instant support of tens of thousands of online jihadists, many now who perceive the group as fighting on behalf of Al Qaeda," says Ms. Katz in an e-mailed response to questions.
What are AQIM's objectives?
The group's leader, Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, whose given name is Abdelmalek Droukdel, made clear in the January statement that the group planned a high-profile campaign of violence against Algerian security forces and foreign targets under the new banner of Al Qaeda.
Mr. Abdel Wadoud praised the insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan and railed against the US, France, Israel, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). He also called Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika "an ally to this nation's enemies" that has "trampled over" and "desecrated" Islamic sharia law, according to a translation of the communiqué on the website of Evan Kohlmann, a New York-based international terrorist expert.
Mr. Kohlmann says the group is "seeking headlines. They are clearly targeting foreigners."
For Abdel Wadoud – believed to have been radicalized while attending university – the alliance with Al Qaeda gives his group world recognition and credibility. "Al Qaeda remains the most important brand name among the jihadists," says Katz.
In southern Algeria, there is another grouping of GSPC that has not joined Al Qaeda. Its leaders have been killed or imprisoned in recent years. The relationship between Abdul Wadoud's group and the southern faction is unclear, Katz says.
How is the Algerian government handling this new threat?
Algerian security forces have a reputation of being tough, and their experience with infiltrating and breaking up the GIA insurgency in the '90s could be useful.
Since the recent spate of bombings and attacks claimed by AQIM, Algerian security services have been fighting militants in the mountains and forests outside Algiers. Exact details of the battles have been kept secret by the government.
Many media reports say about a dozen soldiers and a dozen militants have been killed in the sporadic battles. Reuters reported on Monday, for example, that at least 28 Islamist militants were killed in April.
Just last week Algerian security services said they killed the second in command of the group, Samir Saioud, who also went by Samir Moussaab. AQIM disputed in a statement that he was a high-ranking member but confirmed he was killed.
Algerian security forces claimed last year to have killed or imprisoned 750 to 800 militants, Katz says. But, she notes, such numbers are difficult to verify and, regardless, the "strength of the group has not diminished."
"However, much action is taken against these groups. Because they have staying power the battle waged against these groups must be a very long [war]," says Rohan Gunaratna, author of a book on Al Qaeda and associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
What are the implications for security in North Africa and Europe?
There have been links between various North African militant groups for years. AQIM seeks to unite them.
Bringing radical Islamists under a common umbrella with the intent to strike at Western targets spells trouble for the regional regimes who have long tried to keep Islamist parties at bay.
"Traditionally the North African [militant] groups have been important, but now they have increased importance because they have an alliance [that facilitates] an exchange of personnel, technology, and financing," says Mr. Gunaratna.
North Africans have risen in the ranks of Al Qaeda around the world, analysts say. The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group also helped broker the alliance between the GSPC and Al Qaeda, says Gunaratna.
The GSPC has been active in Europe, particularly against its old colonial ruler, France. In September 2005, French police uncovered a group of militants linked to the GSPC that were planning to attack various sites in Paris.
Several suicide bombings in Morocco as well as a rare shootout between Tunisian police and militants recently raised concerns about the groups crossing the porous desert borders in the region and exchanging expertise and resources. But Moroccan authorities insist recent suicide bombings and the cells of militants that produced them are not linked to outside groups.