Algeria bombing prompts question: Can Al Qaeda spread across North Africa?

Islamic militants linked to Osama bin Laden's network claimed Tuesday's attack in Algeria.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When two formerly convicted Algerian Islamic militants blew themselves up in Algiers this week, killing at least 34 people at United Nations offices and a government building, they succeeded in one likely aspect of their mission – getting attention.

Tuesday's twin truck bombings was the latest strike from a longtime insurgent group, which recently allied itself with Osama bin Laden's network and changed its name to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Government forces had appeared to be gaining the upper hand against the militants after it had killed or captured scores of insurgents over the past few months.

But while the bombing has shown that AQIM, formerly known as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, still poses a serious threat, analysts say this new Al Qaeda affiliate in North Africa is far from reaching its goal of building a potent force across the entire region or even striking Europe, as it says is part of its overall goal.

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"Despite its pretensions to be a Maghreb-wide organization, it is mounting attacks only in Algeria," says Hugh Roberts, an independent analyst who specializes in North African politics. "The notional threat to Europe is exaggerated."

The Algiers bombing is the deadliest against the UN since an attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad in 2003, which prompted the organization to leave Iraq. But Mr. Roberts says unlike the UN in Baghdad, which was poised to take a major political role in the country, the UN has no role in domestic politics in Algeria.

The bombers hit the High Commissioner for Refugees and the UN Development Programme offices.

The UN attacks were against "one extremely soft target that has clearly been hit purely to maximize international attention," Roberts says. The bombings at the Algerian government building, he says, "show this is about destabilizing the Algerian government."

Despite similarly spectacular suicide attacks in Algiers in April and a smattering of shootings and bombings by the group, AQIM has yet to prove that it is a real threat to the government or that it could spark another violent insurgency like the country saw in the 1990s.

Evan Kohlmann, a counterterrorism consultant based in New York who closely tracks Algerian insurgent groups, says the attacks smack of "desperation" from a group unable to launch a full-on guerrilla war against the government.

"So is this the great awakening of the jihad in Algeria? I'm somewhat skeptical. What we are more likely witnessing here is a jihadi movement that is flailing about wildly in the hopes of replicating the comparative success of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq," Mr. Kohlmann wrote in an e-mailed response to questions.

Roberts said high-profile attacks against foreigners was the strategy used by the once-formidable Armed Islamic Group, responsible for the worst terrorist attacks during the "dark decade" of warfare between the government and insurgents in the 1990s. Known by its French initials, the GIA attacked foreigners in Algeria, sending them fleeing and weakening the Algerian government by isolating it internationally. Lingering Islamist insurgents from those days compose the new Al Qaeda group.

"I think this is not part of a global jihad at all. It really has to do with destabilizing the Algerian government," says Roberts.

By attacking soft, civilian targets like those this week, AQIM risks facing the fate of the GIA, which alienated other militant Islamists and even once was chastised by Mr. bin Laden for its brutal massacres of civilians as well as Al Qaeda in Iraq, whom Iraqi tribes turned against because of its brutal tactics.

"AQIM is risking alienating another much larger part of its constituency – ordinary Islamist dissidents who may be opposed to the Algerian regime and its security forces, but who are disturbed by the idea of killing innocent UN workers for no apparent reason," says Kohlmann.

Following the attacks, it was revealed that the suicide bombers were both once convicted on terror charges but were amnestied.

The government has offered successive amnesties to try to end the Islamic insurgency in the 1990s, resulting in thousands of militants turning themselves in, but sparking fierce criticism from the families of terror victims.

In a posting on a militant website, AQIM described the UN offices as "the headquarters of the international infidels' den." It also posted photos of two men it said were the bombers. Both posed with weapons and wore camouflage.

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