Strategic shift in North Africa militancy

In Algeria, suicide bombings blamed on Al Qaeda resemble insurgent tactics in Iraq.

Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

A string of suicide bombings in Algeria this week has intensified concerns that the country's Islamist militancy is rising, guided by insurgents who have been trained in Iraq and are now waging their fight in North Africa.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, car bombs rocked towns near Algiers, the capital, killing at least 54 security forces and police recruits. While Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the home-grown group that recently allied itself with Al Qaeda, has not claimed responsibility, the bombings carried all the markings of the group, which has been responsible for some 200 deaths over the past 18 months.

This strike, unlike most, targeted security forces in the type of attack more common in Iraq than in North Africa. AQIM "wants to give young people the idea that this will be your destiny if you join their enemies, the police and security forces," says Diaa Rashwan, an expert on terrorism and political Islam at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

"We are facing an extraordinary situation in Algeria, and there have been at least five attacks in the last two months aimed at police and security forces," says Mr. Rashwan.

Tuesday's bombing in Issers, 40 miles east of Algiers, killed at least 43 people outside a police academy. State media reported that most of the victims were young men and their families who were waiting to sign up for the entrance exam.

Rashwan says that Algeria hadn't ever seen that type of attack before.

On Wednesday, twin car bombings shook Bouira, 60 miles south east of Algiers. The first injured four soldiers outside a local military headquarters, according to state media, and, less than a minute later, the second bomb exploded outside a hotel in the city's downtown, killing 11 and injuring 27.

Reuters reported that the attacks targeted a military commander inside an Army barracks as well as Canadians working for a water project. Taken together, the two days of attacks made for the deadliest week in nearly a year for Algeria, recalling the violence of its 1990s fight with Islamist rebels.

David Hartwell, Middle East editor for Jane's Country Risk, told Reuters that there was a concern that car bombings were being carried out by militants who had trained with insurgents fighting US occupation in Iraq.

"But the group is viewed increasingly as outsiders coming in to attack Algeria. There's no evidence they have more support among the population. This is still a localized thing," he said.

The focus on security forces is a change from the days of the civil war, says Rob Mortimer, an historian of Algeria at Haverford College, but he cautions that most of the civilian massacres of the 1990s were committed by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA).

That is a different insurgent group than the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which evolved into AQIM in 2006.

"The increase in violence more or less coincides with the decision of the GSPC to take on an international affiliation and become Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb," says Mr. Mortimer. "They get more support from abroad now and see themselves as part of a larger movement.

"There was always international influence on these organization in the 1990s, but at the same time, there was always a clear sense that they were an Algerian movement," he adds. "That is probably not the case now."

But other analysts say that, despite its new affiliation with Al Qaeda, AQIM fights for many of the same reasons that GSPC did. They say the violence may be more about opposition to the government than global jihad.

The attacks "do not mean that the civil war has restarted, but they do indicate that the fundamental social and political tensions that created the violence of the 1990s, and the problems resulting from the war, remain unresolved," said James McDougall, a historian of Algeria at the University of London, in a statement provided by the Middle East Research and Information Project.

The Algerian government has launched a vigorous campaign against AQIM and estimates that it has only between 300 and 500 members. But the frequency and deadliness of its recent attacks suggest that, rather than buckling under the weight of the government crackdown, AQIM is actually growing stronger.

"The government says there are only 300 to 500 people in Al Qaeda, but those numbers are probably not true anymore," says Mortimer. "It seems to be growing, and its ability to carry out large scale attacks has certainly grown, even from a year ago."

Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni reiterated the government's view on Tuesday that the militants were being driven "to the wall" by security forces.

Violence began in Algeria in 1992, when a military-backed government scrapped elections that a radical Islamic party was poised to win. About 150,000 people have died in the ensuing violence.

Since adopting the Al Qaeda name, GSPC has claimed responsibility for several attacks, including the twin suicide bombings of UN offices and a court building in Algiers in December 2007, which killed 41 people.

• Material from Reuters was used.

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