Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 April 2007
Issue No. 841
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Al-Qaeda strikes the Maghreb

In Morocco and Algeria, many fear that so-called Al-Qaeda operations may provide pretext for American military bases, writes Faycal Saouli

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Security personnel stand guard at the area around the American Language Center in Casablanca a day after a suicide bomber blew himself up

The recent suicide bombings in Algiers and Casablanca have reignited fears of wide-scale violence in the Arab Maghreb. A group calling itself Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (formerly the Salafi Group) claimed the Algiers bombings. Over 30 people are believed killed in the bombings, with hundreds more injured. The objectives of the suicide bombers are not clear yet, but experts believe that a new wave of terror may follow.

The international media has blamed Al-Qaeda for both incidents, but local authorities are not so sure. Algerian officials made no mention of Al-Qaeda, although Ayman Al-Zawahri, the Al-Qaeda second in command, blessed Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in a recorded television appearance and claimed responsibility for the operation in an Internet statement including photos of the three men who waged the 11 April attacks in Algiers.

Moroccan Interior Minister Chakib Ben Moussa ruled out links between the Algiers bombings and the death of four suicide bombers in a confrontation with the police a day earlier in Casablanca. The news media in both Algeria and Morocco made no clear reference to Al-Qaeda in their reporting.

Doubtless, Moroccans and Algerians are reluctant to blame Al-Qaeda because America may use this as an excuse to demand a military base in the region. For sometime now, American officials have been saying that Al-Qaeda is a threat to the Maghreb and that a US military base there could help deter terrorists. Obviously, local officials are not convinced.

Still, some analysts believe that Al-Qaeda has struck a working relationship with local terrorist groups. Moroccan expert Mohamed Zarif told reporters that no one could deny that terrorist groups were coordinating and that Al-Qaeda was seeking a foothold in the Maghreb.

The claim that Al-Qaeda has already turned its attention to the Maghreb is not farfetched. In the two recent incidents in Algiers and Morocco, suicide bombers were involved; a typical mark of Al-Qaeda. The Algerian Salafi Group waged an attack on an army barracks in Mauritania in summer 2005. And a Salafi Group leader, Ammar Saifi, infamous for abducting German tourists in Algeria in early 2004, was recently arrested in Chad. Other warning signs include the fact that Okeil Chreibi, a Moroccan, was recently sentenced in Algeria on charges of collusion with the Algerian Salafi Group. Chreibi was allegedly in Algeria to discuss closer cooperation between terrorist groups.

Sceptics, however, dismiss the possibility that the Salafi Group would be run by Al-Qaeda. They recall that Ayman Al-Zawahri met in London in the early 1990s with representatives of Algerian armed groups and failed to reach a common plan for action. Besides, Al-Qaeda doesn't really have much to offer local groups in the Maghreb. One guess is that the Algerian Salafi Group has only joined Al-Qaeda in name, in the same way a company would buy a franchise.

A spokesman for the White House said that the US would be willing to help Morocco and Algeria in their fight against terror. Soon after this statement was made, the US Embassy in Algeria released a warning to US nationals that bombings may happen on 14 April in Algiers. The embassy even named possible targets of bombings. No bombings took place on that day. Algerian officials summoned the US chargé d'affaires to express their displeasure.

The bombings of last week represent a change in militant tactics. Throughout the years of turmoil in Algeria, only one suicide bombing occurred, and that was in 1994. The Moroccan Combatant Group, led by Mohamed El-Guerbozi, conducted its first suicide attack in May 2003.

Preliminary investigations in both Algeria and Morocco show a similarity in the profiles of the suicide bombers. Most have been recruited from poor neighbourhoods, and some had criminal records and were drug users. This kind of recruitment, anti-terror experts say, indicates a weakness in the capacity of terrorist groups. Suicide attacks are low-tech, easy to mount, and draw the attention of the media. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, experts say, is likely to engage in limited, publicity- seeking attacks.

The US and other Western countries do not share this view. They believe that Al-Qaeda is likely to step up its operations in the Maghreb. Some anti-terror experts claim that Al-Qaeda has over 3,000 operatives in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania, and that the Algerian Salafi Group is in charge of coordinating among those operatives. But this is mere conjecture. So far, no other Moroccan or Tunisian group, aside from the Salafi Group in Algeria, has pledged loyalty to Al-Qaeda.

The Algerian suicide bombers haven't just blown up the Algerian government's headquarters and a police station. They have ended the relative peace the country has enjoyed since 2000. Seven years ago, President Bouteflika launched a national reconciliation initiative, granting amnesty to militant groups that lay down their arms. Several militant groups took advantage of the amnesty, including the country's largest militant group, the Armed Islamic Group. The Salafi Group, which now claims to be part of Al-Qaeda, is a splinter of the Armed Islamic Group.

Who is Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb?

A STATEMENT released on the Internet 24 January 2007 announced the birth of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The organisation wasn't a new one, but a renaming of one that already existed, the Algerian Salafi Group. In a recording aired by Arab television channels, Ayman Al-Zawahri welcomed the Salafi Group's change of name.

European and US intelligence sources say that the Algerian group is coordinating the militant activities of the Moroccan Islamic Jihad, Tunisian extremists, and the Libyan Islamic Group, and trying to make them pledge fealty to Al-Qaeda.

The Salafi Group carried out several bombings in late 2006, targeting police stations in Algiers. Then it launched seven simultaneous bombings on 13 February 2007 under its new name. On April 2007, the group sent three suicide bombers to blow up over two tonnes of explosives in two attacks. One of these two attacks was against the government headquarters in Algiers, the first time the building was targeted since violence broke out in Algeria in 1992.

This is not the first time Algerian militant groups change their tactics. When Islamists started their war on the government, which they said robbed them of certain victory in national elections, they had eight armed organisations. The best known was the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), which claimed to be the military wing of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). Others included the Salafi Combat Group, the Islamic State Movement, and the Emigration and Denunciation Current. In 1994, several of these groups united under the name Islamic Armed Group (GIA).

One of the bloodiest leaders of GIA was Antar Zouabri, who inspired some of the worst atrocities ever committed in the country. As a result of the atrocities, several ulema issued edicts disavowing the terrorists. Soon after, Hassan Hattab, a former officer, split from the GIA to form a new group that he named the Salafi Group.

Hattab was considering the amnesty offered by President Bouteflika when he was dismissed by Nabil Sahraoui. The latter was killed in clashes with the army in 2004. Abu Musaab Abdul- Wadoud, his successor, said in summer 2005 that his group became part of Al-Qaeda.

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