How Did Al Qaeda Emerge in North Africa?

Article excerpt

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 communique on the website of Evan Kohlmann, a New York-based international terrorist expert. …