Salafist Splits: Al Qaeda Plans to Establish a New Network across the Maghreb Are Threatened by Growing Fracture within Algerian Core Group
Blanche, Ed, The Middle East
THE RECENT UPSURGE in jihadist attacks across North Africa, particularly the revival of terrorist attacks in the region's urban centres and the growing use of suicide bombers, underlines how Al Qaeda is steadily expanding its influence in the Maghreb.
In September 2006, Algeria's Groupe Salafiste pour la Predication et le Combat (the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, or GSPC) announced its alliance with Al Qaeda and in January 2007 renamed itself "Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb" (AQIM).
In November 2007, Ayman Al Zawahiri, long considered Osama bin Laden's No. 2, but increasingly seen as the organisation's operational leader, declared in an audiotape that Libya's Fighting Islamic Group had also joined Al Qaeda.
Zawahiri, former leader of Egypt's Jihad group which assassinated Anwar Sadat in October 1981, masterminded the alliance with the GSPC, the main terrorist threat in northwest Africa. By doing so, he integrated Algeria's jihadists, who focused on fighting the military-backed Algiers government for more than a decade, with Al Qaeda's ever-expanding global network and its war against the West.
The Egyptian veteran of the global jihad urged Islamist militants throughout the Maghreb to overthrow the regimes in North Africa. He singled out Colonel Muammar Gaddafi for particular attention.
"Today, with grace from God, the Muslim nation witnesses a blessed step," Zawahiri said on the tape. "Honourable members of the Fighting Islamic Group in Libya announce that they are joining the Al Qaeda group to continue the march of their brothers."
Regional governments routinely dismiss such threats, but an attempt to assassinate Algerian President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika of Algeria in a suicide bombing in the eastern town of Batna last September, along with attacks on the Algiers offices of Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem and Interior Minister Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni, provided chilling emphasis that Al Zawahiri's declaration should not be taken lightly. The Batna bombing, in which 33 people were killed, was the first suicide attack in Algeria for a decade and the worst strike there for several years.
According to Hamida Ayachi, editor of Algiers' Djazair News and a specialist in jihadist groups, the organisational links between the Salafist insurgents in Iraq and the Islamist militant groups in the Maghreb have strengthened considerably over the last 18 months. "Iraq has become a big laboratory to train kamikazes and warriors," he said. "They're trying to take young people from here to Iraq for training so they can use them later in North Africa. Likewise, they're training people here in the mountains and the desert."
The Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisia groups have long had links with Islamist radicals in Europe and there have been fears that the nascent Al Qaeda network could mean greater danger for France, Spain, Italy, Germany and other states. The GSPC's presence in Europe is considerable and it recruits within the large North African Diaspora. Many of these recruits have been funnelled to Iraq for combat training, deadly skills they will at some point take back to their homelands.
However, the efforts of Al Qaeda Central--as western intelligence services have dubbed the movement's leadership--to forge a regional force in the Maghreb are reported to have run into serious trouble with the AQIM, which is considered to he the core of the region-wide organisation Zawahiri seems intent on stitching together.
At the same time, security authorities across the region have been having some success in infiltrating jihadist groups and inflicting heavy losses in military sweeps against their hideouts. The Algerians became particularly adept at infiltrating Islamist groups during the bloodletting of the 1990s.
AQIM's leadership has been splintered by a feud, largely over the decision by Abu Mussab Abdel Wadood, also known as Abdul Malek Droukdel, to merge the GSPC with Al Qaeda in 2006. …