Between the Near and the Far Enemy: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb
Between the Near and the Far Enemy: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb
Saturday, October 20,2007 21:11
By Guido Steinberg & Isabelle Werenfels

In late January 2007, the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat, GSPC) announced that it had changed its name to "al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb" (Qaedat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Maghrib al-Islami). Shortly afterwards, the new organization proved that this was not merely a change in name, but the beginning of a new offensive in Algeria: On 11 April 2007, the group detonated two car bombs, one of them close to the Prime Minister"s office in the capital Algiers; more than 30 people died and more than 150 were injured. While the mode of operation resembled that of al-Qaeda (especially in Iraq), the choice of the target indicated that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb stuck to the GSPC"s strategy which focused on a destabilization of the Algerian state, the "near enemy" in the words of the Islamists themselves. However, the new organization"s rhetoric changed. In their public declarations, its leaders increasingly targeted France and the United States, the "far enemies", and threatened terrorist attacks on European and American institutions and citizens. In fact, the GSPC had already internationalized its political discourse from 2003 and had linked its rhetoric to al-Qaeda and its international agenda. While this seems to have been motivated mainly in order to win recruits and finances, the renaming of the organization might kick off a more profound change: it might indicate that the GSPC has indeed begun to pursue an international agenda and will pose a bigger threat to North African and European security in the coming years.

The Emergence of the GSPC

The GSPC emerged in 1998, when it split from the Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Armé, GIA). In 1995, under the leadership of its then emir Jamal Zitouni (1967-96), the organization had increasingly targeted civilians, based on the conviction that the Algerian people had fallen from Islam and could therefore be killed as apostates. Its bloody massacres of civilians caused public support for the group to dwindle, and persistent rumours of the group being manipulated by the Algerian intelligence agencies further discredited it. Even its supporters among Jihadist circles in London decided to give up their propaganda activities on behalf of the GIA. As a result, smaller groups split off from the GIA. The GSPC established itself as the numerically strongest of these new organizations. It partly succeeded in regaining the support of sections of the population by largely confining its attacks to security forces and state institutions and officials. The GSPC was in fact as much a nationalist as it was an Islamist organization.
It explicitly confined its activities to Algeria where it aimed to topple the government and set up an Islamic state. Although it is often claimed by terrorism experts that Usama Bin Laden had personally ordered the establishment of the GSPC, there is no hard evidence for this hypothesis. Rather, the GSPC distanced itself from any effort to draw it closer to an internationalist rather than a nationalist Algerian agenda. It quickly managed to take over the European support and logistics networks which had hitherto been controlled by the GIA. This might be a better explanation for its quick rise to prominence than support by al-Qaeda from Afghanistan.

By the late 1990s, at the end of the Algerian civil war, the GSPC remained the most important armed group in Algeria, but did not succeed in destabilizing the country. While it managed to gain support among Algerian militant Islamists, the massacres of the mid- 1990s had convinced the population that armed struggle was not a way to bring about changes in Algeria. The GSPC was forced onto the defensive and the security forces succeeded in confining the operations of the GSPC to a mountainous region east and south-east of the capital Algiers. Larger-scale terrorist attacks were exceptions. Pressure on the GSPC grew after 11 September 2001. The US identified Algeria as an important field of al-Qaeda activity and enhanced its counter-terrorism cooperation with the Algerian government: the weakening of the GSPC was partly a consequence of American (and also European) technological and logistical support for Algeria"s security forces.

The GSPC first reacted to the increased pressure by moving into the south of the country, close to Algeria"s borders with Chad, Mali, and Mauritania. One of its regional commanders, Abdarrazzaq "el- Para", was responsible for abducting 32 European tourists in spring 2003. Yet, his activities and those of southern Algeria"s second field commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar were criminal rather than terrorist in nature. Belmokhtar is not so much the head of an Islamist terrorist group as a local weapons smuggler. In southern Algeria, the GSPC seemed to develop from a terrorist organization to one of organized crime - a development similar to that of terrorist groups like the Peruvian Shining Path, which with the course of time lost any political impetus.

As early as 2001, there existed a widespread view among European security services that the GSPC was on the verge of collapse. Similarly, Algeria"s security establishment from late 2001 tried to re-frame the struggle against Algeria"s armed groups as part of the international "war on terrorism" - and claimed that the disappearance of the Algerian terrorist groups was merely a question of time. Yet, official estimates of the size of the GSPC have not decreased, and in 2006 estimates still spoke of 800 fighters - despite the fact that the Algerian media reported on arrested or killed terrorists almost daily. At the same time, an alleged 300 armed Islamists were said to have laid down their arms under an amnesty law linked to the 2005 Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation. While these official figures are rather confusing, it has been established that the GSPC suffered from internal power struggles and from being cornered geographically.

The GSPC and al-Qaeda

With all likelihood it was its weakness that prompted the GSPC to move closer towards Usama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda and to establish contacts with the al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan and Abu Musab al- Zarqawi"s "Tawhid and Jihad Group" in Iraq. As early as October 2003, its then leader Nabil Sahraoui, who died the following year, announced that the GSPC had subordinated itself to the al-Qaeda organization of Usama Bin Laden and to the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, and would support their fight against the USA. In June 2004, he confirmed the new international thrust of the GSPC by declaring war on all western foreigners in Algeria. Sahraoui"s successor, Abu Musab Abdalwudud, continued his predecessor"s policy. In December 2006, the group performed its first attack in several years on a foreign target, claiming one life when a bus carrying employees of a joint venture between the American oil services company Halliburton and the Algerian oil corporation Sonatrach was attacked near Algiers - on one of Algeria"s most securely guarded roads.

By moving closer to the transnational organizations, the GSPC followed the example of the Egyptian Jihad organization (Tanzim al- Jihad) after 1995. In Egypt in 1995, it became increasingly clear that the Islamist insurgency led by the Islamic Group (al-Jama"a al- Islamiya) would not succeed in destabilizing the regime of President Mubarak. Parts of the Jihad organization led by Aiman al-Zawahiri drew the conclusion that the Islamists would have to revise their strategies if they wanted to continue the armed struggle. Rather than focusing on the "near enemy", i.e. the Mubarak regime, Zawahiri proposed to target the "far enemy", namely the United States. This was an important step for the Egyptian organization, which had exclusively targeted its own government since the late 1970s.
Zawahiri, however, now argued that only US support provided the Egyptian government with the resources it needed to guarantee stability. If the US could be forced to withdraw its support, the regime would collapse. Therefore, the Islamists would from now on attack American targets.

Just like the Jihad organization, the GSPC decided to adopt an internationalist agenda in a situation when it was pushed onto the defensive. Unintentionally, the US government contributes to this move by granting technological and logistical support for Algeria"s security forces. This increasingly close cooperation discredits both the USA and Algeria"s government in the eyes of the Algerian population and risks strengthening militant Islamists: the credibility of the local rulers suffers because they allow the American military to operate on Algerian soil, and the USA becomes the target of resentment because, despite its rhetoric of democratization, it continues to cooperate closely with an authoritarian regime. This might have prompted the GSPC to seek closer contact with anti-American terrorists in Iraq and Pakistan. While the GSPC was a purely Algerian organization with an Algerian agenda in 2001, it might be argued that international counter-terrorism activities in North Africa and the Sahel contributed to its decision to adopt an internationalist agenda.

Renaming the organization "al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb" only sealed a process of rapprochement between the GSPC and al-Qaeda. However, the GSPC leadership knew that this step would draw criticism from within the organization and would confirm the Algerian government"s assertion that the GSPC had been part and parcel of international terrorism since its inception in 1998. But the step had important advantages for both the GSPC and al-Qaeda. The example of the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who had been operating in Iraq from 2003, illustrates this well. In October 2004, Zarqawi had declared his allegiance to al-Qaeda and Usama Bin Laden and had renamed his "Tawhid and Jihad Group" "al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia" (Qaedat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidain). In December, Bin Laden publicly accepted Zarqawi"s oath of allegiance. For the al- Qaeda leader, isolated in the Pakistani mountains and incapable of effectively leading the organization or what had remained of it, the (rhetorical) joining of al-Qaeda in Iraq had the advantage of helping to create the impression that al-Qaeda is a genuinely global force. In the eyes of the global public, it had now won a foothold in Iraq, in the most important theatre of war between the US and militant Islamists. Zarqawi for his part secured his access to the recruiting and financing networks of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, namely in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Furthermore, even though he had subordinated himself to al- Qaeda, it was unlikely that Bin Laden or his deputy would be able to effectively exert control over the Iraqi branch. Pakistan was simply too far away and the al-Qaeda leadership too isolated to decisively influence the development of an essentially independent branch of the organization in Iraq.

The GSPC seems to have been driven by similar motives. The use of the new name would open up the possibility of accessing the international financing and recruiting networks of al-Qaeda without ceding any effective authority to Bin Laden. North Africans who had hitherto travelled to the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan in order to join al-Qaeda could now find one of its branches in their home region. From 1998, al-Qaeda"s internationalist agenda had increasingly attracted Algerians and other North Africans. Hundreds flocked to the training camps in Afghanistan, demonstrating the strong appeal of al-Qaeda"s internationalist ideology in the Maghreb. From 2003, many travelled to Iraq to join the insurgents in their fight against the American occupation and the new Iraqi state. In several cases, recruitment networks were traced in Algeria. While Algerians first seemed to have presented a minority among the foreign fighters, from 2005, the number of North Africans in general and Algerians in particular rose substantially. The GSPC"s decision to internationalize its strategy might have been an effort on its part to keep Algerian fighters from leaving their home country and to attract them to the fight against the Algerian government. Furthermore, stressing its transnational character by choosing the new name al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb could strengthen its credentials among non-Algerian North Africans and win them for its cause.

Internationalization or "Pan-Maghrebization"?

Since 2003, the GSPC seems to have become increasingly attractive for young militants from neighbouring countries. There have been more and more reports from Morocco and Tunisia about volunteers undergoing training in GSPC camps. These reports have to be taken with a pinch of salt since they originate from North African governments with a clear interest in instrumentalizing the "terrorist threat" for their purposes. Yet their frequency appears to point to a real trend, especially given the fact that, since 2005, recruits from Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya have repeatedly been arrested in Algeria. At least some of these fighters return to their home countries to bolster the local terrorist infrastructure there. Thus the internationalization of the GSPC to date has largely been a process of "pan-Maghrebization". While Algerian officials make efforts to downplay this development, statements such as that of the interior minister made in summer 2007 claiming that there were "only forty foreign elements" in Algerian terrorist groups are likely to have the opposite effect and confirm the trend. Although it remains to be established to what extent terrorist activities in Algeria"s neighbouring countries have been influenced by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the coincidence of growing unrest in all the Maghreb states is striking.

In Morocco, in 2006 barely a month went by without security forces raiding a cell of allegedly militant Islamists. Moroccan officials discovered links to the GSPC in several cases. In March and April 2007, several suicide attacks were carried out in Casablanca, causing only minor damage. Tunisia has been the state most rigorously controlled by highly effective security forces. It was all the more surprising when Tunisian security forces and armed Islamists clashed south of the capital Tunis in December 2006 and January 2007 - over a dozen people were killed. According to sparse official reports from Tunisia, the militants involved in these clashes were Islamists from Tunisia, Algeria, and Mauritania with ties to the GSPC, which is believed to have infiltrated Tunisia from the Algerian border. In Libya, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) entered a confrontation with the Gaddhafi regime in the mid-1990s and was brutally suppressed. Those who managed to flee began to cooperate more closely with transnational networks outside Libya. Thus all the al-Qaeda field commanders in Afghanistan whose names are currently known are Libyans. Meanwhile, even in Libya itself a substantial recruitment potential for militant Islamists seems to exist. Many Libyans have travelled to Iraq. In June 2007, there were reports from Libya that the security services were on high alert due to reports about forthcoming terrorist attacks in the country.

These events have caused several European security agencies to consider al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb the most serious terrorist threat to Western European countries, especially France and Spain where the organization commands a substantial logistical infrastructure. However, the organization still concentrates its attacks on Algerian targets. In spite of its internationalist rhetoric, the first major attack of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the suicide attacks in Algiers on 11 April 2007 targeted the Algerian state. The continuous and since 2007 increasing attacks on Algerian security forces, often leaving more than a dozen soldiers dead a month, also testify to the group"s nationalist agenda.

The evidence about whether a new internationalist organization has emerged in Algeria is inconclusive. Rather, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb seems to have joined other transnational organizations in their ambivalence towards the question whether to attack the "near" or the "far" enemy. The perception of this group in the Algerian media and among Algerian officials reflects this ambivalence: references to the group oscillate between its old and its new name. While the attacks in Algiers seem to indicate that the organization remains focused on its Algerian agenda, its growing appeal among North Africans in the neighbouring countries and in Western Europe might give its internationalization its own impetus. While the leadership of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb might try to instrumentalize the new name in order to reach its goals in Algeria, young recruits might take the internationalist agenda more seriously and act accordingly - without reference to a leadership isolated in the Algerian mountains. The group thus may become what the Algerian regime for years wrongly claimed it was: an international terrorist player. Therefore, the potential threat posed by North African militants to those European states who host larger North African communities is growing.

Yet it cannot be excluded that the internationalization and subsequent renaming of the organization which were designed to overcome its weakness will eventually not lead to its complete decomposition. After all, the step provoked widespread criticism by leading personalities within the organization who rejected the alliance with al-Qaeda. Reports about the organization"s emir, Abu Musab Abdalwudud, being increasingly isolated quickly spread in the Arab press. This might be true but reports about growing recruitment of non-Algerian North Africans and the spread of terrorist activities in neighbouring countries hint at the fact that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb - while losing some support among Algerians - might at the same time win more internationalist minded young North Africans. Furthermore, terrorist movements are by definition weak in the face of a stronger enemy. This is why they employ terrorist methods - lacking the power to use more conventional forms of warfare. Besides, weakness might lead to radicalization. The Jihad organization in Egypt, for instance, was on the verge of collapse when it decided to internationalize its strategy in the mid-1990s.
Influential leaders of the organization refused to submit to Aiman al-Zawahiri"s command and severely criticized his decision to merge with Usama Bin Laden"s al-Qaeda. As a consequence, many members of the Jihad organization left the group. Nevertheless, the new organization was capable of organizing the attacks of 11 September 2001 and has escaped total disruption in the face of a global hunt of Jihadists led by the United States ever since. Therefore, a weakened al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is not necessarily less of a threat to North African and European security.