Since September 11, numerous commentators including Glenn Reynolds have been noting for some time that al-Qaeda has a major Algerian component to it. This analysis will take a larger look at that particular component and how it has changed to become what increasingly appearing to be the preferred African arm of al-Qaeda.
The Genesis of Algerian Extremism
The origins of Algerian extremism are fairly common knowledge, though Fred Pruitt has theorized that one of the reasons that extremism is so prevalent in Algerian is that as a result of the sheer brutality of the nation's war for independence against France that barbaric violence became ingrained as an element of the national culture. As a result, Fred sees the Algerian Islamists' decision to orchestrate their war against the civilian government as being an entirely logical decision given the violent tendencies of the culture. Whether or not he's right I can't say, although that would certainly explain the equal levels of brutality with which the Algerian military has responded against the extremists ...
In any case, in December 1991 the Algerian political party Front Islamique de Salut (Islamic Salvation Front or FIS) won 188 seats in the National People's Assembly during the first round of elections, with the National Liberation Front (FLN) that had governed Algeria ever since its independence winning only 15. FIS had already declared its intention to dissolve the Assembly and implement the sha'riah upon being elected and a quote from FIS leader Ali Belhadj ("When we are in power, there will be no more elections because God will be ruling") is one of the origins of the phrase, "One man, one vote, one time." The second round of elections was never held as a state of emergency was declared, FIS was banned, and a military junta took control of the country through the Higher Council of State that is today commonly referred to by Algerians as simply le Pouvoir or "the Power." FIS leaders Abassi Madani and Ali Belhadj were arrested, though several other key leaders including Abdelkader Hachani, Rabah Kheir, and bin Laden's ally Khamareddine Kherbane managed to escape to Europe, where the organization established an executive branch and a military council in exile in Germany.
Back in Algeria, the Islamic Salvation Army and the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) emerged to fight the Algerian military for control of the country. The latter, formed in 1993, was particularly ruthless with its assassination campaigns against Algerian diplomats, priests, industrialists, intellectuals, feminists, Sufis, and foreigners. Razing entire villages and claimed that its actions were motivated by jihad, the GIA hacked its victims to death with swords, axes, and chain saws as a means of saving ammunition. Those believed to be guilty of apostacy were doused with petroleum and set on fire. To further compound the violence, the Algerian military was known to wipe out villages on its own accord, claiming the destruction to be the work of the GIA, in order to turn the public against them.
I am uncertain as to when exactly the GIA first became an al-Qaeda affiliate, though it is known that one of the group's first emir-generals, Abdel Haqq Layada, was himself a member of the terrorist network so it would have had to have been prior to his rise to power. In any event, the GIA under Layada and his successors staged one of the most ruthless terrorist campaigns ever conceived and over 120,000 Algerians civilians have died since the carnage first began in 1992. Antar Zouabri, who assumed the emir-generalcy of the GIA in June 1996 following the death of his predecessor, even proceeded to issue a 60-page fatwa that declared the entire Algerian general population to be kufr for failing to support his campaign against the government as well as justifying indiscriminate attacks against civilians.
It was this fatwa, despite its blessing from Abu Qatada, bin Laden's ambassador in Europe and the editor of the GIA propaganda tract al-Ansar, that earned Zouabri bin Laden's disapproval. In addition to doing a great deal of damage to the support for Islamist revolution in Algeria, Zouabri was also spending too much of his time killing villagers and not enough fighting the Algerian government. As a result, al-Qaeda contacted Hassan Hattab, the head of the GIA's European arm and convinced him to form a separate organization - the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, better known by its French acronym as the GSPC.
Al-Jamaa al-Salafiyyah al-Dawaa
Under Hattab and his pledge not to attack civilian targets (though the GSPC still does so on a regular basis), the GSPC has flourished as al-Qaeda's chosen proxy in Algeria as well as developed ties to Sudan and Iran from which to receive training and weaponry in order to destabilize the Algerian government. Most of the "North Africans" arrested in Europe for involvement with al-Qaeda belong to this organization.
Some analysts will tell you that the Algerian government "exaggerates" the links between al-Qaeda and the Algerian extremists in order to get its hands on Western military assistance and to be quite frank that's patently untrue. The GSPC has been part of bin Laden's terrorist coalition for years and the difference between al-Qaeda and GSPC operatives, particularly in Europe, is at best a form of semantics.
Among some of the more recent examples of collaboration between al-Qaeda and the GSPC:
- A deputy of Emad Abdelwahid Ahmed Alwan, the head of al-Qaeda's operations in North Africa, was killed by the Algerian military while working as an advisor to the GSPC.
- Alwan's deputy, a Yemeni national, was killed near Bouira while preparing for a meeting with Hassan Hattab.
- 3 Saudi al-Qaeda operatives traveled to Niger to deliver a message from bin Laden to GSPC leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
- That same Mokhtar Belmokhtar plotted to blow up the US embassy in Mali several months later.
- The GSPC kidnapped 32 European tourists in Algeria earlier last year, with the first 17 being freed by Algerian commandos and the last 14 only freed in return for $5,500,000 in ransom, which is an exceedingly large amount of money in Africa.
Clearly, the GSPC's ties to al-Qaeda (or Sudan and Iran) should not be disregarded just because the government that they are fighting happens to be a fairly nasty military junta. The same should be said of the governments of Uzbekistan or the Russian-backed administration in Chechnya.
Signs of a Broader Agenda ...
Al-Qaeda has long sought to exploit the poor security and weak central governments that exist throughout West Africa in order to establish an enclave there and forged ties to the governments of Liberia and Burkina Faso both before and after 9/11 to assist in their global financing operations. After being driven from Afghanistan, the network set up enclaves in Algeria, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Nigeria in the hopes of compensating for the loss of their main base and as this UPI commentary explains, the region is extremely fertile ground for the terror network if a little bit further away from their main staging area of the Middle East.
In early June 2003, a coalition of Islamic militants and Baathists (thank goodness we know they'd never work together!) led by Colonel Lamine Ouhd Ndeiane and Colonel Salah Ould Hananna attempted to overthrow the government of Mauritanian dictator Maaouiya Ould Taya. While the coup failed and loyalist forces quickly regained control of the capital, US ambassador Vicki Huddleston recently disclosed US fears that the coup plotters led by Colonel Hananna, most of whom fled to northern Mali, could link up with the GSPC for a second attempt to depose Ould Taya.
While it is hardly my intention to defend Ould Taya or his thug government (which, among other things, still tolerates slavery), the establishment of an Islamist military government similar to the NIF in Sudan in Mauritania would be an unprecedented gain for the GSPC and their al-Qaeda backers, as it could serve as a base from which to support instability throughout West Africa, just as Afghanistan was for al-Qaeda from 1996 until 2001. If the GSPC was involved in even a peripheral role with the Mauritanian coup plot, it should only serve to underscore their ambitions in this regard.
The Merger and the Management Shuffle
Al-Qaeda has suffered some exceedingly high losses in terms of leadership as a result of the US-led war on terrorism since September 11 and has increasingly had to call upon affiliate groups to fold back into the core network in order to for it to remain a viable entity. As a result, as part of the network's reorganization involved the GSPC folding back into the core network along with two Yemeni and also a Saudi affiliate group in September 2003.
This process also coincided with an interesting shift in leadership within the GSPC, with Hassan Hattab being deposed in favor of Nabil Sahraoui due to anger among the GSPC rank and file over a lack of terrorist attacks. Sahraoui, whose inner circle of advisors includes 15 Libyan and Tunisian al-Qaeda operatives, openly declares his allegiance to al-Qaeda as well as his hatred of the West. Since Sahraoui assumed control of the group, the organization has definitely adopted much more of a transnational character, as can be seen in this plot by GSPC commander Abderrazak el-Para to attack the Paris-Dakar Rally and kidnap several of the participants. The plan, which sounds like a bad movie plot, involved over 100 GSPC fighters, or between a fourth to a twentieth of the total GSPC force depending on which statistics one uses, suggesting that this was a major delegation of resources in a strike that has little if anything do to with the GSPC's stated goal of overthrowing the Algerian government.
My contention is that events like the thwarted Paris-Dakar Rally plot begin to paint a clearer picture that al-Qaeda is attempting to use the GSPC to create something similar to Jemaah Islamiyyah in West Africa: an autonomous affiliate with a pan-regional outlook that crosses numerous national borders and serves as almost a miniature version of al-Qaeda on its own right. The ultimate goal, I would speculate, is to create enough large transnational regional or continental affiliates as a means of ensuring that the organization will survive even if the core network is completely destroyed at some future date. We have already seen what they have been able to accomplish in Southeast Asia operating virtually unchecked for nearly a decade - this process cannot be allowed to proceed in Africa as well.
Further Expansion and the US Response
Fortunately, it appears that these developments in Africa are not being neglected by Washington. From Mali to Algeria, US troops are training North Africa's ill-equipped militaries to fight the GSPC. In addition, at least one report from a somewhat dubious source claims that US Special Forces are already on the ground in Algeria battling the GSPC near the southern border with Mali.
The most recent major engagement between local governments and the GSPC occurred in late February, starting in Niger and then spilling over into Chad with the US providing support in the latter case. GSPC commander Amari Saifi (the real name for Abderrazak el-Para) was rumored to have been killed during the battle, but more recent reports have suggested that he survived to lead his fighters back into Algeria.
More ominously, however, is the fact that the majority of the GSPC fighters killed during the battle were not Algerians but rather from Nigeria, Niger, and Mali. That first mention should definitely set off some alarm bells for those of us who have followed the situation in northern Nigeria, mostly notably with regard to the Miss World riots and the rise of the Nigerian Taliban back in December. It's been an open secret for some time now that bin Laden has supporters in Nigeria, but it's quite another thing to learn that they have gone as far as to actively join the nearest al-Qaeda affiliate.
Not Just An African Problem
To be certain, Africa is a continent full of problems and has been for sometime now - it's kind of like the situation in Haiti on a much larger scale in many ways. However, because of its connections to al-Qaeda and growing reach across Africa, the GSPC is rapidly becoming a global problem with regard to prosecution of the war on terrorism and, as we saw with the Taliban before 9/11, ignoring these problems a sure way to make certain that they can and will come back around for even more trouble down the line.
For example, al-Qaeda bases in the Sahara have been public knowledge since at least the summer of 2002 and until recently no one has been serious about doing anything about them, not even the regional governments that Sahraoui likely plans to overthrow later down the line. The result? According to the Washington Times, al-Qaeda has established a rear base in the Sahara for staging attacks in Europe - such as the attacks we saw just last month in Madrid.