October 5, 2006


Al-Qaeda's Far-Reaching New Partner: Salafist Group Finds Limited Appeal in Its Native Algeria (Craig Whitlock, 10/05/06, Washington Post)

Al-Qaeda forged its alliance with the GSPC in spite of a long history of feuding with Algerian radicals.

The Algerian conflict, which has claimed an estimated 200,000 lives since 1991, at first attracted enthusiastic support from Islamic radicals around the world, including Zawahiri and other future al-Qaeda leaders. They sent money, fighters and supplies to the guerrillas, seeing the war as an opportunity to replace Algeria's secular, military-backed government with a fundamentalist Islamic state.

But their zeal was shaken when Algerian rebels led by another terrorist network, the Armed Islamic Group, or GIA, began slaughtering thousands of civilians. The GIA subscribed to an Islamic ideology called takfir , a belief that any Muslim who does not embrace strict, medieval codes of conduct is an apostate deserving of death.

Bin Laden, who was living in Sudan at the time, believed that killing fellow Muslims was counterproductive. So he sent an emissary to Algeria to demand that the GIA change its approach and pledge loyalty to the fledgling al-Qaeda network, according to European intelligence officials. The GIA refused.

As the massacres continued, bin Laden's allies in London and elsewhere wrote scathing denunciations of the Algerian group, a rejection that persisted for years.

The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat -- its name is derived from a branch of fundamentalist Islam -- was founded in 1998 by a splinter group of Algerian rebels who wanted to reduce the number of civilian massacres. It quickly eclipsed the GIA, but it still struggled to win support from abroad.

That started to change after al-Qaeda launched the Sept. 11 attacks. With its territorial base in Afghanistan in jeopardy, al-Qaeda's leadership began looking for safer places to relocate.

In the fall of 2001, according to French and Algerian officials, bin Laden dispatched a Yemeni deputy to Algeria for talks with the radical group. The emissary was reported killed in September 2002 by Algerian security services, but his presence in Algeria marked a turning point, they said.

"Until 2001, the GSPC wasn't trusted by the rest of the international jihad," said Louis Caprioli, former director of international counterterrorism for the DST, the French counterintelligence service. "That's when the GSPC started to become international. It used to be focused solely on Algeria."

On the second anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, a leader of the Algerian group posted a statement on the Internet pledging the group's allegiance to al-Qaeda for the first time, adding: "We strongly and fully support Osama bin Laden's jihad against the heretic America." In March 2005, a successor leader, Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, issued a similar statement praising bin Laden.

Until recently, al-Qaeda's leadership had offered cautious or tepid responses. In the summer of 2005, bin Laden referred to "our brothers" in the Algerian network in a long statement on audiotape, but otherwise has not publicly embraced the group.

It became clear, however, that an alliance could bring benefits to both sides, analysts said. If the Algerians could win al-Qaeda's endorsement, it would erase their network's pariah status in radical Islamic circles, making it easier to raise money and logistical support. In turn, al-Qaeda would gain a local affiliate and an operational foothold in North Africa.

"The leadership of al-Qaeda doesn't have a secure base left anywhere else in the world," said Liess Boukraa, a terrorism expert and author in Algiers. "So al-Qaeda needs the GSPC at the logistical level. The GSPC needs al-Qaeda at the ideological level."

Al-Qaeda has pursued this strategy in multiple Muslim countries, partnering with local underground groups in an effort to extend its name and influence. In Iraq, al-Qaeda teamed with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's insurgent group, prevailing on him to change its name to al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Kurdish group Ansar al-Islam and various organizations in Kashmir have similar ties with bin Laden's movement.

Analysts said the shift by the Algerian organization toward a global strategy was a tacit admission that its original goal -- seizing power in its home country -- had failed. The network continues to attack government targets in Algeria almost weekly, but it has taken heavy losses in recent years and is confined to remote areas in the mountains and desert.

Estimates of the number of active GSPC members, who constitute almost all of the remaining fighters against the Algerian government, run from 500 to 1,200 -- a sharp drop from the 40,000 Islamic extremists who took up arms against the government in the 1990s.

Algerian Interior Minister Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni said last month that Algerian security forces had killed or captured 500 Islamic fighters over the past year. In addition, about 250 members of the GSPC and other extremists have accepted the Algerian government's offer of political amnesty under a national reconciliation program, he said.

Mounir Boudjema, an expert on Algerian terrorist groups and editor of the newspaper Liberte, said the Salafist radical group is weaker than ever at home.

"In terms of strategy, they have lost," Boudjema said in an interview in Algiers. "The population doesn't want to have them anymore. The people in the villages refuse to give them blankets or water or food. The whole logistical network is falling apart."

At the point where you've had to abandon your strategic goals just to be able to continue to be a periodic annoyance, you've lost.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 5, 2006 8:13 AM
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