- The Washington Times - Monday, June 21, 2004

ALGIERS — Troops killed one of North Africa’s most-wanted Islamic militants, who had sought to link his bloody insurgent movement in Algeria to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terror network, the military said yesterday.

The death of Nabil Sahraoui, head of the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, marked a major victory for government efforts to suppress Islamic militant violence and left his armed extremist organization with no clear leader.

Sahraoui and three of his lieutenants were killed in a “vast antiterrorist operation” that continues in the Kabylie region east of the capital, Algiers, the army general staff said in a statement.

The sweep by army units “killed numerous criminals,” the statement said. “Among these terrorists figures the criminal Nabil Sahraoui.”

Newspaper reports said Sahraoui was killed late Thursday or early Friday.

The Salafist Group, known by its French acronym GSPC, is one of two groups that have led a violent insurgency against the military-backed government since 1992. More than 120,000 Algerians have been killed in insurgent violence and government campaigns to suppress it.

It and the Armed Islamic Group, from which it split in 1998, are blamed for bombings, rapes and massacres. But the Salafists have been diminished in recent months by government offensives.

Sahraoui, who was in his mid-to-late-30s, took over leadership of the Salafist group last year and declared its allegiance to al Qaeda.

That raised concerns that the Salafists could become an affiliate of al Qaeda and conduct terrorist attacks beyond their North African territory.

Sahraoui is not known to have been behind attacks outside Algeria, but bin Laden’s network has made inroads into Algeria. A Yemeni al Qaeda lieutenant, Emad Abdelwahid Ahmed Alwan, was killed in a September 2002 gunbattle about 270 miles east of Algiers. Authorities said he had met with Salafists and was managing operations for al Qaeda in North Africa.

Sahraoui’s death left open the possibility of a leadership fight within the Salafists.

Among the militants killed along with Sahraoui was Abbi Abdelaziz, also known as “Okacha the paratrooper,” who had been seen as a potential successor. The army said troops also netted weapons, munitions and documents in the sweep.

The Salafists’ strength is unknown, although experts believe the group has only several hundred fighters and is fragmented into autonomous brigades. The U.S. State Department added the group to its list of foreign terrorist groups in 2002.

“The influence of the GSPC has been steadily eroded by security initiatives within Algeria, in the pan-Sahara region and, of course, within Europe,” said Magnus Ranstorp, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland.

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