Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has its origins in a campaign of terror that almost tore Algeria apart in the 1990s, has struck again with deadly force, including two attacks last week that left up to 60 dead.

AQIM appeared to take responsibility for both attacks in a taped message broadcast Friday by the Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera.

It claimed the attacks on a police academy and army barracks on Aug. 19 and on a bus carrying workers for a Canadian engineering firm on Aug. 20 were in retaliation for a government crackdown on militants.

The tape could not be authenticated, but militants often use Al-Jazeera to post claims.

Authorities said the car bomb attacks bore all the hallmarks of the group.

AQIM is the successor to a terrorist group that battled the government in the 1990s after the military pre-empted elections that an Islamist coalition was poised to win.

Today, with the setbacks it has suffered in Iraq, North Africa is second only to Afghanistan and the mountainous tribal border regions of Pakistan as the focus of al Qaeda‘s violent campaign.

“This is an extension of the insurgency - a civil war almost at times - that has been raging since the 1990s and never really stopped,” Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations told United Press International of the recent bombings.

Beginning in 1992, the violence, led by fighters returning from the successful insurgency against the Soviets in Afghanistan and organized in the Armed Islamic Group, claimed more than 150,000 lives.

The violence spread to Europe in 1994, when gunmen hijacked an Air France jet bound for Paris.

In an eerie premonition of the Sept. 11 plot, the hijackers intended to crash the plane into Paris, said French security officials, but were killed when they stopped in Marseille.

The following year, bombings on the Paris metro killed eight people and injured dozens.

The group drew condemnation even from fellow extremists for its grisly mass killings of civilians, and in 1998 Hassan Hattab and others broke away, charging that its tactics - which they blamed in part on infiltration by the Algerian military - were alienating potential supporters.

Mr. Hattab formed the Group for Salafist Preaching and Combat, known by its French acronym GSPC, which renewed a guerrilla war against the government.

Terrorists in Algeria have a long-standing relationship with al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who reportedly contemplated moving his base there as an alternative to Afghanistan when he had to leave Sudan in the 1990s.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the GSPC group was added to the U.S. list of worldwide terror groups.

Despite its leaders’ relationship with bin Laden and the designation by the U.S. government, the GSPC appears to have remained focused on its internal battle with the Algerian state, at least until 2006. That was when it merged with bin Laden’s al Qaeda.

In March 2003, GSPC leader Amari Saifi, known as el Para because of his stint in the airborne military, kidnapped more than 30 European tourists, netting the group an estimated $10 million in ransom payments.

The following year, after a long, multinational hunt led by the U.S. military, el Para was captured in Chad and eventually turned over to the Algerians.

To get help in freeing him, GSPC leader Abdelmalek Droukdal told the New York Times last month in his first-ever statement to the Western media, the group reached out in 2004 to Abu Musab Zarqawi, who was the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq.

A series of secret messages between the GSPC and al Qaeda leaders in Iraq and on the Afghan-Pakistan border resulted in the Algerian group eventually merging with al Qaeda.

The move was announced by al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, in September 2006. In early 2007, the GSPC formally changed its name to AQIM.

But the growing closeness to al Qaeda was not to everyone’s taste.

Hassan Hattab, who had left the group he founded in 2003, called as early as March 2005 for his former colleagues to lay down their weapons.

In 2007, he renewed that call after a bomb attack killed 33 people and injured more than 200 in the capital, Algiers, accusing the AQIM leadership of trying to turn Algeria into “a second Iraq.”

In September last year, he surrendered to authorities, apparently seeking to take advantage of an amnesty the Algerian government was promulgating for those who renounced terrorism - the second such since the ascension of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 1999.

After the latest bombings, Mr. Hattab renewed his call a third time.

“I advise you to have the courage to lay down your weapons,” he told former comrades in a letter to an Algerian newspaper, calling the violent struggle “a blind alley.”

According to the U.S. State Department, AQIM “is still primarily focused on the Algerian government,” but “now considers foreign interests to be attractive targets,” and has adopted suicide bombings and other al Qaeda tactics.

“We have witnessed a shift in Algeria to tactics that have been successfully employed by insurgents and terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the department said in its annual review of global terrorism, including “the use of suicide car bombs, suicide vests, and improvised explosive devices.” In 2007, AQIM carried out eight suicide attacks that resulted in dozens of government and civilian casualties.

Some analysts caution against reading too much into the merger and the group’s name change.

“There has been no substantial change, either in tactics or in targets,” since the merger, the Council of Foreign Relations’ Mr. Cook told UPI.

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