Al-QaEda in the Islamic Maghreb and the April 11, 2007 attacks in Algiers
Clashes between factions against the backdrop of geopolitical conflicts
by François Gèze and Salima Mellah, Algeria-Watch, April 21st, 2007, translation from french
In the eyes of the Algerian public opinion as well as for those who try to resist the disinformation steamroller produced by the Algerian DRS (the army's secret services), the attribution of the responsibility of the April 11, 2007 attacks in Algiers to the 'Al Qaeda Organisation in the country of the Islamic Maghreb' (ex-GSPC) is not to be taken for granted, as most of the Western media tend to do. In the following article, which is almost exclusively based on a rigorous analysis of 'open sources' - thus within reach of all serious observers -, we demonstrate that those behind the bombings can only belong to the highest circles of Algerian authorities, in the hands of a few generals.
This tragic event represents an important stage in the exacerbation of the clashes between factions within the military Mafia 'umbrella' governing the country, which has once again lead some 'decision makers' to make use of 'Islamist' violence for their own benefit. Such an exacerbation can be explained by the conjunction of four main factors: a) the questioning of the strategic alliance with the United States, linked to the upheavals in world geopolitical struggles for power (rise in power of Russia and China, etc.); b) the extraordinary growth of oil and gas revenues linked to oil price increases, which have whetted the factions' financial appetites; c) the deep social crisis that is devastating the country (increasing misery and unemployment, repeated riots,…); d) the terminal illness of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is sooner or later to pass away, imposing the renewal of the civil façade of those who hold the real power, according to new balances of power which appear difficult to find.
For years, Western media have been waving the threat of a GSPC ('Salafist Predication and Combat Group') liable to hit Europe. When in January 2007 it announced its transformation into the 'Al Qaeda Organisation in the country of the Islamic Maghreb', the perceived dangerousness of this strange organisation could only be reinforced. With the immediate claim for responsibility on behalf of GSPC, the terrible bombings of Algiers on April 11th, 2007 re-launched the alarm: presented as suicide attacks, they targeted the government palace and the seat of the Police 'East Division' in Bab Ezzouar, killing thirty people and wounding more than two hundred.
More particularly in France, journalists, academics and security experts seek to outbid each other, as to whom will the most convincingly establish the links between GSPC and the international Al Qaeda nebula. Although some analysis subtleties are perceptible, there is one certainty that all these 'specialists' share - that it is indeed a terrorist act committed by Islamists opposed to the Algerian regime and obeying instructions from Al Qaeda's leaders. The few elements supporting this thesis are amplified, while the many dark zones are knowingly overshadowed. GSPC communiqués are set up as indisputable evidence, but nothing guarantees their authenticity. One more just as uncertain evidence is the method of operation. Attributed to 'kamikazes', it is said that these operations do not make part of the Algerian djihadist tradition and would thus prove Al Qaeda's participation.
In the West, the alleged affiliation of GSPC with Al Qaeda has not been questioned since Al Qaeda's number two might have invited GSPC to join the organisation and the latter might have renewed its allegiance to the 'Djihadist International" in September 2006. For years now, in Algeria, the collusion between the two bodies has regularly been mentioned in the press. And despite the poor pieces of evidence, such as an alleged Yemenite emissary who might have come to Algeria in 2002 to bring Al Qaeda's backing to the local organisation before being killed in an ambush, a large part of the Algerian press has continued to spread the idea as a self-evident truth.
A surprising minimization of 'Islamist terrorism'
Curiously however, for a few months now, certain Algerian French-speaking newspapers, although conditioned by more than fifteen years propaganda in virulently denouncing the 'Islamist hordes' in Algeria, are no longer so eloquent in brandishing the threat of Al Qaeda's spectre in Algeria. After each attack perpetrated in recent months, commentators wonder about the true instigators. Indeed, Mohamed Zaaf of the Jeune Indépendant noted after the series of bombings that hit the country in February 2007: "But, in fact, of Al Qaeda we only know the recorded voices. Thus, since the announcement of the tutelage, GSPC is obeying voices and intensifying its activities with the opening of the corruption trial. GSPC threatened to take it out on France and on French interests. However, on the contrary, it took everybody by surprise by in fact targeting American interests, near the Club des Pins, and Russian interests at Hayoun."
Even more surprising : some Algerian political leaders - who for years tried to convince their Western partners of the Islamist threat and of their link with the international organisation - reacted rather coyly to the latest attacks committed by GSPC of which the allegiance to Al Qaeda was beyond doubt in Europe. Didn't we see Yazid Zerhouni, Minister of the Interior, declare after the December 10, 2006 attack on a bus carrying workers of the Algerian-American company BRC (Brown Root and Condor), while a communiqué signed by GSPC was circulated on the internet, that this was only a "document"? He specified that "the enquiry [.] was still in progress. No lead was set aside for the moment. Only investigations that the relevant services are carrying out may accurately designate those responsible for this crime". As for the attack on March 3rd, 2007 on the bus conveying, amongst others, Russian workers of the Stroitransgaz company, there was little media coverage, although it was the first deadly raid against foreigners since GSPC transformed itself on January 24th, 2007 into 'Al Qaeda Organisation in the country of the Islamic Maghreb'.
In an interview on March 14th, 2007, President Bouteflika himself declared: "Terrorist acts are still committed from time to time. Such acts are due to organized crime. They have no ideological content. We are set to put a final end to them." When the journalist asked him whether Europeans needed to take the threats seriously of GSPC showing regional ambitions, the Algerian President answered: "One must differentiate between reality and propaganda, and put matters in their just proportions. And the Europeans know this, they who are very well informed on these issues." Far from revealing the President's conviction of the existence of an excessive threat, his words lead rather to believe that he suspects the Europeans (or others?) to use such a threat for their own benefit.
We should also note that an Algerian journalist, Mounir B., 'terrorism expert' known to be close to the DRS (the Army's secret service), declared a little more than a month before the April 11 attacks: "Algerian authorities did not appear to be particularly upset until the last series of attacks in Kabylia. 'GSPC has changed its name, but for us nothing has changed' the Minister of the Interior declared. He is not entirely wrong. In terms of struggle for power at grass-root level, the situation has not changed in favour of the terrorist groups. They are still very weak in numbers and they face major difficulties with arms supplies and renewal." Moreover, for months, most Algerian newspapers related the military successes carried out in various regions of the country, while the difficulties encountered by the Al Qaeda version of GSPC are constantly highlighted. Security forces would have captured many armed men, allowing them to gather important information on active group developments. However, indeed, the detailed account of the attacks show the upsurge of armed group activities these recent months, but its importance is often minimized, in particular its supposed link with Al Qaeda.
American aims on Algerian and Sahel oil
Then why is this other story coming from Algiers? Why this less alarming tone? More the West intensifies the perception of the threat, more the Algerian officials seek to reduce it. What is Yazid Zerhouni suggesting by declaring the day after the April 11, 2007 attacks in Algiers that "one must not exclude other interests not wishing the Algerian State to recover, restructure and operate more efficiently"? And doesn't El Watan partly answer this question by wondering, quite surprisingly for a daily newspaper that up to then constantly welcomed the warming of Algerian-American relations: "Is the Maghreb, and Algeria in particular, on the verge of having to bear the brunt of geopolitical warfare between the USA and France via Islamist terrorism?" The article concluded: "The Al Qaeda network seems to perfectly endure such an underhand game and appears in fact - consciously or unconsciously - to work for American geopolitical interests. The skilfully fostered fear of Islamist terrorism, and more specifically of the Al Qaeda network, allows them to legitimise the new world configuration, in particular the Great Middle-East that they have just planned."
Indeed, such a reasoning is quite relevant regarding the will of the Americans to strengthen their economic and military presence in North Africa in general and in Algeria in particular. The intensification of relations between the United States and Algeria goes back to the period of Liamine Zeroual's Presidency (1994-1998), but the 'honeymoon' reached its peak in 2003-2006 with many bilateral visits at all levels of State and society, the most conspicuous being those of Donald Rumsfeld in February 2006 and of Dick Cheney in April of the same year. The energy cooperation between the two countries was qualified as 'very dense', as the United States had become the first client of Algeria, with purchases of more than 11 billion dollars in 2005, almost exclusively for hydrocarbons.
However, Algeria is but one of the countries targeted by American firms and the Sahel's
enormous unexploited oil reserves appear to be dictating Washington's security strategy in the region. It is there even more clearly than elsewhere that the Bush administration's "Global War on Terror" seems indissociable from the search for a guaranteed access to local energy resources. And to be sure, the Pentagone has professed its aim to rapidly install in Africa a US army regional command (Africom), allowing control over local armies.
It is after the abduction, early 2003, of European tourists in the Algerian Sahara by a commando presented as belonging to GSPC that the Americans decided that Algeria would become a 'pivot State', according to their new geo-strategic understanding of the 'Great Middle East'. Since then, not only does the Algerian army participate in different military manoeuvres organized by the US Army and NATO, but the existence of a secret American army base in the Tamanrasset region seems to be beyond doubt, notwithstanding the repeated denials of political leaders from both countries. The country was also integrated in the 'Pan-Sahel Initiative', which has become, early 2005, 'Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative (TSCTI)', meant to include in an American military strategy countries such as Algeria, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Senegal, Nigeria and Tunisia. In June 2005, American intentions materialized during the joint exercises called 'Flintlock 2005', conducted by the command of the US forces in Europe.
'Anti-terrorist war' and 'good governance' are the current slogans. Military action endowed with its political equivalent, the country was included in the 'Middle-East Partnership Initiative' (MEPI), which, in particular, foresees assistance in political reforms, the reinforcement of the role of women, youth and civil society. Military and economic cooperation and the political reform assistance programme are the two sides of the same coin.
Indeed, as the independent Algerian oil expert Hocine Malti explained in July 2005, seven out of the nine countries of the Sahel strategy, "possess quite important oil reserves. Nigeria has proven reserves of 31.5 billion barrels, Algeria 11.8 billion, Chad's reserves are currently estimated at 1 billion (the country is just beginning its oil exploitation), Senegal has 700 million barrels, Tunisia 308 million, Niger 300 million and Mauritania 200 million. All around these countries there are others that are well off in oil reserves; Libya has proven reserves of 39 billion barrels, Sudan 563 million, while Western Sahara has a very promising mineral resources.
A bogey GSPC
Thus, for some years now, the threat of GSPC developing its activities beyond Algeria and spreading its tentacles to the South towards the Sahara borders seemed to arrange all countries concerned. From an American point of view, such a threat made up an ideal pretext for justifying its military presence in the region. As for the Algerian authorities, they justified this development of security cooperation with the USA: such cooperation considerably helped to end the isolation they were in during the 90's, to free themselves from France that was too much involved in Algerian trafficking and manipulation, but most of all it helped to turn the page of the "bloody years", when all components of the security forces committed crimes against mankind - for which those responsible have now been de facto absolved by the leading world power, as they had become a "model of efficient warfare against terrorism".
Then why is there this peculiar and sudden change since 2006 of part of the Algerian press facing the 'GSPC threat', just before the extremely deadly attacks committed by the latter? In order to answer this question, it is essential to recall the genesis of this organisation, for which many concordant signs show that it is in fact the instrument of the main faction among Algerian authorities - that of the DRS leaders -, which was also the instigator of the rapprochement with the United States.
Indeed, this does not exclude the persistence of small truly autonomous armed groups claiming reference to Islam to fight security forces under the 'GSPC label', as is supposedly the case for the North Constantine or Ouarsenis resistance forces: even if they remain an ultra-small minority, the social situation is so serious that there is no lack of desperate youths to go for armed struggles (while many others choose the equally risky harragas, the jury-rigged boats used to reach Europe). But other 'GSPC resistance groups' (e.g. in Kabylia, where they also attract young people ready to sacrifice their lives - and increasingly so these recent months) seem rather to approach the 'GIA model' of the late '90s, where 'emirs' - DRS agents - involved thoughtless people in terrorist acts against the population. As for the new urban terrorism imputed to GSPC, in view of the exceptional importance of police controls, it simply seems unimaginable that it is not a DRS instrument. And many other factors testify to the fact that the gradual transformation of GSPC into an 'armed branch' of Al Qaeda in Algeria (then in the Maghreb) is the result of pure construction by Algerian 'services'.
According to the 'security sources' regularly mentioned by the Algerian press (i.e. DRS, de facto, sole source of all information on 'Islamist terrorism' in Algeria), GSPC gained a regional dimension through the impetus given by Amari Saifi, called 'Abderrezak El-Para', who might have organized the hostage-taking of European tourists in January 2003. Yet Amari Saifi, former parachutist and ex-bodyguard of General Khaled Nezzar, had up to then only been active in the East of the country, in the Tebessa region, where GSPC was among others involved in enormous smuggling operations and drug trafficking similar to - or in collusion with? - DRS high officials. After having been on the run for twenty months, among which eight with hostages, end October 2004, he was handed over to the Algerian authorities, who might be keeping him prisoner ever since.
Yet, strangely enough, Amari Saifi was condemned 'in absentia' in June 1995 to life sentence by the Algiers criminal court for the 'setting up of an armed terrorist group' . And even more incredible is the fact that while he was still supposed to be detained in an Algerian prison, he was going to be tried again for the same motive in March 2007 by the same court - at a trial that was in the end postponed -, but still.'in absentia'! The absurd reason officially put forward for such an astonishing judicial masquerade was that "the legal procedures engaged in the framework of this affair had begun before Aderrezak the Para was handed over to the Algerian authorities and he was thus considered as being on the run". The strangest thing in the affair is that none of the European States of which the nationals had been kidnapped asked for his extradition or at least his examination. During a visit to Algeria in January 2007, the German Secretary of State for Security, August Henning, declared in an interview: "We are no longer claiming him [Abderrezak al-Para]. According to my information, he is in the hands of the Algerian authorities. He is judged and sentenced for acts that he committed in Algeria." Such remarks are all the more surprising as El Para had not yet been judged for the abduction of the thirty-two tourists (of which one died during the sequestration).
None of the major French or western media mentioned this incredible episode. Yet, together with numerous other signs, it testifies to the fact that the 'Para' can only be a DRS agent, propelled by his bosses to the head of GSPC. The other 'emblematic figures' of this at the least puzzling group are similarly evocative: Nabil Sahraoui, alleged GSPC 'emir' until his neutralisation in June 2004, would have been part of the GIA elements who organized the famous escape of 1200 prisoners from the Tazoult prison in March 1994, operation which is known to have been ordered by the DRS both to eliminate Islamists and to infiltrate the underground. According to the military communiqué reporting the emir's death in June 2004, several of his most important deputies would also have been killed together with him. Yet, eight months later, the Algerian press announced that one of these murdered lieutenants, Abdelmalek Droukdel, may have been designated as successor to Nabil Sahraoui at the head of GSPC. In May 2005, the same press once more announced the elimination of Droukdel. Soon after, he was again 'resuscitated' at the head of the GSPC, position that he still appears to occupy today. This media pantomime, aiming only at sustaining confusion, reminds us of course of the cases of GIA 'national emirs' Djamel Zitouni and Antar Zouabri, who were also several times killed and resuscitated, according to 'security sources', and afterwards known to be DRS agents.
Another remarkable coincidence: on 4th June 2005, just two days before the above-mentioned 'Flintlock' military manoeuvres, organized in the Sahel under the aegis of the US Army, the Mauritanian barracks of Lemgheity, near the border with Algeria, are attacked by a so-called GSPC commando. It is the baptism of fire of a one Mokhtar Belmokhtar, presented as the 'emir' of the South zone, affiliated to Al Qaeda. The armed group attack occurred in the same region where, between 6 and 26 June 2005, almost 3000 soldiers from eight African countries, among which Algeria, participated in the operations. It is certainly not by chance that the Lemgheity barracks are located in a zone meant to contain large oil resources: in the Taoudenni basin, oil companies are competing to obtain exploitation rights, in particular the Australian company Woodside and the French Total.
According to the Algerian press at the time, all these operations would be carried out by GSPC, group that in 1998 had taken over from the GIA after having distanced itself from it because of the killings it committed against civilians. It is true that most of the operations attributed to GSPC were directed against military patrols, communal guards or militiamen. But while Algerian media and politicians agree in regularly announcing the quasi collapse of the group due to defections and blows given to it by the army, as from spring 2006, repeated announcements mention the rallying of GSPC to Al Qaeda - always according to 'security sources' or to GSPC websites, of unverifiable authenticity - and spectacular bomb attacks proliferate against police stations and gendarme brigades, but also against civil targets.
This led the magazine Risques Internationaux to write in December 2006 : "Yesterday as today, most groups affiliated to GSPC have been infiltrated by the DRS. The GSPC command, well-known by the DRS according to Algerian services' deserters, moves without being worried, especially in the Mitidja East, in Mizrana, in Khemis Khechena and in Boumerdes. For a long time, most meetings of GSPC influential members were organized in Sid Ali Bounab, a place well known by the DRS, but nothing was done to decapitate the armed group, on the contrary. According to one of our interlocutors: "What is currently happening in Algeria, in particular the increase in number of attacks and ambushes against the military, reveals the DRS' aims and intentions. DRS provocation is currently on its way to take Algeria back to the bloody years of the '90s"."
The affiliation of GSPC to Al Qaeda is sealed by the filmed remarks of Ayman Adh-Dhawahiri, known as the latter's number two, who on the occasion of September 11th, 2006, declared the union between the two organisations. And this merger was followed on 24 January 2007 by the announcement of the change of GSPC's name into "Al Qaeda's Organisation in the country of the Islamic Maghreb".
The shaken hegemony of DRS leaders
What is the logic behind the use of such a terrorist group for the benefit of DRS leaders? Before trying to answer this question, it is important to recall that, since the '80s, the real power in Algeria lies in the hands of the generals who control the army and the secret services (Military Security, which became DRS in 1990) and that the President and the civilians in the government are in fact only a pseudo-democratic façade, with no real power. Since this period, the generals, members of this 'umbrella', were affiliated to different factions of various types. They sometimes opposed one another in obscure struggles to control the country's resources, but they never questioned their unity, as evidenced, from 1992 to 1998, by their flawless commitment in the 'dirty war' for the 'eradication of Islamism', carried out in fact against the immense majority of society.
Yet, and this is an essential element of which most Algerians are convinced, it was a very peculiar war, marked by the use of Islamist violence by the DRS leaders. As from 1995, they controlled most of the illustrious GIA (thanks to reneged 'emirs' or infiltrated agents) and used them both to terrorize the population and to address, via the massacre of civilians, 'messages' to their opponents among the authorities, whom they sought to weaken. This was the case during the years 1996-1998: the great massacres perpetrated by the 'Islamic army groups' served to destabilize President Liamine Zeroual's faction.
After the latter's forced resignation, the intensity of the 'Islamist terrorism' suddenly decreased, as the internal conflicts among the authorities considerably subsided: indeed, many elements show that the faction controlled by the head of the DRS, Lieutenant General Mohamed 'Tewfik' Mediene (67 years old) and his deputy Major General Smaïl Lamari had long-lastingly won. To date, these two men are still in place since.September 1990 (almost 17 years!), while most of the other army officers were removed. And in the early years 2000, they took control of key positions in the DRS by maintaining or placing their men, some of whom were at the forefront of torture and terror 'management' during the 'dirty war' years. To mention but a few: the DSCA (Army Security Central Directorate) is from now on run by General Mhenna Djebbar, the terrible reputation of whom at the head of the Blida CTRI (main DRS torture centre) between 1990 and 2001 allows him to control ANP officers; General Athmane 'Bachir' Tartag, former head of another torture centre, the CPMI, between 1990 and 2001 was also promoted; and General Rachid Laalali, alias 'Attafi', still runs the DDSE (Documentation and External Security Directorate), which is in particular in charge of psychological and disinformation activities, in Algeria and abroad.
It is also under the tight control of the DRS head that President Bouteflika was 'elected' in April 1999 and 're-elected' five years later. Also under their control, the rapprochement strategy with the USA took place (to the detriment of France), a strategy that allowed the two Generals and their accomplices to carry out profitable secret affairs with certain major American oil companies. And it is also- we recall- the convergences of interests between the two countries as regards the fight against terrorism that allowed Algeria to escape from its isolation.
However, since 2006, it seems that the hegemony of the 'Tewfik' generals has weakened. Internally, they have not been able to reach their aim: bring the crisis to an end while allowing for the permanent establishment of a new way in exercising power and 'social governance', which would ensure all together impunity for their crimes against mankind committed during the '90s, relative social peace and the certainty of maintaining (for their benefit and that of their children) the organized pillaging of the country's natural resources (in particular via secret trading commissions).
Indeed, 'auto-amnesty' organised by the enforcement provisions (adopted in February 2006) of the 'Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation' temporarily ensured army leaders' impunity: such amnesty has been clearly admitted by the 'international community', although it openly violates every international legislation on the subject as well as the Algerian Constitution itself. However this impunity remains fragile, as the families of the victims - like the Argentine 'Madwomen of the Plaza de Mayo' - continue to mobilize for truth and justice, in spite of all the persecutions and manipulations. As for the social front, it is an absolute failure: the deterioration of living conditions of a vast majority of Algerians is such that, since 2003, there are riots almost every day; and maintaining a GSPC 'residual terrorism' against the population no longer seems to be sufficient.
Finally, serving as a guarantee for the income of corruption, economic stability is no longer ensured: the real economy is disaster-stricken, except for the oil sector, where foreign investments are concentrated. A new and essential element from this point of view is the clear decrease and questioning of the importance for the military 'umbrella' generals (and their civil allies), of all factions, of a strategic alliance with the United States.
Challenging the strategic alliance with the United States
The main reason for such a change is the rocketing oil prices, dramatically increasing Algeria's resources, with reserves amounting currently to some 100 billion dollars, exacerbating the appetite of the 'umbrella's' factions. Some of the latter, obviously linked to the 'Françalgérie' networks and utilising the declining figure of President Bouteflika (currently more a puppet than ever) have started to challenge the 'Tewfik faction's" domination. Another reason: all factions have integrated new elements such as the American routs in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, the refusal of countries like Venezuela and Iran to submit to the orders of the world policeman, as well as the rising powers like Russia and China; all elements testifying that submitting to American policy is not necessarily the only possible option.
As a consequence, after harsh debates, the sudden change of the shadow 'decision-makers', marked by government in July 2006, as regards the 'law on hydrocarbons' adopted in April 2005. The latter was considered by many observers as a downright selling off of national natural resources: it planned to grant major oil companies, American in particular, considerable benefits, even up to abandoning in fact the ownership of the substratum to the highest bidder. At the time, Hocine Malti was very correctly wondering about the cancellation (which was very badly accepted in Washington) of the most contentious clauses of the law: "What was the role of the political and financial mafia in such a jumble? In business circles, it is said that as the 05-07 law guaranteed foreign companies a 70% minimum participation in each lot that they coveted, the role of Algerian godfathers, who for very long have made off with the oil sector, those who consider this sector as their own property, those who only allow the occasional other company to participate if they 'coughed up', these godfathers would see their roles considerably reduced, or even totally disappear. They would then, on pretext of economic patriotism, have campaigned for a return to the system that had allowed them to introduce in Algeria such or such oil company and thus amass enormous fortunes."
From a military point of view also, these 'decision-makers' started to distance themselves from the world superpower. Speculations around the official establishment of an American or a NATO military base were cut short with the clear refusal by the Minister of Foreign Affairs - expressed on the Algerian radio on 3rd March and repeated a few days later before General Raymond Henault, President of NATO's Military Committee. Such a declaration does not necessarily deny the existence of such a base. However, it shows that most of those who are pulling the strings in government are henceforth seeking to differentiate themselves - at least in words - from a clearly pro-American stance. This position is in accordance with the open rejection of integrating Algeria in the project of establishing a general command in Africa (Africom) foreseen in September 2007. (According to a declaration made by the Ministry of Defence, Algeria would have sent only a senior army officer - and not the chief of staff - to the meeting organised early March in Dakar by the high command of American forces in Europe.)
Finally, since 2005, there is a remarkable strengthening of relations with Russia, the latter having military-wise resumed its place as Algeria's first strategic partner, after the latest arms purchase contract for an amount of 15 billion dollars. It was a scandal (with hardly no press coverage) that contributed to the strengthening of military relations with Russia, to the detriment of the United States: during the summer of 2006, Russian military information services revealed to the DRS leaders the tampering by American services with the sophisticated communication systems purchased in the USA by the Brown & Roots Condor company on behalf of the general staff. According to the independent journalist Madjid Laribi, who revealed the affair, these "commanding suitcases" allowing to secure and control all military communications were in fact "permanently connected to the American and Israeli electronic intelligence systems"!
But the rapprochement with Russia - discretely approved by France - is also obvious in the economic field: the large Russian oil and gas companies (Gazprom, Lukoil, Rosneft, Stroytransgaz.) have developed (or are preparing to develop) partnerships with Sonatrach for exploiting Algerian oil, which was up to then (almost) private ground of American firms. And the project of a 'gas OPEC' based on an Algerian-Russian alliance has been in the news these recent months (in particular at the meeting of the Forum of gas exporting countries held in Doha in April 2007), even if it still needs to materialize.
Upsurge of clashes between factions
The above-mentioned context explains the upsurge of the clashes between factions among the Algerian authorities in view of the sharing of resources. Since 2006, this has been testified in several ways. As evidence, there is the obscure and obviously unsolved 'Zendjabil affair', that hit the Algerian headlines in the autumn of 2006. Following the surrender of this 'narcotics baron' responsible for important trafficking in the Oran region, the journalist Salima Tlemçani - known to be close to General Tewfik and more recently to the chief of police Ali Tounsi -, extraordinarily, incriminated, in El Watan, the former head of the 2nd military region, the powerful Kamel Abderrahmane, as being the true person behind the trafficking.
But it is GSPC, or at least the convenient label that it represents, that has been since 2006 the preferential instrument of the more or less bloody 'messages' that the different factions in power address to each other. This takes up the old 'habit' again of crisis management of the '90s - without it always being possible to distinguish which faction is behind which act. The faction of General Tewfik is without doubt some lengths ahead owing to the control he for so long has maintained on GSPC 'troups'.
A good example is the attack committed on 10 December 2006 in Bouchaoui (near Algiers) against a bus carrying workers of the Brown Root & Condor (BRC) company. The (ultra-secure) place and circumstances of the raid indicate that orders came from elsewhere than from the Boumerdes resistance - an alleged GSPC fief. Created in 1994, BRC is a joint-venture between Sonatrach (51%) and the US company Kellogg Brown & Root (49%, Halliburton's engineering branch), in which DRS high command would be considerably involved. The company has been in the news for some months due to leaks organized by Presidency's close relations about over-invoicing of service provisions: "The company has been granted the most important projects without tendering, as is required by law. BRC has thus illegally been granted most markets, which are in no way minor ones, of Sonatrach, National Defence, Ministry of Energy and Mines and other industrial and real estate projects, as the company achieves everything in Algeria."
GSPC has claimed responsibility for the December 10th attack. They even broadcasted a video of the operation on the internet. But are we sure it is the 'genuine GSPC', the one under the control of General Tewfik's men? Some newspapers echoed the claim without checking. However, it has strangely been questioned by others, e.g. in El Watan by the same Salima Tlemçani: "This attack has given rise to numerous questions about the disturbing circumstances in which it occurred. The objective of the raid is visibly to generate media coverage, in particular at international level. We recall that, this summer, BRC was at the heart of a great scandal which made the headlines of the national press. Upon instructions by the Presidency, legal action has been undertaken with the public prosecutor's department of Bir Mourad Raïs. The decision was taken after the conclusions of two missions of control, the first by the finance inspectors and the second by the court of auditors. Judicial investigations in the case are still being pursued, but officially nothing has filtered. These are as many reasons that make one fear that the attack may carry the mark of the political and financial mafia."
As a consequence of these internal battles, there is talk of dismantling BRC and in March 2007, its President would have been accused of 'intelligence with a foreign power' and imprisoned in the military prison of Blida. Knowing that he is close to General Tewfik, one can measure the extent of the conflict. The ins and outs of the BRC affair are far from clarified, but its surprising media coverage and the attack on the firm are to be seen as the symptoms of the power crisis at hand: the notorious stronghold of the 'Tewfik faction' is no longer invincible.
We have just mentioned the structural factors causing its weakening, but there is also a factor of circumstance which is equally decisive: President Bouteflika's illness. Since he has been taken to hospital at the Val de Grâce in November 2005, his health is fragile and survival uncertain. As a result, his military mentors are anxious to find a successor liable to ensure the credibility of their civil façade. For them, this is essential. The solution is far from obvious and represents another source of conflict among the factions of the military 'umbrella': who tomorrow will be the new 'puppet' able to safeguard their interests in front of the international community, while having a semblance of national credibility?
'Change everything so that nothing changes'?
It is in the light of this sequence of events that the bombings of April 11th are to be analysed, together with the role that GSPC may have played in them. During the following days, there is an increase of unusual declarations of some of the main politicians and of 'coded' - often contradictory - articles in the Algerian press, still tightly controlled by the different 'circles of power'. By their exceptional character, these events at least testify that the attacks represent an acute phase of the top struggle between factions. They also show that one of the factions in power aimed, as usual, at hitting several targets at the same time like in a complex game of billiards. It is highly probable that it is the faction that is still the most powerful, even if weakened: that of General Tewfik.
First indication of manipulation: the alleged role of the three 'kamikazes' who would have driven the vehicle bombs. A few hours after the raids, a Maghreb Al Qaeda communiqué claimed responsibility for them and disseminated photos of the 'kamikazes'. However, six days later, the Minister of the Interior, Yazid Zerhouni, close to Bouteflika, declared: "The lead of the kamikaze having targeted, among others, the Government Palace is not plausible. [.] I personally believe that they were mandated with a mission and then they were 'explosed' in order to leave no traces."
As evidence of this, he mentions that, on the one hand, the 'kamikazes' have no link with religion (according to the press, this mainly aims at Merouane Boudina, responsible for the Government Palace attack); and that, on the other hand, a remote control mechanism was found in the car used for the attack on the Government Palace (where are located the offices of Minister Zerhouni himself and of the head of government Abdelaziz Belkhadem, possible successor to Bouteflika, both of whom were direct targets). The second 'kamikaze', Mouloud Ben Chihab, would have been identified as 'disappeared' (understand: abducted by the DRS) in 1995. Finally, "one of the three kamikazes presented by Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb [.] as one of the authors of the suicide attacks [.], Abou Doudjana, was a companion of Amari Saifi, alias Abderrazak El Para, 'emir' of zone 9 of this terrorist organisation". Shortly after, as if to discredit the circles circulating this information, public opinion learned that "security sources linked to investigations about the 11 April explosions in the capital, have excluded any identification of the two kamikazes having bombed the Bab Ezzouar police station".
The 'message' delivered by all this information - maybe true but unverifiable - is indeed easy to decipher by those familiar with Algerian closed top circles: it is the DRS that is behind the 11 April attacks. This is quite probably the truth, disseminated in particular by.the DRS leaders themselves, in order to 'sign' their crime in the eyes of their opponents under the 'umbrella'.
Another piece of evidence of the manipulation: the 'people's' demonstrations organized throughout the country by the authorities on April 18th, 2007 and announced the day before as the result of 'undeclared political calculations". Carefully controlled and in the presence of most of the civilian top brass pledged to the military decision-makers, these demonstrations, with conventional slogans ('No to Terrorism!', 'Yes to reconciliation!'), were presented as a (poisoned) tribute to 'President Bouteflika's policy', object of terrible foreign 'aggression'.
Such confusion is very typical of the dubious situations of the Algerian way of re-composing alliances on a background of organized violence. In many ways, the April 11th operation recalls the riots which were savagely quelled in October 1988, the result of a particularly twisted manipulation by General Larbi Belkheir's faction in order to ensure its hegemony. The aim of the manoeuvre is currently quite clear: to give the system a good shake up, so as to 'change everything so that nothing changes'. It also reminds of the very painful period of civilian massacres in the years 1996-1998, which allowed the military command at the time to definitely exclude any peaceful solution, such as that proposed by the opposition parties platform in Rome in January 1995. By their media coverage, together with the cynical sacrifice of innocent lives, the April 11th attacks appear to be of the same substance, even if the 'success' of the operation is far from certain, because the 'system' is worn out.