Algeria and terrorism – A complex web

Algeria and terrorism

A complex web

Strategic Comments, International Institute of strategic Studies, Volume 9, Issue 6, August 2003

The International Institute for strategic Studies, Volume 9 Issue 6,
The involvement of a growing number of Algerians in terrorist activities in North America and Europe has raised questions about their exact motivations and objectives. On balance, their activities do not represent a straightforward externalisation of the long-running dispute between the Islamist opposition and the military-backed government in Algiers, in which violence is used in pursuit of specific political demands. Rather, the Algerian nationals involved appear to be inspired by a set of broader, more vague but also more absolute grievances against the West and its perceived attacks on Islam that are shared by organisations such as al-Qaeda.

The European dimension

Although Algerian nationals were not among the suicide bombers of 11 September 2001, they have featured prominently in subsequent investigations into al-Qaeda activities in North America and Europe. In the UK, where an Algerian community has grown as a largely unknown minority in recent years, several dozen Algerians have been arrested since mid-2001 in localities as widely spread as Leicester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, London and Manchester. Arrests in London in January 2003 uncovered a cell producing ricin, while in Manchester, one of the Algerian detainees, 27-year old Kamel Bourgass, was responsible for killing a police officer – the first victim in the UK’s post-11 September anti-terrorist campaign.

The arrests of Algerians in France, Spain, Italy and Germany have increased speculation that the effects of Algeria’s decade-long conflict have now spilled over into neighbouring Europe. International terrorism analysts have highlighted the links between the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) and the network of cells uncovered in Europe. According to their line of thinking, the GSPC was ‘captured’ by Osama Bin Laden shortly after its split from the Islamic Armed Group (GIA) in 1998 and has extended its internal struggle against Algeria’s military-backed leadership to international targets that coincide with al-Qaeda’s objectives.

Much of the evidence for this is circumstantial and linked to networks of international crime – credit card scams, human trafficking, false passports and visas – used to fund logistical support for transnational terrorism. The growing concentration of Algerians in London has also highlighted the exploitation by terrorist networks of the comparatively lax controls exerted by the British government over asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. The French authorities have complained that the British have adopted an insufficiently robust approach to the activities of Algerians in and around British mosques, above all the Finsbury Park mosque in north London. French pressure and cooperation helped prompt the January arrests of the ricin suspects and the search and temporary closure of the Finsbury Park mosque.

Who are the terrorists?

Prominent French analysts regard the links between the struggle in Algeria and Algerian terrorism overseas as rather loose. They argue that the terrorist phenomenon represented by Algerian nationals – and European citizens of Algerian descent – arises out of these individuals’ fraught interactions with European societies and their consequent radicalisation in Europe, the US and Canada, rather than from more traditional ‘diaspora’ concerns that concentrate on conditions in the homeland. This has been described as a kind of ‘EuroIslam’ – namely, the growth of a utopian, ‘universalised’ Islamist vision not confined to recognisable borders but based on an aspirational urge to create an Islamic order wherever Muslims are oppressed or subjected to western strategic interests, most immediately defined as those of the US.

Most of the Algerians arrested on terrorist charges both before and after 11 September fall into these categories. They are individuals born in Europe and holding European or dual citizenship, or Algerians who have spent several years in exile, all of whom have been co-opted into al-Qaeda or Salafist circles by radical imams such as Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada active in the UK. A common link is that many have been sent to training camps in Afghanistan, from which they have returned to Europe or North America to engage in missions ordained or inspired by the al-Qaeda leadership.

There are two particularly illustrative examples. Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian national, was arrested on the Canadian border in mid-1999 driving a car carrying explosives intended for use in an attack on Los Angeles International Airport on 31 December 1999. As a junior member of the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) who left Algeria soon after the military crackdown against the FIS in 1992, he fled first to Europe and then Canada. There he was indoctrinated by Islamist circles in Montreal and sent to a training camp in Afghanistan. Djamel Beghal, a French citizen of Algerian descent who was arrested in France in July 2001, was identified after a return flight from Afghanistan. Under interrogation, he made statements – later partly retracted – confessing to having coordinated an al-Qaeda cell in the Paris region with the aim of blowing up the US embassy in Paris – the same plot for which Algerians Baghdad Meziane and Brahim Merzouga, arrested prior to 11 September in Leicester, were sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment in the UK in April 2003.

Few of these individuals have been directly linked to armed Islamist struggle in Algeria itself. They are also a younger generation than the ‘Afghan Arab’ veterans of the 1980s, who formed the core of the GIA on their return to Algeria from Afghanistan in the late 1980s.
A complicating factor and one of the key legal challenges faced by European law-enforcement authorities is how to unravel criminal from terrorist elements: petty crime has become the mainstay of a wider range of Algerian migrants, who are either deprived of the right to work through protracted asylum procedures or steer clear of detection by the authorities.

Algeria’s conflict

In Algeria itself, the GSPC, albeit in reduced numbers, is still devoted to ousting the Algerian government and vindicating the FIS’s unrecognised 1992 election victory. In 1997, the armed wing of the FIS, the Islamic Army of Salvation (AIS), unilaterally gave up the fight, but residual cells of the now fragmented GIA and the GSPC still operate from mountain hideouts in the east and west of Algeria. An estimated 400 people, mostly security forces and Islamist militants, have died in ‘mopping up’ operations since the beginning of 2003.

Neither the GIA nor the GSPC enjoy widespread support within the Algerian population, which is more concerned after 10 years of violence with rebuilding lives. Estimates of active terrorist numbers range from 650 (by the military) to 2,000 for the GSPC and several hundred for the GIA. By contrast, at the height of the violence in the early to mid-1990s, an estimated 27,000 armed guerrillas were active, leading to an official death-toll of 100,000 civilians, insurgents and security forces. The combined armed forces of Algeria, including specialist counter-terrorist units formed in the early 1990s, total some 200,000 men. The unanswered question is why has it taken so long for the military to defeat what even the senior military command has described as ‘residual terrorism’ since the late 1990s. The military has argued – most recently to the US – that it lacks the technology required to subdue the rebels completely. However, they also have been politically unable to address the grievances that continue to fuel not just the Islamists, but also the social unrest that has taken root in the neighbouring Berber region of Kabylia since April 2001. Political overtures, such as the 1995 Sant-Egidio platform, which brought both the FIS and non-Islamist opposition parties together in rejecting violence in favour of an inclusive political settlement, have been dismissed by the Algerian government as ‘foreign interference’.

In 1999, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika sponsored the ‘Civil Concord’, an amnesty for fighters who agreed to lay down arms by mid-January 2000. But it only applied to support networks of Islamists who had not committed crimes such as murder and rape, and as a unilateral policing measure it contained no political or judicial provisions. As a result, some militants who took advantage of the amnesty (6,000 according to official estimates, 1,500–2,000 unofficially) are seen as having effectively escaped prosecution. There are also widespread suspicions of military complicity in perpetuating the violence through the infiltration of government agents into GIA cells and commission of atrocities then attributed to the GIA.

The upshot is that both the armed Islamist struggle and the military’s handling of it has been widely discredited amongst ordinary Algerians. With the ‘civil war’ of the 1990s having receded, ordinary Algerians have become more assertive in voicing demands for social justice, regional investment and cultural rights and employment in Kabylia, and for housing, health care, jobs and a functioning infrastructure in the cities. The possible presence and activities of al-Qaeda are not of major concern.

International perceptions

Bouteflika’s main achievement since 11 September has been to elevate Algeria’s international role in the global coalition against terror. He visited the White House in July and November 2001 and has backed the Algerian military’s requests for sophisticated US counter-terrorism equipment. Despite increased bilateral cooperation, by early 2003 the Algerian military had still not passed the ‘lethal’ weaponry test, under which the undeclared embargo on US exports of major weapons systems to Algeria remains in place. But the sale of night-vision and airborne surveillance equipment is being considered on a ‘case-by-case’ basis to complement the infrared sensors and global positioning systems already supplied.

On the diplomatic front, the list produced by the Algerians of some 350 alleged international terrorist suspects post-11 September was greeted with some scepticism by the State Department. Both the GSPC and GIA feature on the State Department’s Designated Foreign Terrorist Organization list, as well as on President Bush’s Executive Order 13224 aimed at blocking terrrorist finances. This effectively slants US priorities towards assisting the Algerians in reining in the GIA and the GSPC, but falls short of giving the Algerian military carte blanche. In public, the Algerians, who still rely on Russia and former Soviet bloc suppliers for up to 75% of their materiel, have greeted this limited US assistance as a qualified success. In private, US caution has produced frustrations that the bilateral relationship is not taken more seriously.

The reason it is not may lie in the growing closeness between France and Algeria after a recent troubled period. President Jacques Chirac’s visit to Algiers in early March 2003 demonstrated that the countries’ shared opposition to the war in Iraq has given a new boost to a relationship that has been fraught with post-colonial recriminations. This is unlikely to have been welcomed in Washington. It also leaves other European governments, above all Britain, in a quandary about accepting at face value Algerian and French intelligence sources connecting Algerian terrorist cells to al-Qaeda. The recent wave of arrests in the UK suggests that British counter-terrorism authorities are heeding French warnings. They may still need to convince the courts, however, who until recently have cited French police brutality and forced confessions as reasons for refusing extradition requests.

Future prospects

Algeria’s focus on terrorism has drawn international attention away from its domestic problems, most of which are unrelated to terrorism. On the economic front, the latest International Monetary Fund report, released in March 2003, cites solid progress in Algeria’s macro-economic indicators – including projected foreign exchange reserves of $27 billion by the end of 2003 – but is less enthusiastic about the government’s stalled programme of micro-economic reforms.

On the ground, this has translated into growing unrest across the economy, culminating in a general strike in February 2003, and intermittent sectoral strikes scheduled through spring 2003. Politically, speculation is rife over the next presidential elections due in 2004: the opposition is looking for deeper reforms – above all, an end to military control over state institutions and much of the economy and free and fair elections.

In the interim, demands have been growing to bring those responsible for the 100,000 deaths and as many as 10,000 disappearances over the past decade to account. Beyond offering compensation to families of the ‘disappeared’, the government has been slow to shed light on the fate of the victims. In practice, Bouteflika enjoys little room for manoeuvre with obstacles put in his way by the military. Thus, most initiatives descend into internecine struggles rather than responses to underlying challenges.

The sense that none of this is likely to change soon accounts for at least some of the drift of young Algerians out of Algeria and into a precarious existence abroad, where the messianic and global vision of al-Qaeda provides both hope and respite. This suggests that for those engaged in the fight against terrorism, more attention needs to be paid not only to the recruitment and radicalisation of these individuals within Europe and North America, but also on the wider causes for their alienation within Algeria itself.