Terror thrives in Algeria’s climate of bloody conflict
Country is third-largest provider of al-Qaida manpower
Giles Tremlett, The Guardian, January 17, 2003
It has rumbled on in Algeria for more than a decade, a brutal clash between radical Islamists and a secular army that has proved a fertile breeding ground for the new practitioners of violent « global jihad ».
As the arrests in Britain of a « ricin ring », and dozens of similar arrests across Europe since September 11 appear to show, Algeria is the main source of foot soldiers prepared to take that jihad into Europe.
Up to 150,000 people have died, many in horrific massacres of civilians, during Algeria’s dirty civil war. A senior Algerian officer, General Maiza, told a terrorism conference in Algiers three months ago that the army had killed 15,200 Islamists during the conflict.
Although the army has gained the upper hand over the past few years, its fight is far from over. It lost 49 paratroopers in a single ambush by the radical Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) 10 days ago. At least 12 other soldiers have been killed in separate attacks over the past fortnight.
Algeria’s two main armed Islamist groups are the GSPC and the smaller, but much more ruthless, Armed Islamic Group (GIA). The GSPC split from the GIA over the killing of civilians and has, instead, targeted security forces.
Some 6,000 armed Islamists have given up their weapons under clemency plans in recent years. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika gave a blanket amnesty to the armed wing of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), in 1999.
General Maiza claimed there were now fewer than 1,000 armed Islamists left in the country. That is, in part, because many have fled. Some have gone to fight in Chechnya. Others died in Afghanistan.
Jane’s Defence Weekly reported recently that as many as 2,800 Algerians had passed through al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan – making the country the third biggest contributor of manpower to the group after Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
Europe, especially France, Spain and Italy, but also Britain, has been the favoured destination for those who have fled Algeria.
The chairman of the Algerian refugee council, Dr Mohammed Sekkoum, said he believed that up to 100 known terrorists have entered Britain as asylum seekers in the past two years. « If you are in the Algerian community you know these things. I know the names of many of these people, » he told the Daily Telegraph. « These people were killers in Algeria and now they are here. I have told the immigration service about them, but the authorities told me it was nothing to do with me. »
Sending even those suspected of carrying out terrorist attacks in the country back to Algeria has not proved easy. A British court recently refused to extradite one suspect, saying it would be impossible for him to get a fair trial. Courts are often sympathetic to those claiming political asylum from the shadowy generals who control Algeria.
Algerian officials have claimed Europe is now paying the price for « harbouring » the country’s Islamists. « I am convinced that the [international] base of the GIA and GSPC is in London. Their money and their newspapers are all there, » one government minister claimed recently, without offering further proof.
Radical exile groups, in turn, draw in economic migrants from Algeria who may have had nothing to do with Islamists in their own country.
« One day they help the Chechens, another day it is a group in Algeria or they talk to friends in the Middle East who have closer links to al-Qaida, » one European security source declared recently. Algeria’s army-controlled regime is keen to play up the significance of al-Qaida’s connection to Algerian extremists, especially since the US declared last month it was ready to renew arms sales to the country.
Those sales were banned after the army grabbed power to prevent the FIS from securing what was expected to be a landslide victory in 1991 elections. It was the army’s takeover that sparked the ensuing violence.
The generals have been quick to claim that recent attacks on army units had been carried out by al-Qaida veterans. They said that a senior foreign al-Qaida operative, known as Abou El Haytham, was helping the GSPC.
They have also claimed that the GSPC’s then leader, Hassan Hattab, had at least one telephone conversation with Osama bin Laden before September 11.
Evidence from the US proves some Algerians have become key operatives in al-Qaida. Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian convicted of trying to carry out bomb attacks in Los Angeles on the eve of the millennium, has told how he was trained in Afghanistan before being sent to Canada to buy explosives and take them to Los Angeles.
Algerians were carrying out attacks in Europe long before September 11. In 1995, a GIA bomb killed seven people and injured 80 at a Paris Metro station.