Death in Algiers

Death in Algiers

Leader, The Guardian, December 12, 2007

When Islamist militants stage a major bombing in north Africa, as happened yesterday when at least 67 people were killed in two car-bomb attacks in Algiers, international reaction veers between two extremes. The first is to see in these atrocities the hidden hand of al-Qaida, spreading its tentacles throughout the region. Bombings and kidnappings in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia are all seen as part of a conspiracy of transnational terrorism, to create an « Afghanistan-like hinterland » within striking distance of Europe. The alternative is to interpret the bombings as purely internal events – in Algeria’s case a civil war that claimed the lives of 100,000 people during the 1990s, which has not yet ended, despite official protestations of peace and calm. The truth may be more complex than either scenario would have us believe.

Algeria’s interior minister, Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni, said the bombs were set off by the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) an Algeria-based Sunni group that last year renamed itself al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. The GSPC split from the country’s main Islamist insurgent group, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), in 1998, accusing it of indiscriminate killing of civilians and vowing to select only military targets in the war against the secular military regime. Since then the GIA’s numbers have dwindled to only a few hundred (according to the US state department) and the GSPC has become the main force of the Islamic insurgency in Algeria.

It has been extremely active within the country. In April car-bomb attacks on government headquarters in Algiers killed 33 and injured more than 220. In July 10 soldiers were killed and 35 people wounded when a truck full of explosives rammed into a barracks in Lakhdaria. In September a booby-trapped car rammed a convoy of foreign workers. An attack on a coastguard barracks left 30 dead, and another targeting President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s convoy in Batna killed 22 people.

Militants linked to the GSPC have been arrested in London, Frankfurt and France, but so far all attacks in western Europe have been thwarted. But analysts still debate whether this group has joined the ranks of global jihadists. The UN high commissioner for refugees, António Guterres, said he had no doubt the UN offices in Algiers were specifically targeted. But it could equally be the case that it suits the GSPC to play the al-Qaida card, as it does al-Qaida to confer its blessing on the Algerian group. Knowing the enemy is the hard lesson of Iraq, and it has taught us to differentiate between insurgents and insurgencies. If we do not, we are condemned to repeat the same mistakes.