04/16/2007 12:00 AM

Shock Waves from Algeria

How a Small Group Joined the World Terrorist Club

By Britta Sandberg and

Do the bombings in Algiers mark the beginning of a new wave of attacks? The group claiming responsibility was considered small change until last week, but now al-Qaida boasts that all of North Africa has become a war zone -- with consequences for Europe.

"We simply underestimated Droukdel," the leader of al-Qaida in the Maghreb: Firemen try to extinguish a fire after a car bomb attack last Wednesday in downtown Algiers.

"We simply underestimated Droukdel," the leader of al-Qaida in the Maghreb: Firemen try to extinguish a fire after a car bomb attack last Wednesday in downtown Algiers.

Saïd Saadi has spent his whole life fighting terrorism in his country. He's criticized President Abdelaziz Bouteflika for being too lax with Islamists in Algeria, and his convictions have even resulted in prison time. Saadi, the chairman of the democratic opposition party, RCD, is now a disillusioned man of 60.

When terror returned to Algeria last Wednesday, Saadi was in his small office on the outskirts of the Algerian capital Algiers. He didn't feel the shock waves from the bombs, but he was overcome with fear. "I don't know if you can understand this," he says, "but for us it was like a smaller version of Sept. 11."

Algeria's new collective fear was triggered by two bombs, each containing between 500 and 700 kilograms (about 1,100 to 1,500 pounds) of explosives. The first exploded outside government offices in Algiers, the second at a police station on the road to the city's airport. The two attacks left 33 people dead and more than 200 wounded.

Car bomb attacks are nothing new to someone like Saadi. But terrorists who kill people by committing suicide are new for Algeria. The photographs of the young attackers appeared on the Internet that very same day, an approach is typical of al-Qaida, which has apparently established a bridgehead in North Africa. "It was a Big Bang to join the club," says a German investigator.

The double car bombing in Algiers was the eighth attack in Algeria this month alone. A series of attacks has claimed lives almost daily in the Kabylei Mountains east of the capital. Those attacks were not made public because the government had no interest in doing so. But on Feb. 13 of this year, six people died and more than 30 were wounded when car bombs exploded simultaneously in seven different locations. An attack of that magnitude could no longer be concealed.

Terrorism in Algeria hasn't just increased; it has also changed its name. The "Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat" (GSPC) became "Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb" in January. Its leader, Abdelmalek Droukdel, a bearded, grim-looking man, praised the alliance in a video as a "sign of the veracity of the ties between the mujahedeen in Algeria and their brothers of al-Qaida." Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida's second in command, had already announced the merger between the two groups in an earlier video.

"We simply underestimated Droukdel," says Louis Caprioli, the former head of counterintelligence at DST, the French domestic intelligence agency. "When he took over the leadership of the GSPC in 2004, we believed that he lacked what it takes to be a leader." But, as Caprioli now believes, Droukdel is helping to ensure that Algeria is now experiencing an "Iraqization of terrorism."

Back to the bad old days?

The new wave of violence strikes Algeria five weeks before the upcoming parliamentary elections and two years after a controversial referendum over national reconciliation. Under the referendum, an amnesty was granted for Islamist terrorists from the 1990s civil war. The country seemed on its way to achieving a fragile inner peace.

The civil war started in Algeria during the 1991 elections, when all signs pointed to a victory by the Islamic Salvation Army (FIS), prompting a military coup and takeover of the government. The Armed Islamic Group (GIA) emerged from the FIS, which wanted to Islamicize Algeria and introduce Shariah law. The ensuing war claimed roughly 200,000 lives. The GSPC split off from the GIA in 1998.

The GSPC soon started launching attacks beyond Algeria's borders. In 1998, French investigators uncovered a French GSPC cell before it could execute a planned attack during the soccer World Cup in Paris. On Christmas Day in 2000, officials at Germany's Federal Office of Criminal Investigation arrested four Algerians in Frankfurt as they prepared an attack on a Christmas market in the eastern French city of Strasbourg. All four were members of the GSPC. In 2003, the group kidnapped 17 German tourists in the Sahara Desert, releasing them only months later in return for ransom money.

The training camps run by Droukdel's organization are in the rough, hard-to-control border region between Mali and Algeria. Late last year, up to three mobile camps consisting of a handful of tents and Toyota pickups were periodically observed in the area. They would usually disappear after a few days.

European counter-terrorism experts are concerned about the mobility of these al-Qaida imitators, and that a version of the conflict in Afghanistan could develop in the triangle between Algeria, Mali and Mauritania. The next step, Western intelligence agencies fear, could be a coordinated series of attacks in the North African countries of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Even more disconcerting, they believe, is a possible expansion of the combat zone into Western Europe.

Saïd Saadi, the opposition politician in Algiers, holds the Bouteflika government and its policy of reconciliation responsible for the return of violence. He believes that it paved the way for the extremists, instead of fighting them -- a mistake that could soon have adverse consequences for Europeans. "It is as if Bin Laden has stationed his people on an aircraft carrier off your coastline," he said.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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