The December 11 suicide bombings in Algiers perpetrated by members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) were a profound statement by the group that it remains a persistent threat despite significant setbacks in recent months. The twin bombings—targeting the UN and the Algerian Constitutional Court—resulted in the deaths of at least 37 civilians, 12 of whom were employed by the UN. Despite months of reported organizational difficulties, resulting from internal divisions, poor recruitment and the unpopular employment of suicide bombings, the attacks illustrate the continuing threat posed by AQIM and its commitment to the al-Qaeda doctrine.
Aside from its resilience, a key point made by AQIM’s assault is its ability to conduct large-scale attacks in the face of both external and internal adversity. In a December 11 statement in which AQIM admitted responsibility for the bombings, the organization affirmed this point by stating the attacks were “meant to clarify matters and…dispel the myth that the hard core [of the organization] was destroyed… [With this operation] commander Hudayfa Abu Yunis al-Asimi, commander of the central zone and the replacement of the martyr Abu Haydara, is paying you back in kind… and is proving to you by action, instead of mere words, that all of the mujahideen belong to the so-called ‘hardcore’ elite…” (Al-Hesbah.net, December 11). Much like militant Algerian groups before it, AQIM has weathered the losses of key commanders like Abu Yahya al-Haitham and Sufyan Abu Haydara. AQIM referred to the bombing as the “Martyr Sufyan Abu Haydara Attacks,” after a leading AQIM commander. Haydara and al-Haitham were killed by security forces in October and November, respectively.
Algiers claims that many of the troubles incurred by AQIM are the result of a successful counterterrorism campaign utilizing both military force and amnesties. As a cornerstone of its strategy, the government maintains an open amnesty offer which, according to Algerian officials, has resulted in frequent defections from the jihadi movement and an indispensable supply of intelligence on AQIM’s activities (Echorouk, July 29; September 5). In the wake of the recent bombings, however, these reconciliation measures have been criticized, particularly as Algerian media report that former prisoners released under amnesty have returned to terrorism, including Abd al-Rahman Abu Abd al-Nasser al-Asimi, the AQIM member responsible for the Constitutional Court bombing (El Khabar, December 16).
Several other aspects of both the bombings and the group’s statement point to AQIM’s commitment to the al-Qaeda doctrine, despite recent reports claiming the group’s old guard had become disaffected with the al-Qaeda merger (Liberte, September 18). The first key aspect is AQIM’s consistent use of suicide bombers, a tactic not readily employed in Algeria until this year. In recent months, numerous former members of AQIM have commented how the use of this tactic has contributed to splits within the leadership (see Terrorism Focus, September 18). Despite its internally destabilizing affect, AQIM has continually adhered to al-Qaeda’s doctrine by executing suicide operations, typically on a roughly three-month cycle.
With respect to the attack on the UN, the event in itself is not necessarily indicative of a new targeting trend focusing on foreigners. AQIM and al-Zawahiri have issued numerous statements focused on the foreign influence in the Maghreb, and indeed, just two days prior to the December 11 bombings, AQIM attacked Russian workers employed by Stroytrans Gas, the same company which AQIM attacked last February (El Khabar, December 10). There is powerful symbolism in AQIM’s attack on the UN, an organization criticized by Ayman al-Zawahiri in his book, Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner, as a tool wielded by Western forces against Islam. AQIM’s targeting of the UN is reminiscent of the August 2003 bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad, an event which symbolized to many the start of the Iraqi insurgency. Not only are there some parallels with this attack, but recent press reports also suggest the 2007 bombing campaign in Algeria is directly tied to the Iraqi insurgency (Echorouk, December 16). According to this report, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki shared intelligence with Algiers in September that Algerian veterans of the Iraqi insurgency were returning home to perpetrate suicide bombings. So far, however, there is scant evidence that Algerians are returning to North Africa to continue their jihad.
Over the next three months, it will be important to monitor whether the December 11 attack will serve as the banner operation that ignites the North African jihad or if this attack is the last gasp of a dwindling movement. At this early stage, it is difficult to envision Algeria becoming the kind of open insurgency al-Qaeda had originally hoped for when it re-branded the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat as AQIM. However, if Algerian veterans begin returning to North Africa as Prime Minister al-Maliki suggested, the dynamic of the Algerian insurgency would undoubtedly deteriorate and suicide bombings like those of December 11 would become more frequent.