Since its public merger with al-Qaeda in 2006, the al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb, previously known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), has conducted multiple operations in Algeria including sophisticated coordinated attacks against police stations as well as assaults on foreign workers employed in the country’s burgeoning hydrocarbon sector (Terrorism Monitor, February 1). Moreover, the tenacity of recent attacks has signified the resurgence, or perhaps a last ditch effort, of a group thought by many to be on the way out, incapable of realistically achieving its nationalistic goal of establishing an Islamic state in Algeria. The threat posed by the group seemingly culminated in mid March when the U.S. Embassy in Algiers issued a public warning that terrorists may be planning to attack a commercial aircraft carrying Western workers in Algeria (U.S. Embassy Algiers Warden Message, March 12). While the group’s targets and tactics have evolved, thus garnering significant coverage and diagnosis, the Algerian response to the threat has been underreported. In late March, under the cover of a nearly complete media blackout, the Algerian military began what appears to be a sustained military campaign against the organization. According to the Algerian press, the campaign is taking place in the Kabylie region near the town of Amizour to the east of Algiers (Liberte, March 31).
As of April 2, the National People’s Army was continuing its offensive against the group and entering its 10th day of combined military operations involving artillery and helicopter gunships as well as Algerian Special Forces. The strength of the military operations is likely designed to reassert the government’s authority, particularly after the group successfully conducted attacks in suburbs of the capital previously believed secure (Terrorism Focus, February 20). Few details regarding the precise nature of the government’s operation and its outcome have been released; however, the al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb has reportedly announced the death of Soheib Abou Abderrahmane, a senior member and close associate of the group’s leader, Abdelmalek Droukdal (El-Khabar, March 31; Agence France Presse, April 2). Furthermore, there have been unconfirmed reports that at least 20 Islamists and three soldiers were killed. Police units have closed off all roads leading into the area and are barring all civilians, including journalists, from entering the region. The military’s recent surge comes in the wake of recent court rulings in which Droukdal was sentenced to death in absentia by a criminal tribunal in Tizi Ouzou for “establishing an armed group, the destruction of public property with the help of explosives and attempted theft.” Concurrently, the Batna Court of Justice sentenced the leader to 20 years in jail, again in absentia, and levied a fine of 500,000 dinars for “attacking state security” and “establishing a terrorist group” (El Watan, March 28).
Algeria, as the second largest exporter of Liquefied Natural Gas, has significant reason for concern regarding the prospect of an infusion of al-Qaeda style tactics such as coordinated bombings and assaults against foreigners working inside the country. With oil prices soaring and continuous instability in the Persian Gulf, it is in the government’s interests to project an image of security so as not to discourage foreign direct investment in the country’s hydrocarbon sector. At a time when diversity of supply is perhaps more critical than ever before, Algeria must strive to distinguish itself from the turmoil which seems to endemically plague many hydrocarbon producing countries. The government’s recent actions will go a long way toward achieving this goal and hopefully head off the resurgence of the group before the balance of power tips further toward al-Qaeda and the Maghreb’s reconstituted threat of terrorism (Terrorism Monitor, February 1). As in the broader war on terrorism, the use of military force is only part of the solution. Unlike conventional wars where an opponent’s strength is comparatively predetermined, the number of terrorists has never been finite.