On September 8, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) issued a statement via its official website affirming that it was responsible for the suicide attacks against a Coast Guard barracks in Dellys and the attempted assassination of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Batna (Echorouk al-Youmi, September 9). These attacks, which are the fourth and fifth instances respectively that an AQIM member has successfully undertaken a martyrdom operation in Algeria, signify the continuance of a relatively new and deeply divisive attack trend initiated with the advent of AQIM. Although suicide operations are not new to the region as a whole, they are a major departure from the norm in Algeria and are indicative of how AQIM’s amir, Abu Mus’ab Abd al-Wadoud (also known as Abdelmalek Droudkel), has altered the group’s ideology and strategy. Although intended to bring media attention to AQIM and its struggle, the liberal use of this tactic and the killing of innocent Muslim civilians will do more to hurt the organization than help it.
By utilizing this tactic, AQIM’s leadership signaled its desire for more potent communicative means to revitalize its image. In recent years, the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC), the predecessor to AQIM, had suffered under the government’s counter-terrorism strategy. Beset by defections, the GSPC was becoming alienated from mainstream Algerian society and suffered from a loss of morale and cohesion (Terrorism Focus, March 31, 2005). Then, on April 11, two members of AQIM committed the first suicide attacks in recent Algerian history. As a communicative method, this event showed the potency of this tactic in generating media attention. Although previous attacks had drawn some renewed attention to the Algerian jihad, the April 11 bombings marked a definitive point in AQIM’s publicity strategy and successfully revitalized the Algerian jihad in the global conscience.
However, that which makes suicide operations such a potent media tool can also be severely damaging to a group’s cause. To this end, AQIM’s April attacks touched off a series of protests by the Algerian citizenry, still scarred by the country’s lengthy and bloody civil war. Even within his own movement and organization, al-Wadoud has received criticism for his efforts to reform the group’s doctrine (Echorouk al-Youmi, August 22; Terrorism Monitor, September 13). As an outgrowth of the former GSPC—which was established as a refutation of the Armed Islamic Group’s (GIA) brutality and takfiri doctrine—AQIM must be careful to maintain its moral credibility by calibrating its attacks and minimizing Muslim casualties. To this end, the September 8 statement strove to reassure its readers that AQIM had gone to all reasonable lengths to mitigate the chance of innocents being killed or wounded.
Despite the divisiveness of this tactic, it appears that al-Wadoud is set on continuing to commit suicide attacks. In order to do so indefinitely, these attacks must resonate with a certain constituency, if for no other reason than for recruitment. Al-Wadoud himself highlighted the criticality of new recruits to the martyrdom campaign by issuing a May 2007 statement calling for those who are “committed to die.” Although recruits are important, the looming specter that veterans of the Iraqi jihad may soon be returning in force raises the likelihood that this tactic will be employed with enhanced frequency and proficiency. Iraq has educated these veterans (ghazis) not only in the efficient deployment of martyrdom operatives to devastating lethal affect, but the venue has also set a precedent in the global jihadi movement in terms of a rapid operational tempo. It stands to reason that veteran fighters will impart on AQIM’s leadership the lessons they learned from their Iraq experience.
In summary, the ongoing use of suicide operations by AQIM in Algeria is a significant step for the organization, and though they were intended to build support, the shock of these attacks may in fact result in the increasing isolation of the jihadi movement in Algeria. It will be important to monitor how the group’s beleaguered amir, al-Wadoud, measures the employment and lethality of these attacks to mitigate this risk.