Rumors of a plague outbreak among al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) members in the caves of Algeria’s eastern Tizi Ouzou province first appeared in Algiers’ Arabic language Ech Chorouk el-Youmi newspaper on January 6. The story gathered little attention until a new version was published by London tabloid The Sun on January 19, 2009, under the sensational heading: "Anti-Terror bosses last night hailed their latest ally in the war on terror – the BLACK DEATH." The article went on to describe how "At least 40 al-Qaeda fanatics died horribly after being struck down with the disease that devastated Europe in the Middle Ages." The AQIM unit, based in caves of the coastal Tizi Ouzou province, "was forced to turn its shelters in the Yakouren forest into mass graves and flee," with AQIM leaders fearing the survivors would surrender to "escape a horrible death" (The Sun [London], January 19).
Various news agencies quickly found "experts" who were willing to speculate on AQIM’s alleged experimentation with biological weapons. Asian News International (ANI) quoted "a leading expert on chemical warfare" who suggested that, instead of bombs, terrorists could send people with infectious diseases walking through cities (ANI, January 20).
A Washington Times story cited an anonymous "senior U.S. intelligence official" who claimed a mishap during the development of biological weapons forced AQIM to close their Tizi Ouzou base, based on an intercepted (but undisclosed) message sent from Algeria to al-Qaeda leadership in the Afghanistan/Pakistan border region (Washington Times, January 19). The story then went on to use then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s long-discredited testimony before the United Nations as "proof" of al-Qaeda’s development of biological and chemical weapons. Other anonymous sources were cited as saying that al-Qaeda was worried the plague could spread to their personnel in Afghanistan and Pakistan (UPI, January 19). A new twist on the story suggested the outbreak may have occurred after Algerian security forces used a biological weapon against AQIM’s Tizi Ouzou base (al-Arabiya, January 26).
Dr. Saada Chougrani, an expert on infectious diseases with the University of Oran, stated that the rumors of plague in Tizi Ouzou were not taken seriously by Algerian health professionals, including the Laboratory for the Plague of the Pasteur Institute in Oran and the medical bacteriology laboratory in Algiers (ProMED [International Society for Infectious Diseases], January 21). Anis Rahmani, an Algerian security expert, noted that AQIM had trouble making explosives from fertilizer – the complicated and expensive process of weaponizing plague bacteria was far beyond the capability of the cave-dwelling insurgents (al-Arabiya, January 26).
Last week, AQIM issued a denial of all reports of plague sweeping through their ranks, blaming their appearance on the Algerian intelligence services:
"On January 6, 2009, several journalists wrote reports, based upon information they had received from their bosses in the Algerian intelligence bureaus, about dozens of mujahideen who died from contracting the plague. According to their claims, this disease was spread throughout the ranks of al-Qaeda organization and that it will soon cause the collapse of this organization! (…) We wanted to announce that there was no truth to these rumors… We don’t know anything about this so-called plague, because it never happened – other than perhaps in the minds and hearts of those collaborators who falsely carry the title of ‘journalists’" (Tout sur l’Algerie, January 26; NEFA Foundation, January 28).
A 2003 outbreak of bubonic plague in the Algerian port city of Oran led to 11 confirmed and seven suspected cases of the disease. It was the first confirmed case of plague in Algeria since 1950. A study of the 2003 outbreak notes reports of plague in Algerian records dating back to the 14th century, though the disease has gradually disappeared in the last century for unknown reasons. Nearly all outbreaks occurred in port cities rather than the interior (Bertherat E, Bekhoucha S, Chougrani S, Razik F, Duchemin JB, Houti L, et al., "Plague reappearance in Algeria after 50 years, 2003," Emerging Infectious Diseases, Oct 2007).
It is not impossible for AQIM to have experienced an outbreak of plague or another infectious disease in their rural camps (where conditions are similar to those experienced by the victims of the 2003 plague outbreak near Oran), but the very fact that no legitimate case has been reported suggests that this reported outbreak is unlikely. AQIM, like any militant group, does not exist in complete isolation – there are contacts with local farmers to obtain food, messengers to communicate with other AQIM sections, etc. Despite this, the epidemic does not seem to have spread (if indeed it ever existed). What can certainly be discounted is the possibility of AQIM conducting experiments in weaponizing the plague or other infectious diseases in their remote mountain hideouts.
SOMALIA’S SUFIS BATTLE SALAFIS FOR CONTROL OF CENTRAL SOMALIA
Battle wagons belonging to Ahlu Sunnah wa’l-Jama’a, a Somali Sufi-oriented religious group, burst into the town of Dhusa Mareb (headquarters of the Galgudud region of Central Somalia) on January 29, 2009, driving out a large force of fighters from the Salafist al-Shabaab movement (Shabelle Media Network, January 29). Al-Shabaab returned at night to lob mortar shells at the town’s hospital and residential districts, provoking a major outcry at the group’s tactics (Shabelle Media Network, January 30).
In Somalia, al-Shabaab has recently engaged in the destruction of tombs belonging to venerated Sufi "saints." In early December 2008, al-Shabaab destroyed the tombs of several Sufi shaykhs in Kismayo, together with an unused Roman Catholic church. An al-Shabaab spokesman, Shaykh Hassan Yakub, declared, "We destroyed graves where people used to worship dead people" (Garowe Online, December 9, 2008). On December 26, al-Shabaab members (reportedly including a number of foreign fighters) repeated this act in the Jilib district of Middle Juba region, where they demolished the tombs of Shaykh Nur Hussein and his two sons: "We believe people were worshipping the dead… so we destroyed the graves" (Garowe Online, December 26, 2008).
In Sufi-dominated Islamic societies like Somalia it is customary for the graves or tombs of noted Sufi shaykhs to become shrines and even places of pilgrimage for members of the Sufi orders. Salafists like those in the leadership of al-Shabaab condemn this practice as un-Islamic. Since the Salafist followers of Saudi religious reformer Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab vandalized the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad in Medina and destroyed the tomb of his daughter Fatimah in 1803-04, the spread of Salafism in the Muslim world has often been accompanied by similar acts of desecration.
By pursuing the demolition of sacred sites, al-Shabaab has succeeded in alienating a large number of Somali Islamists who continue to practice Sufism rather than follow the Salafist trend of al-Shabaab. The militants’ efforts were roundly denounced by Shaykh Abdulkadir Somow, a spokesman for Ahlu Sunnah wa’l-Jama’a, and within days the Sufi movement mobilized a group of fighters and joined battle against al-Shabaab just as the latter was on the verge of finalizing their conquest of the country (Garowe Online, December 7, 2008).
A spokesman for Ahlu Sunnah wa’l-Jama’a claimed that the group had killed over 50 al-Shabaab fighters and seized a large quantity of military equipment in the fight for Dhusa Mareb. Dozens of young al-Shabaab fighters had been captured: "We are holding over 50 very young youths who have clearly been misguided. We are going to de-brainwash them, cultivate them in Islam. We advise Somali parents whose son is missing to contact us" (Mareeg.com, January 31). The religious organization is battling al-Shabaab in the nearby Guri-El district of Galgudud and has also taken the town of Abudwaq (Somaliweyn, January 29. Mareeg.com, January 10).