“Le GIA est mort” ran the opening line of the Algerian daily Le Quotidien d’Oran on January 4. The headline came a day after media speculation on the fate of the GIA had been dramatically put to rest with the announcement by the Algerian Interior Minister, Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni, on public television of the arrest of its current leader Nourredine Boudiafi, along with a dozen other armed insurgents and support members.
The arrest took place back in early November in a suburb of Algiers, but the two-month long campaign was kept under wraps while maximum use was made of the information derived from the coup. There followed, according to the announcement, multiple arrests, the location and destruction of arms caches across the Mitidja and Chlef regions, and the initiation of a string of forensic ballistic investigations aimed at establishing prosecutions for massacres perpetrated since the mid-1990s.
According to a report in the Algerian daily L’Expression, (www.lexpressiondz.com), from information gleaned from the arrests, the security coup appears to have happened just in time to prevent a significant recrudescence of GIA activity. Ballistic investigations are now focusing on the killings carried out last November at Larbaa, Khemis Miliana, Hamdania and Bougara, which appear to have been the starting point for a re-penetration of the GIA into the capital.
According to Le Quotidien, Nourredine Boudiafi, it turns out, had engineered the execution in the maquis of Chréa of his predecessor Oukali Rachid, alias Abou Tourab, last July in order to advance his program of carrying the armed struggle back onto the streets of Algiers. Preparations were well advanced, with cell groups installed, along with support networks and hiding places dotted around the city. At the same time Algerian security was intercepting the process from the bottom up, avoiding striking directly at the emirs until last November. That the GIA leadership was severely caught out by the pace of events can be judged by the circumstances of the killing of Boudiafi’s hastily appointed successor, Chaâbane Younès. He was intercepted and killed on December 1 at Chlef en route to the maquis of Tamezguida, near Blida where he was to be officially invested that day as the GIA’s national emir. It was after this incident that the major arms stock of the GIA was confiscated at Mitidja and Chlef (www.quotidien-oran.com).
The neutralization of the two emirs in quick succession (three in one year counting Abou Tourab) looks set to finish off the GIA for good. Both Boudiafi and Younès formed part of the kernel of hardline emirs – in the tradition of Zitouni and Zouabri – and had received their training in the Katiba al-Khadra phalange made up of former fighters in Afghanistan. Younès, also known as ‘Lyès’, had commanded and personally directed all the massacres perpetrated between the years 1999 and 2003 against civilian populations in the West of the country.
The opportunity provided by the arrests to flesh out the details of GIA activity and strength in the country has allowed the security authorities to put a figure to it: the GIA which used to number thousands of fighters in the mid 1990s is now reduced to a matter of ‘some 30 activists split into two groups occupying the hill plateau of Thala Acha, near Blida, and Kouacem, straddling the provinces of Tissemsilt and Chlef, now being hunted down by the security forces.’ With the confiscation of ‘all the vehicles used by the terrorists’ along with the war chest of “gold stolen during massacres undertaken at Raïs, Bentalha, Had Chekala and Ténès,” over which GIA emirs in the east of the country had fought internecine wars, it is difficult to see how the GIA can regroup.
However, the reality is that the GIA has for long been the weaker of the two operative Islamist insurgent groups in Algeria. The GIA was always a movement in crisis, it has long been weakened by dissidence and has not claimed responsibility for attacks in recent years. The organization never recovered from the internal ructions of 1996-98, when its present-day rival grouping, the GSPC detached itself from its parent formation, which was losing popular support due to its indiscriminate killings, and began to eclipse it. Since that time GIA violence has been marked as much by internal score-settling as politically or ideologically motivated killings. It was even rumored that in February 2002 GSPC leader Hassan Hattab tipped off the security forces about the then GIA leader Anton Zouabri’s presence at a house in Boufarik – having called on Zouabri to meet there to discuss a potential reunification of the two Islamist groups. Accession to the leadership of the GIA has generally been through assassination of the incumbent.
The value of the January 4 announcement is probably more on a psychological than military level: a morale boost for the Algerian public, and a stronger inducement for the remaining estimated 300-500 Islamist militants in the country to throw down their arms. It is likely that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika will add on further pressure by reinstating the offer of an amnesty.
Since this report was written a posting on an Islamist forum has appeared (January 5) purporting to be from Rachid Abu Tourab himself, denying the reports of his death. Having stated that such premature reports have occurred on three occasions, he insists that Algerian intelligence is hopelessly muddled, confusing his identity as an emir of the Armée Islamique du Salut (AIS) (which is now observing a truce with the government). Abou Tourab then challenges the government to produce any information about his identity, or any document demonstrating a link with the GIA. He signs off as ‘Rachid Abou Tourab the Algerian, Sunni Jihad Brigades, AIS.’ (www.alm2sda.net/vb/showthread.php?t=6381)