Under the barrage of daily news reports detailing armed attacks by militants, it might appear over-optimistic to sound the last post for an Islamist insurgency that has since 1992 accounted for 150,000 deaths in Algeria. The extremist Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) had killed over 80 people since September, and the month of Ramadan upped the rate still further. In just one day on October 22, 16 people were killed in a road ambush by GSPC militants near the town of Medea south of Algiers, and this was followed by the ambush at a false checkpoint of a busload of soccer fans.
But this spike actually masks a dramatic fall in the killing rate over the recent months, as the effects of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s offer of amnesty, first promulgated in 1999, takes its toll on the morale of the insurgents. These are now estimated to number about 500-1000 armed members of the GSPC, and a few dozen remaining members of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). From the reaction of the intransigent militants, the amnesty tactic is bearing fruit. On October 27 Bouteflika formally renewed the amnesty offer.
Last May, the leading GSPC member poured scorn on what he termed the “alleged” acceptance of the Amnesty as mere media “headlines which make me pass out merely to think of them. I don’t know how to describe them other than that they are a “storm in a teacup”. (see Terrorism Monitor Volume 2 Issue 15). Yet evidence that the response to the amnesty has amounted to something more than a storm in a teacup comes from an intriguing report published in the Iraqi newspaper Azzaman. It cites the Algerian League for the Victims of Terrorism as stating that some 200 Islamist militants had been killed by their former comrades in arms following their acceptance of the amnesty, “after their names had appeared on legal registers.” Other victims included those who had led Algerian troops to weapons caches or who had warned the authorities of impending attacks. “Many former colleagues” it describes, “had been forced to go into hiding out of fear of revenge.” The GSPC is quoted specifically as having threatened to kill all of its former colleagues who had accepted the amnesty. [www.azzaman.com October 18]. The obvious impression is that, organizationally, the GSPD has been severely shaken.
The impression is further underlined by some indications of the disorganized structure of the GSPC, revealed by its own literature. We have already noted in the Focus how the May “launch” edition of the GSPC web magazine, Al-Jama’a, modeled on the al-Qaeda productions, has so far turned out to be a one-off. In a Declaration dated June 17 and published on the GSPC’s website [www.jihad-algeria.com] the editor notes how he came to hear of the reputed killing of the movement’s leader Abu Ibrahim Mustafa (Nabil Sahraoui) “from the Algerian press,” and insists that “the lateness in responding to the news was not due to confusion but for the simple reason that, to be frank, we do not have enough information”. Confirmation later came in a further declaration, dated August 6, announcing the appointment of his successor Abu Mus’ab Abd al-Wudud (Abou Mossaab Abdelouadoud).
The latest declaration on the website, dated October 14, gives still further indications of disarray. A full six months after news came of the arrest in northeastern Chad of a leading GSPC member Amari Saifi (also known as Abd al-Razzak “le Para” recalling his desertion from the Algerian Paratrooper division) the Declaration No. 25 issues a series of threats against the “criminal movement” holding him, the rebel Movement for Justice and Democracy in Chad (MDJT). It refers obliquely to the “difficult circumstances the GSPC has passed through” and considers the MJDT’s actions a “declaration of war against the movement in its serious aggression against one of its symbols and leaders.” The GSPC, it warns, “demands the instant and unconditional release of the brother Abd al-Razzak and is ready to reply blow for blow, reserving to itself the right to choose the means and date of the retaliation.” (Bayan 25, www.jihad-algeria.com].
Amari Saifi is perhaps the GSPC’s most high profile figure internationally, having led a GSPC group that kidnapped 32 European tourists last year in southern Algeria. He is said to have secured US $6.36 million for their release and used the money to buy arms. He had been building up a base in the Saharan desert, controlling smuggling routes and recruiting members in neighboring countries, leading to fears that al-Qaeda, to which the GSPC has pledged allegiance, was seeking new havens in an area of weak government and open borders. The U.S. has poured US $7.75 million into a “Pan Sahel Initiative” designed to provide training and equipment for the nations of the Sahel region for the purpose of denying the territory to terrorists.
Saifi has been the subject of an international arrest warrant issued by Germany in connection with the kidnappings since September last year. However, it was only this week, on October 28, that news came that Libya had extradited Amari Saifi to Algeria. While Libyan officials merely state that he had been “picked up at the border” there might have been some heavy persuasion involved. Back in July the MDJC stated that Libya had been threatening to bomb their positions unless Saifi was handed over to them. In whatever way it was achieved, the extradition of “Le Para” to Algiers to face a trial is a massive blow to the GSPC. Saifi is believed to have a wealth of information on rebel activities both within Algeria, and in those Saharan territories where Islamists have been attempting to gain a foothold.