While the GIA may be out for the count, the larger of Algeria’s insurgent groups, the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC) announced its continued presence with a deadly ambush on a military convoy at Biskra, 260 miles south of Algiers. According to the Algerian daily L’Expression, a group of 50-60 insurgents opened the attack with a bomb and then raked the convoy with machine-gun fire, killing 13 soldiers and five civilians. The attack, which took two days to appear in the press, occurred on the day as the announcement of the captured GIA leadership was made. The operation, the deadliest since 16 were killed in the Medea region more than three months ago, is believed to have been led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar. Security sources say he had recently returned to Algeria from hiding in Mali, and has been engaged in rallying hardline members in Algeria’s south (www.lexpressiondz.com).
The news of the attack puts some new complexion on Police Chief Ali Tounsi’s confident predictions made on December 18 that the remaining 500-600 Islamists in the country were all suffering from “collapsed morale” and “waiting for the opportunity to turn themselves in to the authorities”. Ali Tounsi’s comments were part of a ‘year in review’ commentary where security authorities expressed quiet confidence in their progress against insurgency attacks. According to the official evaluation, the year 2004 saw a net improvement in the security situation compared to preceding years. Since 2003 terrorist activity (where deaths from insurgent violence for the first time dropped below 1,000) is said to have ‘decreased by 30 to 35 percent’, and even to have dropped by 25 percent in Boumerdès, Algiers and Kabylie, the regions most affected by the phenomenon.
One yardstick on the level of coherence the GSPC is maintaining may be provided by its own Arabic language website www.jihad-algeria.com. This has long been a useful source for commentaries on jihadist activity and alternative angles on insurgency matters reported in the press. Most notable was the ‘Storm in a Teacup’ article featured in the first (and so far only) edition of their periodical Al-Jama’a, which dismissed the effects of President Bouteflika’s amnesty offer on its membership (on this see Terrorism Monitor, Volume 2 Issue 15, A New Journal For Algerian Jihad). However, for several weeks since a November 9 note on a minor operation in Jijel, the website was not updated, and was even temporarily offline. Its recent re-appearance and denial by the GSPC that anything was amiss, featured in the Algerian daily L’Expression, (www.lexpressiondz.com) was, nevertheless, unaccompanied by any new postings.
The one exception is a featured link to another jihadist website, a new Iraqi magazine ‘Al-Fath’ (‘The Conquest’), that first appeared in early December, and which features an interview with the ‘Head of the Information Committee’ of the GSPC, Shaykh Abu Umar Abd al-Birr. In the interview the Shaykh insists that the GSPC are receiving ample youthful reinforcements to their ranks, and he pours scorn on official talk of the group being reduced to fragments. Abd al-Birr maintains in the interview that the movement is in fact growing. The fact that the military operations are not a daily affair is not, in his view, an indication of the levels of their capability. He concedes, however, that mistakes have been made: “most of them due to the cunning of the intelligence services. But the mujahideen have learnt the lesson and benefited from previous tribulations. They are now doing all they can to support the cause and shore up the gaps” [Majallat al-Fath, Vol. 1, p.11]. (The interview is the first of two parts, the second is to be published in the following issue. When this appears, Terrorism Focus will examine its contents).
Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s re-appearance adds some weight to Abd al-Birr’s comments. Certainly by default, with Islamist activity in the north heavily reduced, he now heads the most powerful terrorist group active in Algeria. Originally Abderrezak El-Para’s acolyte, his group has been operating in the Sahel region and deep south of Algeria, supported by highly successful contraband activities.
The question now is whether this last escapade proves to be a swan song. For that is how the Algerian press is interpreting it, noting the flight of the attackers into the triangle formed by M’sila, Biskra and Ouled-Djellal, which is held to provide the best remaining protection and support network for the insurgents. L’Expression notes the movement of heavy convoys of the army and the Gendarmerie headed for Biskra and “hermetically sealing off several hundred square kilometers”. The operation, the paper comments, “will have heavy consequences for the future of the GSPC”.