New Strategies in al-Qaeda’s Battle for Algeria

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 22

AQIM at Bordj Bou Arreridj

In September, three years will have passed since the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat – GSPC) joined al-Qaeda. A sharp rise in terrorist attacks has been noticeable since 2007, when the GSPC changed its name to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and became the official franchise of al-Qaeda in North Africa. In 2007 and 2008, AQIM carried out a series of spectacular attacks, mainly by suicide bombers, and in June of this year it managed to kill at least 18 security personnel in one ambush alone south-east of Algiers.

This report examines how Algerian authorities are dealing with the threat posed by AQIM, and how the Islamist group is adapting to the government’s strategy.

The Survival of Islamist Militancy in Algeria

Algerian authorities seem to have been taken aback by the resurgence of militant activities in the country in the past few years. The bloody war with the armed Islamic groups which engulfed the country during the 1990s was seen as something of the past. The Islamic Salvation Army (Armée Islamique de Salvation – AIS) gave up its arms and joined an amnesty program by 1999. The Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Armé – GIA), the most vicious of the Algerian militant groups, was defeated militarily, while its successor, the GSPC, was confined to some pockets of resistance, mainly to the east of Algiers. The Algerian government still had hopes that the leadership of the GSPC would soon agree to lay down its arms and join a reconciliation program launched by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Unfortunately, these hopes were soon dashed; Hassan Hattab, the Amir of the GSPC, who favored reconciliation with the government, was replaced in 2003 by a new Amir, Nabil Sahraoui (a.k.a. Abu Ibrahim Mustafa), who favored not only a continuation of jihad in Algeria, but also joining forces with Osama Bin Laden’s global struggle against the West.  2003, therefore, was a critical year for the survival of the GSPC. The Iraq war, which started that year, fueled anger among the Algerian youth, many of whom volunteered to join the insurgency in Iraq in the hope of fighting Americans who were seen as “occupiers of Muslim lands.” Many of those volunteers were aided by GSPC cells to reach Iraq. Others stayed at GSPC training camps in Algeria, having failed to reach their destination in Iraq due to crackdowns on the cells that were supposed to smuggle them there. With these new recruits training for jihad the GSPC was given a new lease on life.

The Iraq war did more than help the GSPC to raise fresh recruits to replace its depleted ranks; according to the former head of the GSPC media section, Abu Omar Abd al-Birr, it also put the Algerian group on the course of finally joining al-Qaeda through the contacts it forged with the Jordanian jihadi Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq (Ennahar, March15; al-Hayat, March 15).
The process of merging with al-Qaeda was started by Nabil Sahraoui, but it did not materialize until 2006, under the leadership of Sahraoui’s successor, Abd al-Malik Droudkel (a.ka.Abu Musab Abd al-Wadoud). In September of that year, the GSPC announced its affiliation with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and in January 2007 it became the official franchise of al-Qaeda in the whole of North Africa. AQIM proved its worth when it launched suicide attacks in Algiers in April 2007, targeting the Prime Minister’s offices and a security post. It was the first time Algerian Islamists used a coordinated martyrdom attack, comparable to those considered the hallmark of al-Qaeda operations. In December 2007, a similar attack took place in Algiers, this time targeting the UN Headquarters and the Constitutional Court. Other AQIM operations in 2007 included an attack on the Coast Guard barracks in Dellys (just east of Algiers) and a failed attempt to kill President Bouteflika in Batna that nevertheless claimed at least fifteen lives. The number of attacks increased in 2008 (295 compared to 218 in 2007), though the number of casualties declined. [1]

These attacks seem to have taken the authorities by surprise, but the Algerian security services were soon able to adapt and form a counter-offensive strategy. This strategy was built on two major policies: a military offensive and a religious offensive against the Islamist militants.

The Government’s Military Offensive

The security services started their counter-offensive slowly, but with spectacular success. The investigation into the April 2007 attacks in Algiers led them to the identity of the major perpetrators. But security forces were faced with a dilemma: how to reach them in the mountains? The solution was provided when a major AQIM figure, Samir Sai’oud (a.k.a. Musab Abu Abdallah), was caught alive in an ambush in the spring of 2007. The security services decided to announce his death through the official Algerian Press Service.  Surprisingly, Sai’oud’s death was confirmed by AQIM itself, which did not realize he was only injured (, April 27, 2007). The government’s aim was to reassure the militants in the mountains that their usual routes had not been compromised. The information gleaned from this detainee combined with other sources of information led to the killing or capture of dozens of militant leaders, including Ali Al-Dees (a.k.a. Sayyed Ali Rashid), Zohair Harek (a.ka. Soufian Fasila, the Amir of AQIM’s Second Zone), Abd al-Hamid Hamzawi (a.k.a. Abu Turab), and Abd al-Fattah Abu Basir (a.ka.Fateh Bouderbala) (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, November 21). After suffering these losses, the whole network responsible for the April attacks in Algiers was dismantled.

However, the authorities were well aware that such success would be short lived if not followed by more efforts to sustain it. The security services also knew from past experience that the militants in the mountains would soon be able to reorganize and restore any losses they suffered if they were allowed a safe haven in which to hide and regroup. To prevent this, government forces have been going into the areas where the militants are known to be hiding, with more than ten operations recorded every week. These operations have often been very difficult, especially in the eastern provinces of Kabylia and Boumerdes, where AQIM has well-defended bases high in the mountains.

The aim of these attacks is to prevent AQIM from regrouping and to keep it on the run.  If AQIM is occupied with its survival it will not have time to plan new attacks. The offensive against the hideouts of AQIM will be measured as a success only if it leads to the group having to reduce the frequency of its attacks, something which will become clear during the coming months.

The Government’s Religious Offensive

The authorities know full well that the armed Islamists cannot be defeated solely by military means. Other policies have to be adopted as well, so a two-front religious offensive was launched against AQIM. The first part of this offensive was to allow known Islamist leaders who have renounced violence and joined the peace process to explain why they did so. In an interview with the author conducted for al-Hayat newspaper, Hassan Hattab, GSPC’s founder and former Amir, explained why he decided to “come down from the mountains” and surrender. He, and three other well known GSPC leaders spoke at length about the reasons why they gave up arms and called on their religious comrades who are still in the mountains to follow them and join the National Reconciliation. In short, they all declared that what AQIM is doing is not jihad (Al-Hayat, March 14 – 17).

In addition to these interviews, the Algerian authorities hosted a well known Saudi Salafist preacher, Ayed al-Qarni, who visited the country for the first time in March. Al-Qarni is an important figure in the Salafist movement in the Gulf, a movement which was seen as supporting the cause of the Algerian Islamist rebels during the 1990s. After the large-scale Algerian massacres in the second half of the 1990s and the launch of the government’s amnesty initiative towards those who lay down their arms, the Salafist movement in the Gulf played an important role in convincing some Algerian groups to surrender. The message from the Salafists to the jihadis in Algeria was clear: what you are doing is not jihad (Al-Hayat, March 14 – 17). Dr. Al-Qarni repeated this message during his visit to Algeria in March and was allowed to meet with former militants who have renounced violence. (Al-Arabiya, March 16).

Has this two-pronged religious offensive produced any results? It is still too early to tell. But the Algerian press lately has been full of stories about groups willing to give up the fight after having been contacted by Hattab. It has also been reported that another well known Islamist leader is willing to surrender—Salim al-Afghani, the head of the Defenders of the Salafist Call, who is in negotiations with the government regarding the disbandment of his group (Al-Hayat, June 22). If this turns out to be true, it could well be the result of what he has heard from the Salafist movement regarding the fighting in Algeria.

Countering the Government’s Strategy

AQIM, in the meanwhile, seems to be trying to adapt to the government’s strategy. AQIM’s major worry seems to be getting drawn into a direct battle with the Algerian army. In order to avoid this, AQIM has constantly been a step ahead of the advancing troops. Not a single major battle has been reported between the two sides lately, an indication of the militant group’s eagerness to avoid a battle it knows it will lose. Reports in the Algerian press often mention the killing of a few Islamists in the army operations, but nothing more than that.

Instead of direct confrontation with the army, AQIM tries to launch attacks against “soft targets” – mainly the poorly-armed civil defense force members in rural areas. Occasionally, AQIM manages to kill members from other military branches, as it did in June 2009 when it ambushed a convoy of paramilitary police near Bordj Bou Arreridj, in a mountainous area east of Algiers, and killed 18 of its members and one civilian (other civilians were reportedly caught during the ambush but AQIM made an effort to demonstrate that it only targets the military). It was one of the heaviest losses suffered by the authorities in years.

With a single successful attack, AQIM was able to show that it is has not been affected by the army’s assault against its hideouts. In addition, AQIM can also boast that it is able to operate not only in Algeria but also across the Islamic Maghreb, especially in Mauritania where the Israeli embassy was fired on in February 2008 and French tourists and an American teacher were killed in December 2007 and June 2009 respectively.

Apart from Algeria and Mauritania, AQIM’s operations have not been reported in other countries of the Islamic Maghreb (Morocco, Libya and Tunisia). However, AQIM’s Sahara Zone has been active not only in southern Algeria, but also across Mali and Niger, where several tourists and westerners (including Canadian diplomats) have been taken hostage in return for ransom. However, all the hostages have been released unharmed, apart from a Briton who was killed in June.

To counter the government’s religious offensive, AQIM turned to Ahmed Deghdegh (a.k.a. Abu Abd al-Illah Ahmed), the head of its political committee, who in May appeared in a 40-minute video countering accusations directed at his group. Deghdegh, who has been on the U.S. sanctions list since July 2008, insisted that it was the right decision for the GSPC to merge with al-Qaeda. [2] This merger, he stated, has made the Algerian group stronger with an influx of recruits from various countries of the Maghreb. Deghdegh went on to claim that the amnesty offered to the Islamists by President Bouteflika is worthless and assured Algerians that AQIM has not been affected by Hassan Hattab’s call to its members to join the peace process. Hattab, he said, is nothing but a “traitor” who has “sold out.” Deghdegh insists Hattab’s interviews with al-Hayat will not have any impact on AQIM’s activities. Only time will tell whether Hattab or Deghdegh is right about the future of AQIM. Until then, more blood will surely be spilt in Algeria.