The Ideological Struggle Over al-Qaeda’s Suicide Tactics in Algeria

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 3

On January 29, a lorry laden with 1,400 lbs of explosives and driven by a member of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was detonated in the town of Thenia, east of Algiers, killing four and wounding an additional 23 people. The target of the attack was the police barracks in the center of town, and among the dead was a police officer who has been heralded for preventing the bomber from detonating at his targeted location (Magharebia, February 1). While this attack did not result in the high casualty figures seen in AQIM’s previous suicide attacks, such as the December 11 bombing of the United Nations and Constitutional Court in Algiers, this attack constitutes yet another in an unpopular series of suicide bombings conducted by AQIM that have resulted in casualty figures not seen since Algeria’s civil war. In a subsequent statement issued by AQIM on January 30, the group claimed responsibility for the attack and addressed the ideological and societal tension brewing over the group’s continued use of this tactic in Algeria. Despite the unpopularity of suicide bombings in Algeria and the development of an appealing counter-narrative by members of the ulema (body of Islamic scholars), it appears AQIM is positioned to carry on with its suicide bombing campaign, particularly as the group absorbs fighters returning from Iraq.

The Perspectives of the Debate

The debate over the legitimacy of suicide operations in Algeria was triggered by AQIM’s April 11 dual bombing in Algiers, an event that stood as the group’s proclamation that it had indeed fallen in line with al-Qaeda’s tactical doctrine. Immediately following this and subsequent suicide attacks, several key elements within Algeria displayed their disdain for the new path that the group’s amir, Abu Mus’ab Abd al-Wadoud, had cut for his group. Still scarred from a lengthy and profoundly bloody civil war in the 1990s, the general public has shown an unwillingness to return to a period of high casualty conflict. However, this ideological schism has been most prominently displayed in the opposing views of martyrdom posited by AQIM and Islamic jurisprudents both within and without Algeria.

In late January, five Muslim scholars from Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Syria issued scathing fatwas (religious verdicts) condemning AQIM’s use of suicide bombings (Le Jeune Independent, January 27). Although this was not the first time members of the ulema had condemned AQIM’s suicide campaign, this event did pick up on an important trend. The opinions on martyrdom of these five scholars generally fall in line with the classical view and stand diametrically opposed to the modern interpretation propagated by al-Qaeda [1]. One scholar in the group, Shaykh Abu al-Harith Abu al-Hassan, denounced suicide operations as having “no religious basis or valid pretext, but instead [are based] on the desires and the ravings of their own architects.” Still another scholar, Shaykh Ali Hassan Abdelhamid, blamed AQIM’s use of suicide bombers for “only increasing the number of Muslims’ difficulties.” That these men, recognized as leading experts of Islamic law, condemned the use of suicide operations as being both illegal and onerous for the general Muslim population might prove vital in erecting a counter-narrative to undermine the legitimacy of AQIM’s use of this tactic [2].

On the other side of this debate is AQIM, supported by leading members of the global Salafist jihad who have lent their voice to AQIM’s cause [3]. Repudiating the aforementioned scholars, AQIM’s January 30 statement pointedly sought to attack their credibility by pejoratively labeling them as “Bush’s scholars” and “mouthpieces of the tyrants.” Doing so not only undermines the validity of these condemnatory fatwas, but also exculpates AQIM from incurring blame for violating Islamic law. Defending its decision to employ suicide operations, AQIM claimed legitimacy for its actions on the premise of careful timing and target selection. Referring to the Thenia attack, the AQIM statement notes how the group limited civilian casualties through precise timing and targeting of the police barracks:

[The Thenia attack] denies the fabricated and deceitful boasting of the enemy who claims that the mujahideen are targeting innocent Muslims, for those who perished today are part of the apostate police force and the choice of the mujahideen for this target was clear. Also, the precise timing of the operation is clear proof to those who inquire into the lies of the apostates and the hypocrites and their allegations and of the truthfulness of the mujahideen (al-Fajr Center, January 30).

Despite these attempts to assert the legitimacy of its suicide bombing campaign, it appears that AQIM’s defense cannot mask the fact that these attacks have been ill received even by many within the organization. In late July 2007, Abdelkader Ben Messoud, alias Abu Daoud, a leading member of AQIM who had recently surrendered to the Algiers government under amnesty, depicted an organization divided against itself as a consequence of al-Wadoud’s strategic decision to employ suicide bombers. The divisions appear to roughly comport with those stemming from al-Wadoud’s decision to merge the organization with al-Qaeda in 2006. Many of the nationalist old guard who oppose suicide attacks, such as Abu Daoud, feel that the tactic is counterproductive and inevitably causes an undesirably high number of innocent casualties. This point was picked up by former members of AQIM who have likened al-Wadoud to the leaders of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which terrorized Algeria in the early 1990s before AQIM’s predecessor organization—the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC)—split from it (Echorouk [Algeria], August 22). This point has more recently been restated by a group, reportedly born out of former GSPC members, calling itself the “Protectors of the Salafist Call” (Dar al-Hayat, June 6, 2007; Echorouk, February 5). It appears, therefore, that a consequence of the use of suicide attacks has been to create potentially debilitating acrimony and splintering within the ranks of AQIM.

Counter Narratives and Recruitment

Although the leadership schisms depicted above may prove to be detrimental for the organization, the criticisms AQIM has endured from Algerian society will likely have a more potent impact on the group’s sustainability over the long term. This point is borne out by AQIM’s ability to decentralize its operations, placing less emphasis on central command and control functions, thus making the group more resilient to leadership turmoil [4]. Over the long term, the durability of the group will be determined by its ability to attract new members and enhance its broad appeal across a constituent element within Algerian society.

This factor also has indirect operational implications with regard to suicide operations. In order for AQIM to sustain its suicide bombing campaign, there must continue to be a steady flow and retention of new recruits willing to martyr themselves for the group’s cause. Reports from this past summer that noted AQIM’s personnel troubles illuminate this point (see Terrorism Monitor, September 13, 2007). AQIM’s own statements indicate the importance the group places on maintaining its broad appeal to those willing to perpetrate these attacks. For instance, in May 2007, al-Wadoud released a video, entitled “Where are those who are committed to die?” which included an unabashed call for volunteers to offer their lives for the group. Many of the attacks AQIM perpetrates are named after fallen members of the organization, hence lionizing them as martyrs and enhancing the appeal of committing one’s life to the path of jihad. However, if public criticism and the growing counter-narrative discussed above succeed in demonizing AQIM’s activities and alienating the group from its pool of recruits, the effect would be to diminish AQIM’s ability to perpetrate suicide bombings. While it would appear that for the time being such an effect has not been witnessed in Algeria, the prospects for such an outcome are hopeful.

Past as Prologue?

Despite public and clerical condemnation of the use of suicide operations, it seems likely at this point that AQIM will continue to escalate its campaign. Indeed, it appears AQIM is poised to continue its suicide bombing campaign for the foreseeable future, as seen in the activities of a cell near Algiers that was responsible for the December 11 bombings. Local media have noted that three of the bombers were building contractors and one was a computer scientist for Brown & Root Condor, a joint venture of the Algerian state energy company and a Halliburton subsidiary (El Khabar [Algeria], February 7). The cell had reportedly already procured the necessary materiel for a future attack (al-Watan, January 29). Moreover, this incident highlighted AQIM’s sophisticated methodology for deploying suicide operatives as well as the group’s enduring appeal among the educated parts of Algerian society. This point is made especially salient in light of the recently released records of foreign fighters entering Iraq through Syria [5]. These captured documents indicate that a greater number of North Africans are actively engaged in the Iraqi insurgency than previously thought. With leading figures in the global jihadist movement already looking to the post-Iraq period (see Terrorism Focus, January 22), it stands to reason that these individuals will seek to return to their home countries. Provided they are able and willing to return to the Maghreb—two assumptions which must not be overlooked—they will carry with them a wealth of skills and experience in conducting a suicide bombing campaign.

Although the looming specter of returning veterans could have a significant impact on Maghrebi—and more precisely Algerian—security, the ideological schism which has developed due to the use of suicide bombers is potentially auspicious for counter-terrorism efforts. As noted earlier, if the ulema are capable of undermining the legitimacy and appeal of AQIM’s activities through the construction of an equally appealing and legitimate counter-narrative, then the use of suicide operatives will likely diminish. Given the high success rate of such operations, losing the capacity to implement this tactic would no doubt hinder AQIM’s lethality and destructiveness.


1. For an excellent depiction of the classical view of martyrdom versus the contemporary interpretation espoused by al-Qaeda and other jihadis, see David Cook, Martyrdom in Islam, Cambridge, 2007.

2. The notion of building a narrative to counter the radicalization process has been discussed by numerous authors. For a summary, see Jeffrey Cozzens, Identifying entry points of action in counter radicalization, Danish Institution for International Studies Working Paper, 2006.

3. Abu Yahya al-Libi, a native of Libya and a leading figure in al-Qaeda, issued a rebuttal in July 2007 to Muslim scholars who had condemned AQIM’s April 11 suicide bombings in Algiers (see Terrorism Focus, July 31; August 14, 2007).

4. For a description of AQIM’s networked operations, see Noureddine Jebnoun, Is the Maghreb the Next Afghanistan?, Center for Contemporary Arab Studies Occasional Paper, Georgetown University, December 2007.

5. Joseph Felter, Brian Fishman, Al-Qa’ida’s Foreign Fighters in Iraq: A First Look at the Sinjar Records, Combating Terrorism Center, U.S. Military Academy, West Point, 2007.