The Maghreb – Breeding Place for Violent Islamism

North African Terrorism Also Affects Europe

The recent terrorist attacks in Algiers are new evidence of an Islamist scene in North Africa in which terrorism is mixed with ordinary criminality. And it's also the Maghreb which is the origin of most of those arrested in Europe for terrorist offences. Eric Gujer reports

photo: dpa
Firemen try to extinguish a fire at the scene of a car bomb attack in Algiers, 11 April 2007. Several dozen of people were wounded in the explosions

​​When 32 tourists, were taken hostage in the Sahara during Spring 2003, European public opinion took notice for the first time of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (Groupe salafiste pour la prédication et le combat – GSPC), an organisation which had emerged from the confusion of the Algerian civil war.

The kidnapping, which ended with the payment of a ransom, showed once more that Islamist terrorism has many faces and cannot be reduced to the worldwide "Al Qaeda" brand.

The group sees itself as part of Osama bin Ladin's network, but the GSPC's commandants, or emirs, in the individual Algerian regions operate independently in carrying out conventional criminal activities.

A lack of border controls

The organisation emerged at the end of the nineties as the random terror of the Armed Islamic Group (Groupe islamique armé – GIA), which was directed against security forces and civilians in Algeria, began to meet with increasing opposition. The GSPC split from the GIA and said it would only fight against state institutions. Initially it restricted its operations to Algeria, but it then moved into neighbouring countries and the Sahel region, where it found space to regroup and recruit.

A GSPC group attacked a military post in Mauritania in 2005 and killed 15 soldiers. While the Algerian security forces are relatively effective, the same cannot be said of the security forces in Mali, Mauritania, Chad and Niger. The border areas are remote and poorly controlled, and that makes them an ideal terrain for criminals and terrorists.

The then leader of the organisation swore an oath of allegiance to Al Qaeda as early as October 2003. The GSPC became the first independent terror group to declare itself a regional arm of Al Qaeda. At the same time it was less clear than ever how far the Islamists were acting as a unified organisation. It was a period when the Algerian security forces were killing or imprisoning many of the Islamist leaders. It was also a period when the local emirs were following their own interests.

Amari Saifi, who is alleged to have taken the 32 tourists hostage, was also a smuggler who made plenty of money in the arms trade. This ambiguity of purpose saved the hostages – Al Qaeda would never have been content with just the payment of a ransom.

Fighters in Iraq

Pressure from the authorities and internal dissension both had an effect on the organisation. In a study for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs last year, Guido Steinberg and Isabelle Werenfels discuss whether the GSPC has been weakened. A new name – "Al Qaeda in the Maghreb" – and the attacks in Algiers seem to be an answer to that question. Indeed for several months now the number of attacks has been increasing.

Three of six relaesed German hostages leave the airplane of German Air Force after the arrival at the military airport in Cologne, Germany, May 14, 2003 (photo: AP)
In 2003, seventeen hostages from different countries were freed in Algeria's Sahara desert after two and a half month in a pitched battle that left nine suspected hostage-takers dead

​​Among western intelligence services there are differing views as to the organisation's strength. Most refer to several hundred fighters and supporters, altogether less than a thousand. But the new Al Qaeda is pushing the process of internationalisation. It was already carrying out both criminal and terrorist activities across borders, and now it is officially calling for the overthrow of the regimes in neighbouring countries as well. That puts Morocco, Tunisia and Libya in its sights, as well as Algeria.

In the world of Islamist terror cells, it is hard to work out who is cooperating with whom, or how command and financial structures function. Intelligence organisations think it is unlikely that the remaining nucleus of Al Qaeda in Pakistan or Afghanistan is providing its Maghreb branch with financial assistance or operational instructions.

On the other hand, the Maghreb branch is seen as a recruiting base for the global jihad: the majority of the foreign fighters currently in Iraq are said to be Algerians, and many Algerians were trained in Al Qaeda camps before 2001. They certainly have links to like-minded groups in the other Maghreb states.

Local and international forces

On the other hand, the Islamists in Morocco are already strong and ready to use violence, as was shown this week in Casablanca when Islamists blew themselves up after they had been surrounded by police. There is no consensus on how local and international forces in the Islamist scene relate to each other.

Western intelligence services used to emphasise the role of the global network, now they see the local cells as the driving force. The handy description "Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb" does not necessarily mean that it is a coordinated transnational unit.

Terror in North Africa has been affecting Europe ever since Algerian extremists carried out attacks in France. In that sense the emergence of Islamist activists on the other side of the Mediterranean is not a phenomenon which has only arrived with the global presence of Al Qaeda. The GSPC and its successor have units in Europe. There have been a number of members arrested in France and Morocco. They in turn have been shown to have had contacts to Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Great Britain.

Arrests in the EU

In its latest report on terrorism, Europol says that the majority of the 260 people arrested last year on suspicion of terrorist offences came from Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. Most of them are only accused of membership in a terrorist organisation, and they were using Europe merely as a kind of waiting room.

In a few cases, they were accused of helping with logistics, by, for example, moving people around, raising money through drug smuggling or credit card fraud, or acquiring explosives. But the bombings in Madrid in 2004 showed that people from the Maghreb Islamist scene in Europe can turn to violence on the continent itself.

While the EU has found it difficult to develop a coordinated response to the terrorist danger from North Africa, the United States has already taken action. Washington is extending its military cooperation with the Maghreb states. In Algeria, the US has access to an airbase with a listening station. In the so-called Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative, the US has extended its cooperation to Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Chad, with a special focus on police and military training as well as on improving control of the border and airspace.

Eric Gujer

© 2007

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

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