/ 15 February 2007

Bombings could herald new wave of violence in Algeria

A deadly and carefully planned series of bomb attacks in Algeria by an al-Qaeda affiliate may signal a new escalation in violence that many Algerians hoped had abated, experts say.

Tuesday’s bombings flew in the face of the government’s bid to turn the page on a bloody Islamic insurgency that tore the nation apart in the 1990s. And the rise in aggressiveness has ominous implications across North Africa, where Algeria’s and other governments are allied with the United States-led war on terror — and al-Qaeda has been spreading its tentacles.

”It’s clearly a serious development,” said Hugh Roberts, the North Africa project director for the International Crisis Group.

”We may be heading into a fresh period of serious terrorist activity.”

Towns across the Kabylie region awoke on Tuesday to a series of seven bombings, some car explosions, that largely targeted police stations. Six people were killed and about 30 injured.

Al-Qaeda in Islamic North Africa — the new name for the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, known by its French abbreviation GSPC — has claimed responsibility for the bombings via a website and a phone call to al-Jazeera television. The group allied itself with al-Qaeda last year.

Many Algerians thought the GSPC had been largely neutralised by tough security measures and government amnesties to coax fighters into surrendering their weapons. While scattered violence by the GSPC has continued, such carefully planned strikes have been rare in today’s Algeria.

”Lately, we thought things had calmed down,” said Yassine, who woke on Tuesday to find the police station near his house in the town of Boumerdes ravaged by a car bomb. ”Now this happens.”

Yassine asked that his last name not be used to protect his safety.

The GSPC rejected the government’s Charter for Peace and Reconciliation, a voter-approved effort to come to terms with the insurgency that killed 150 000 people in the 1990s.

The GSPC may never realise its goal of toppling the Algerian government, said Roberts, ”but [the group] is demonstrating its capacity to be a serious nuisance. It can damage the political climate.”

Following Tuesday’s bombings, opposition parties criticised the government for failing to solve the problem of the GSPC.

The Algerian government downplayed the attacks and defended its amnesty policy, saying that Tuesday’s bombers were rapists and perpetrators of massacres — classes of militants ineligible for amnesty, Algeria’s Liberte newspaper reported on Wednesday.

The newspaper’s editorialists challenged the government’s argument.

”These bombs signal … the end of any attempt at national reconciliation with what is left of the terrorists,” Liberte said in an editorial Wednesday.

The attacks may have been partly designed to quash Algerian authorities’ recent claims that the GSPC was no longer a force to be reckoned with, said Mohamed Darif, a terrorism expert at Morocco’s Mohammedia University.

Meanwhile, analysts say the GSPC is increasingly cooperating with other Islamic militants around North Africa. The group shares al-Qaeda’s ideology and has shown signs of adopting its international agenda.

The GSPC enjoys relations with Moroccan terrorists responsible for the 2004 Madrid bombings, Darif said. On Thursday, 29 suspects went on trial in Madrid for Spain’s worst-ever terrorist attack, which killed 191 rush-hour commuters.

In December, Moroccan police rounded up 26 people accused of forming a GSPC-linked cell attempting to recruit fighters for the Iraq insurgency. Most suspects came from Tetouan, a town that supplied two suicide bombers who struck in Baqouba, Iraq last October.

Last month, normally placid Tunisia was rattled by a deadly shoot-out between police and Islamist gunmen believed to have trained with the GSPC and apparently planning to attack foreign diplomats.

France’s leading anti-terrorism judge warned this week that the GSPC’s alliance with al-Qaeda poses a grave threat to Europe. ”The GSPC wants to carry out attacks in Europe, especially in France, Italy and Spain, and destabilise North Africa,” Jean-Louis Bruguiere told the Associated Press on Tuesday in New York.

For now, the GSPC’s main theatre of operations is still Algeria.

Since its birth in 1998, the GSPC has focused on attacking police and military targets in an effort to replace the Algerian government with an Islamic state.

However, it has recently shown a new willingness to hit civilians and foreigners. In December, the group staged a daring bomb attack on buses carrying foreign workers of an affiliate of US energy services giant Halliburton, killing an Algerian bus driver and wounding nine other people.

The December attack remains an isolated break from tradition so far, said Roberts, but ”suggests [the GSPC is] operating to carry out al-Qaeda’s agenda”. — Sapa-AP