/ 13 April 2007

Al-Qaeda link to Algiers bombs

Algeria suffered its worst violence since its long civil war on Wednesday when terrorists affiliated to al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for twin bombings in the capital, Algiers, that killed up to 30 people and wounded more than 100 others.

Algerian Prime Minister Abdel-Aziz Belkhadem condemned what he called “cowardly and criminal attacks” after separate blasts at his own office in the centre of Algiers and shortly after at a police station.

“The whole block of the entrance to the prime minister’s office blew up,” said one eyewitness. Scores of ambulances converged on the residential neighbourhood while dazed survivors were led from the badly damaged six-storey building.

Helicopters circled over a wealthy neighbourhood of Algiers as police disarmed detonators attached to TNT and gas canisters in a car parked near the home of a senior police officer, raising fears that other attacks were planned.

Police sources said the first attack was a suicide bombing and that guards had opened fire on a vehicle that exploded 27m from the main door of the prime minister’s office.

Bombs have been going off in Algeria since last October, but mostly in outlying areas and causing small numbers of casualties. The first of Wednesday’s attacks took place in a heavily guarded part of the capital, making a mockery of the government’s security measures and undermining its controversial policy of granting amnesties to convicted terrorists.

“It’s a direct challenge to the government,” said George Joffe, a Cambridge University authority on North Africa. “This is really going to hurt.”

A spokesperson for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (North Africa) later claimed responsibility for the attacks in a phone call to al-Jazeera TV. “We won’t rest until every inch of Islamic land is liberated from foreign forces,” said a man identified as Abu Mohammed Salah.

But Joffe and other experts cautioned against taking the claim at face value. Fears of a Maghreb-wide terrorist campaign have been mounting in recent months after incidents in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, where three bombers died in Casablanca on Tuesday. Previous attacks in Algeria have been claimed by the GSPC — the French acronym for the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat — which in January renamed itself the al-Qaeda Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb.

The GSPC said Osama bin Laden himself had agreed to the “rebranding” — an example of the way al-Qaeda now operates as a global franchise. But the latest bombings coincided with a government offensive against the GSPC, suggesting that local factors were paramount and that wider links may be propaganda that suits both the terrorists and the authorities.

“The al-Qaeda card has been overplayed by the Algerian government,” said Sa’ad Jabbar, a London-based Algerian lawyer. “Their argument is that the alternative to us is an Islamist regime. The motives and identity of those behind violence in Algeria has always been manipulated so one should not rush to conclusions about the responsibility of al-Qaeda.”

Joffe said: “Al-Qaeda has recognised the GSPC as part of the global jihad but that’s just rhetoric. There is no evidence of a coordinated terrorist strategy across the Maghreb. The government wants to demonstrate that there is an Algerian al-Qaeda group and that the GSPC is part of it. The Americans have followed that line too, but it’s a deception.”

Algeria collapsed into violence in 1992 after the authorities scrapped an election that an Islamist party was set to win.

The bombings prompted anger from the Algerian opposition about the national reconciliation policy. “This is what impunity gets you,” said Abdeslem Abdelhaq, a former journalist, whose newspaper Le Matin was shut down in 2004 after criticising policy toward Islamist terrorists. “The terrorists should have been judged by a court of law, not pardoned. They were given liberty and so their sons were encouraged to stay as criminals because they believed they were fighting for a just cause.” — Â