Last week, intensified Islamist violence prompted Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to launch his military’s largest…
As the war raged, it became apparent that the majority of the Islamist combatants adhered to the rigid and utopian Salafist branch of Islam, which excludes all but one interpretation of the religion — that revealed by the Prophet Muhammad and his “salaf,” or companions. Between 1996 and 1997, Salafist violence reached its zenith. The GIA massacred thousands of Algerian civilians thought to support the regime and oppose their jihad. After a decade of violence, the death toll is estimated at 150,000.
The GSPC began with 700 fighters, but now boasts an estimated 4,000. Its current tactics include attacks at false roadblocks and raids on military, police, and government convoys. Since January 2002, an estimated 900 people have been killed in Islamist-related violence in Algeria. Although the GSPC does not always accept responsibility for its attacks, many believe that the group is behind the majority of such operations, which have increasingly been launched in the heart of the country and its suburbs. The U.S. State Department now calls GSPC the “most effective remaining armed group” and the “largest, most active terrorist organization” in Algeria today.
Ties to al-Qaeda
Once established in Algeria, the GIA launched several attacks against the country’s patron, France. On August 3, 1994, five French embassy officials were killed and one was injured when GIA guerrillas attacked a French compound in Algiers. In December 1994, the GIA hijacked Air France Flight 8969 and unsuccessfully attempted to blow up the Eiffel Tower. A 1995 bombing campaign attributed to the group in Paris killed seven and injured more than 100. In 1996-1997, however, the GIA was responsible for a rash of massacres in Algeria that claimed the lives of thousands and led to the group’s decline; its indiscriminate tactics alienated it from the majority of Algerians and, surprisingly, from al-Qaeda.
By rejecting the GIA’s brutal tactics, the GSPC attracted the financial and logistical support al-Qaeda. The Algerian el-Khabir newspaper has even asserted that the GSPC was created by bin Laden himself, though Algerian authorities have every reason to exaggerate such links. Nevertheless, French intelligence recently confirmed just how tightly the two groups have worked together. Moreover, the U.S. State Department’s Patterns of Global Terrorism 2001 report noted that GSPC “adherents abroad appear to have largely co-opted the external networks of the GIA,” including recruits, finances, false documents, and weapons. This network has helped to facilitate GSPC attacks not only in Algeria, but worldwide.
For example, the State Department has accused “Algerian extremists associated with the GSPC of planning to disrupt the Paris-Dakar Road Rally” in 2000. In addition, Italian police arrested several suspects linked to a GSPC cell in Milan on April 4, 2000, while four individuals thought to be members of a GSPC cell in France were arrested in connection with a plot to bomb a Christmas market in eastern France in 2000. The Algerian suspects implicated in the millennium bombing plot are also thought to have ties to the GSPC, although the evidence is not yet definitive.
GSPC after September 11
Indeed, the GSPC’s global profile has expanded significantly over the past year. In late September 2001, Spanish police announced that they had dismantled an al-Qaeda cell of six Algerians belonging to the group. They were in possession of false passports and sophisticated forgery equipment. In January 2002, the Observer in London obtained a GSPC video imploring viewers to “kill in the name of Allah until you are killed” and to “fight all the sick unbelievers.” In April, Dutch authorities arrested several Algerians accused of supporting the group’s terrorist activities. Most recently, two Algerian men arrested in Pakistan on September 21 were believed to be members of the GSPC.
President Bouteflika met with President Bush in November 2001, and the two leaders promised to cooperate in the fight against terrorism. But words are not enough. Algeria’s GSPC has emerged as a critical arm of the al-Qaeda network that demands sustained attention in counterterror efforts worldwide.