Al-Qaeda's Far-Reaching New Partner

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 5, 2006

PARIS -- In a video released last month on the Internet, al-Qaeda's deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, declared that he had "great news." Al-Qaeda, he reported, had joined forces with an obscure Algerian underground network and would work in tandem with the group to "crush the pillars of the crusader alliance."

The Algerian partner, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, had fought the Algerian government in a barbaric civil war for almost a decade. But Zawahiri said the new alliance had different targets in mind. "Our brothers," he said, "will be a thorn in the necks of the American and French crusaders and their allies, and a dagger in the hearts of the French traitors and apostates."

Zawahiri's statement was the latest sign of how, with al-Qaeda's help, the Algerian network has rapidly transformed itself from a local group devoted solely to seizing power at home into a global threat with cells and operations far from North Africa.

Since 2003, the group known by its French initials GSPC has emerged as an umbrella for radical Islamic factions in neighboring countries, sponsoring training camps in the Sahara and supplying streams of fighters to wars in Iraq and Chechnya, according to counterterrorism officials and analysts in Europe and North Africa.

The network also has planted deep roots in Europe. In the past year, authorities have broken up cells in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Switzerland, including one group that allegedly plotted to shoot down an Israeli airliner in Geneva.

On Sept. 1, the French Anti-Terrorist Coordination Unit issued a statement classifying the group as "one of the most serious threats currently facing France," Algeria's former colonial master. Ten days later, the assessment was given fresh urgency by Zawahiri's videotape, timed for the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. In it, he noted that Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda's founder, had given his personal approval to the "blessed union" between the Algerian network and al-Qaeda.

Responding to Zawahiri's declaration, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said there was a "real and permanent" risk to France, in part because of its military involvement in Lebanon and Afghanistan, as well as its policy of forbidding Muslim girls to wear head scarves in public schools.

Pierre de Bousquet de Florian, the head of France's domestic intelligence service, added: "For our Islamist adversaries, our country is frankly in the Western camp -- the 'crusaders' in their words -- and we will be spared nothing."

Overcoming Differences

Al-Qaeda forged its alliance with the GSPC in spite of a long history of feuding with Algerian radicals.

The Algerian conflict, which has claimed an estimated 200,000 lives since 1991, at first attracted enthusiastic support from Islamic radicals around the world, including Zawahiri and other future al-Qaeda leaders. They sent money, fighters and supplies to the guerrillas, seeing the war as an opportunity to replace Algeria's secular, military-backed government with a fundamentalist Islamic state.

But their zeal was shaken when Algerian rebels led by another terrorist network, the Armed Islamic Group, or GIA, began slaughtering thousands of civilians. The GIA subscribed to an Islamic ideology called takfir , a belief that any Muslim who does not embrace strict, medieval codes of conduct is an apostate deserving of death.

Bin Laden, who was living in Sudan at the time, believed that killing fellow Muslims was counterproductive. So he sent an emissary to Algeria to demand that the GIA change its approach and pledge loyalty to the fledgling al-Qaeda network, according to European intelligence officials. The GIA refused.

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