By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
ALGIERS -- Al-Qaeda has rapidly extended its influence across North Africa by aiding and organizing local groups that are demonstrating a renewed ability to launch terrorist attacks in the region, such as the triple suicide bombings that killed 33 people here last month, according to counterterrorism officials and analysts.
The bombers who struck the Government Palace and a police station in Algiers, the capital, are believed to have been local residents. But Algerian authorities are examining evidence that the bombers were siphoned from recruiting pipelines that have sent hundreds of North African fighters to Iraq and perhaps were trained by veterans of the Iraqi insurgency, U.S. and European intelligence officials said.
The April 11 attacks were the first suicide bombings in this war-torn country in more than a decade and the worst strike in Algiers in several years. In terms of tactics and targets, however, they mirrored scores of recent bombings in Iraq, right down to the photos of the three "martyrs" posted on the Internet hours later by a group claiming to act on behalf of al-Qaeda.
The bombings in Algiers have coincided with a renewed crackdown against the Iraqi recruiting networks across North Africa. Last month, Algerian police broke up a long-standing ring based in the Saharan desert city of El Oued that had sent an estimated 60 men to Iraq to fight. In neighboring Morocco, authorities said they have disrupted three similar networks since late last year.
According to intelligence officials in Europe, more than 100 Algerians are in prison here after being detained on their way to Iraq or upon their return, adding to worries that the far-off conflict is breeding battle-hardened fighters who could come back to haunt North Africa or nearby Europe.
"Al-Qaeda's presence in North Africa is a reality," Baltasar Garzon, a senior Spanish magistrate, said in an interview Saturday at a conference in Italy organized by the Center on Law and Security at the New York University School of Law. "It's an ideal base from which to engage in actions against Europe. . . . Moving their next phase of action to Europe, I think, is just a matter of time."
Hamida Ayachi, editor of the Algiers-based daily Djazair News, said organizational links between insurgents in Iraq and armed groups in North Africa have strengthened noticeably in the past year.
"Iraq became a big laboratory to train kamikazes and warriors," Ayachi, the author of a forthcoming book on extremist networks, said in an interview in Algiers. "They are trying to take young people from here to Iraq for training so they can use them later in North Africa. Likewise, they are training people here in the mountains and the desert. Algeria has already become a small Iraq for training these people."
The April 11 bombings in Algiers, along with other recent attacks in the country, are evidence that al-Qaeda's network in North Africa has developed into a more serious threat and is benefiting from lessons learned in Iraq, said a senior military official at the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany, which oversees operations in Africa.
"Their tactics have definitely increased in sophistication," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing intelligence matters. "Are they getting the technical expertise from the outside? We can't prove it, can't disprove it. But I would strongly suspect they are."
Earlier attacks had also reflected a change in tactics. On Oct. 30, Islamic radicals carried out simultaneous truck bomb attacks on two police stations outside Algiers. The coordination of the twin attacks was unusual. Also strange was the fact that the attacks occurred at midnight, timing that contributed to the low casualty count: three people killed.
Early Feb. 13, the network struck again, this time bombing seven police stations simultaneously. Once again, casualties were few, with six dead.
Although Algerian officials puzzled over the timing and nature of the attacks, in retrospect it became clear that they were dress rehearsals for the more ambitious April 11 bombings, said Mounir Boudjema, editor of the newspaper Liberte and an expert on Algerian terrorist groups.
"This was an inspiration coming from al-Qaeda techniques," Boudjema said. "All this was to prepare for the main operation on April 11. They were clearly preparing for this strike for a long time."
The April 11 attacks were carried out by the group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a local affiliate of Osama bin Laden's global network. Maghreb is an Arabic word for the region of North Africa stretching from Mauritania to Libya.
For most of its decade-long existence, the group had been an independent movement dedicated to overthrowing the Algerian government, with little interest in external affairs.
That began to change in 2003, however, as the Algerians saw potential benefits from an association with al-Qaeda and its declared holy war in Iraq.
Such alliances have become increasingly common among radical Islamic groups. Since the invasion of Iraq, local networks with "al-Qaeda" appended to their names have surfaced in at least 12 countries.
Although relations with al-Qaeda's core command are usually loose or nonexistent, counterterrorism officials said, the affiliates have exploited the insurgency in Iraq and other al-Qaeda plots to boost their own fundraising and recruitment.
Those responsible for last month's explosions in Algiers also copied propaganda tactics developed by al-Qaeda forces in Iraq. In addition to the Internet posting asserting responsibility, the Algerian group later sent a video depicting preparations for the attacks to al-Jazeera, the Arabic-language satellite television network.
Christophe Chaboud, chief of the French Interior Ministry's anti-terrorism coordination unit, said that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was mimicking the strategy followed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian fighter whose network of foreign militants in Iraq allied itself with al-Qaeda and later adopted its name. Zarqawi was killed in Iraq last June by U.S. forces.
Chaboud noted the striking similarities between the primary target of the April 11 attacks -- the Government Palace in Algiers, a well-protected building housing the offices of the prime minister and the Interior Ministry -- and an al-Qaeda strike the next day on the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad, located in the heavily fortified Green Zone.
"It's a way to demonstrate to al-Qaeda that they are meeting the challenge of allegiance," Chaboud said in an interview in Paris. "They are saying al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb can be what Zarqawi was in Iraq."
Intelligence officials and analysts said that the Algerian al-Qaeda branch, in an effort to rejuvenate its ranks, has tried to tap into independent recruiting networks that have sent a steady flow of North Africans to Iraq to fight. For instance, since the April 11 attacks, Algerian security services have arrested 17 suspected members of an Iraqi recruiting ring based in El Oued, a Saharan oasis known as the "city of a thousand domes" for its unusual desert architecture.
According to local news reports, police shut down a recently opened cybercafe and a bookstore that functioned as gathering places and communication hubs for the network.
Analysts and journalists said El Oued, with a population of about 150,000, has a long history of supporting radical causes and was a key stop on smuggling routes into nearby Libya and Tunisia.
In early May, Algerian authorities discovered a makeshift guerrilla training camp in a palm grove several miles outside El Oued.
According to the Algerian newspaper Liberte, police also recovered computer and communications equipment, including disks containing the purported wills and testaments of five Algerians who had been trained as suicide bombers.
Forensic evidence suggested that the five intended to stay in Algeria to carry out their mission, Liberte reported, citing police sources. "Brainwashed and well-trained, they have joined the terrorists in the field," the paper reported.
In the past, U.S. and European officials said, it was much easier for underground recruiters to persuade young Algerians to go to Iraq to battle U.S. forces than to get them to stay home and take up arms against the government and their fellow citizens. The Iraqi networks were also better financed than their local counterparts, officials said.
By re-branding itself as an al-Qaeda affiliate, the Algerian group has boosted its own fundraising and become more competitive in the marketplace for recruits, Algerian analysts said.
Liess Boukra, an Algerian terrorism expert, called the recruitment business "a real trade in cannon fodder."
"Indeed, it is possible that the recruiters for Iraq could redirect their combatants toward new operations, either in Algeria or somewhere else in the Maghreb or in the world," he said. "It depends on the nature of the request and how much they're willing to pay."