By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Al-Qaeda's affiliate in Algeria was originally called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, a name derived from a fundamentalist branch of Islam. Founded in 1998, six years after the outbreak of a civil war that has killed an estimated 200,000 Algerians, the group's stated mission was to topple the military-backed government and transform Algeria into a theocracy.
Despite pledges to avoid civilian targets, the Algerian Salafists experienced a steady erosion in popular support and saw their ranks dwindle to fewer than 1,000 fighters, according to Algerian officials. In September 2004, the movement chose a new leader, Abdelmalek Droukdel, a 33-year-old reputed master bombmaker.
With the organization on the ropes, Droukdel decided to intensify efforts to reach out to al-Qaeda and other extremist networks, according to U.S. and European intelligence officials.
"He understood that fighting in Algeria didn't have a future and that he had to go international to recruit more people," said Louis Caprioli, a former director of international counterterroism for French intelligence who now works in Paris as an executive for GEOS, a global security firm. "He gave a new breath to the organization and deeply changed it."
To bolster ties with al-Qaeda, Droukdel dispatched emissaries to Iraq to meet with one of Osama bin Laden's deputies, a Libyan named Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, according to an Algerian source. Rahman was a natural choice to negotiate with the Algerians, having fought as a foreign guerrilla against the Algerian government in the mid-1990s.
Rahman had been appointed by bin Laden to recruit other radical Islamic groups to operate under al-Qaeda's umbrella, including foreign fighters serving under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq, according to U.S. intelligence officials. The U.S. government posted a $1 million reward last year for information leading to his capture.
Last fall, on the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, al-Qaeda announced that it had formalized an alliance with the Algerian network. Al-Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri urged the Algerians to become "a thorn in the necks of the American and French crusaders and their allies."
In January, the North African group declared that it had changed its name, to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.