Dozens Killed in Algiers Bombings

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 12, 2007

BERLIN, Dec. 11 -- The bombs that shattered a United Nations office complex in Algeria and the country's Supreme Court on Tuesday, killing at least 26 people, were the work of an al-Qaeda faction that has revived a flagging insurgency in the North African nation by importing tactics from Iraq, counterterrorism officials and analysts said.

Experts and local officials predicted that the final casualty count from the two explosions would rank them as the deadliest attack in the capital, Algiers, since the country descended into civil war in the 1990s, and perhaps the worst since Algeria won independence from France in 1962.

At least 11 U.N. workers were confirmed dead and others were still missing as rescue crews worked into the night to reach people trapped in the rubble of the Algiers headquarters of the U.N. Development Program, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and other U.N. agencies.

Al-Qaeda's North African affiliate asserted responsibility for the plot. In a detailed Internet statement, the group identified two "martyrs" who detonated vehicles loaded with explosives outside the court building and "the headquarters of the international infidels' den," a reference to the U.N. offices.

Algeria's interior minister, Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni, said investigators had confirmed the group's involvement by interrogating previously captured members in jail. The Algerian government said at least 26 people died and 177 people were injured in the bombings, but rescue and hospital workers said about twice as many were killed.

The network behind the attacks has shaken the country over the past year by copying the tactics, propaganda style and even the choice of targets pioneered by insurgents in Iraq. The suicide attack on the U.N. complex in Algiers, for instance, mirrored an August 2003 car bombing that destroyed the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad and pushed the international organization out of the country.

"For them, Iraq is a very attractive model," said Isabelle Werenfels, a North Africa researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. "It's mimicking what people do in Baghdad."

The North African group represents the reorganized remnants of an Islamic insurgency, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, that had fought a losing guerrilla war against the Algerian military for nearly a decade.

With its ranks shrinking and popular support dwindling, the insurgents looked outside the country for help, turning to Iraq and Pakistan.

In September 2006, it sealed a formal partnership with al-Qaeda's central command. A few months later, it changed its name to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and shifted tactics by targeting foreigners and civilians, as well as recruiting suicide bombers. (Maghreb is an Arabic word for the region of North Africa stretching from Mauritania to Libya).

In April, the group launched suicide attacks on the Government Palace in central Algiers and a police station on the outskirts of the capital, killing 33 and injuring more than 220 people. It was the most lethal attack in Algiers in a decade and stoked worries of a return to the civil war that claimed an estimated 200,000 lives across the country in the 1990s.

Hugh Roberts, an independent North Africa analyst based in Cairo, said it was highly unlikely that al-Qaeda could gather enough strength to topple the secular Algerian government or destabilize the country. But he said the Algerian military and security forces might find it difficult to extinguish the threat, recalling the fate of the country's primary insurgent group from the early 1990s, known as the Armed Islamic Group.

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