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Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (aka Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat)

Andrew Hansen
Council on Foreign Relations
Tuesday, December 11, 2007 3:32 PM

Introduction

Reports from North Africa point to a recent resurgence in terrorist activity by several local Islamist movements, the most prominent of which is the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). An Algeria-based Sunni group that recently renamed itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the organization has taken responsibility for a number of terrorist attacks in the region, declared its intention to attack Western targets, and sent a squad of jihadis to Iraq. Experts believe these actions suggest widening ambitions within the group's leadership, now pursuing a more global, sophisticated and better-financed direction. Long categorized as part of a strictly domestic insurgency against Algeria's military government, GSPC claims to be the local franchise operation for al-Qaeda, a worrying development for a region which has been relatively peaceful since the bloody Algerian civil war of the 1990s drew to a close.

What is al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb?

The group originated as an armed Islamist resistance movement to the secular Algerian government. Its insurrection began after Algeria's military regime canceled the second round of parliamentary elections in 1992 after it became clear the Islamic Salvation Front, a coalition of Islamist militants and moderates, might win and take power. The GSPC declared its independence from another insurgent group, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in 1998, believing the GIA's brutal tactics were hurting the Islamist cause. The GSPC gained support from the Algerian population by vowing to continue fighting while avoiding the indiscriminate killing of civilians. The group has since surpassed the GIA in influence and numbers to become the primary force for Islamism in Algeria, with the majority of its members refusing government offers of amnesty after Algeria's civil war of the mid-1990s. According to a 2005 U.S. State Department report (PDF) on terrorism, its ranks have dwindled to only a few hundred from nearly 28,000 at the height of its power.

What's the connection between GSPC and al-Qaeda?

Collusion between the GSPC and al-Qaeda is not a new phenomenon. According to a report by Emily Hunt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Osama bin Laden provided funding for Algerian Islamists in the early 1990s and was involved in the GSPC's early formation. Many of the group's founding members trained in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. The GSPC declared its allegiance to al-Qaeda as early as 2003, but al-Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahari, officially approved GSPC's merger in a videotape released on September 11, 2006. The GSPC claimed responsibility for February 2007 attacks against Algerian police stations under its new name.

What are GSPC's goals?

Originally, its aims included the overthrow of Algeria's secular, military government and the establishment of an Islamic caliphate, a theocracy based on Islamic law that for twelve centuries spanned the Muslim world. Counterterrorism experts, however, say the group's folding into the global al-Qaeda structure may indicate a shift to take up the banner of global jihad and collude on future attacks in North Africa, Western Europe, and Iraq. "Pressed by Algerian counterterrorism successes, the once Algeria-centric GSPC has become a regional terrorist organization, recruiting and operation all throughout the Maghreb -- and beyond to Europe itself," said Harry Crumpton, the U.S. ambassador at large for counterterrorism, during an April 2006 Senate testimony (PDF). In a January speech, Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, the GSPC commander, declared solidarity (PDF) with Islamists in the Palestinian territories, Iraq, Somalia and Chechnya.

Hugh Roberts, head of the International Crisis Group's North Africa project, says it's too early to tell if its new allegiance to al-Qaeda will shift its mission statement or operational strategies to take on an international role beyond Algeria's borders. "We need to wait and see is if it starts operating as a regional attachment of the global jihad," he says. "Plenty of people are worried that it's going to do this. So far we haven't really seen it."

What are the group's tactics?

The GSPC employs conventional terrorist tactics (PDF) to achieve its objectives in Algeria, including guerilla-style ambushes against military personnel and truck bombs against government targets, according to the Center for Policing Terrorism (CPT) at the Manhattan Institute. GSPC militants kidnapped thirty-two European tourists traveling in the Algerian Sahara in February 2003. Money from the kidnapped victims' ransom is alleged to have purchased surface-to-air missiles, heavy machine guns, mortars, and satellite-positioning equipment. In December 2006, the group attacked two buses carrying contractors near Algiers, wounding several foreign nationals. Four months later, the group killed twenty three people with twin bombings in Algiers. One of the bombs exploded outside the prime minister's office, a move CFR Fellow Steven A. Cook describes as "a major escalation."

Some experts warn the group's growing confidence could increase its willingness to target Westerners both inside and outside Algeria. The GSPC has also taken over, and some say revitalized, many of the Europe-based cells of the former GIA both for the purpose of fundraising and for launching attacks.

Is the group capable of carrying out global attacks?

Analysts point to thwarted attacks in France and several arrests of GSPC-linked groups as evidence the group is capable of attacks in Western Europe. Authorities arrested a London-based GSPC militant who conspired to launch a chemical attack, and arrested four members of a GSPC cell in Frankfurt for possession of chemicals and arms. In spite of this, some experts doubt their ability to carry out an al-Qaeda-scale attack. "They haven't done anything spectacular," says Roberts. "They have not actually pulled off a single terrorist attack in Europe in the eight years they've existed. And that's a fact that you have to put in balance against European security services that say the group is a major threat."

Who are the group's main leaders?

After the 1979-1989 jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan, hundreds of North African volunteers known as "Afghan Arabs" returned to the region and radicalized Islamist movements in North Africa. Most of the group's main leaders are believed to have trained in Afghanistan. Within Algeria, leadership is essentially divided into northern and southern groups.

* Abu Musab Abdulwadood. The current chief of the northern group, also known as Abdelmalek Droukdel, is a former university science student turned bomb maker. He has led the group since September 2004 after the previous leader, Nabil Sahraoui, was killed in a firefight with Algerian forces in June of that year.

* Mokhtar Belmokhtar. Known as the "One-eyed," Belmokhtar is a former Algerian soldier who spent time fighting in Afghanistan. He allegedly joined the group through his role as the leader of a smuggling gang, which subsequently joined the GSPC. According to Hunt's report, his family connections allow the group to capitalize on criminal opportunities in the South, such as smuggling. He was reportedly killed in northern Mali, but Algerian authorities have yet to confirm his death.

* Ammari Saifi. Also known as Abderrazak the Para because he was trained as an Algerian special forces paratrooper, Saifi organized the 2003 kidnapping of European tourists in the Algerian Sahara. He was known as the "Bin Laden of the desert" and designated as a "Specially Designated Global Terrorist" by the United States, a classification shared by top al-Qaeda commanders before he was captured by a Chadian rebel group, the Movement for Democracy and Justice in Chad (MDJC) and eventually extradited to Algeria.

How is the group funded?

Smuggling and petty crimes are a lucrative source of income, according to the CPT report. The porous, unpoliced borders of the Sahara region make smuggling vehicles, cigarettes, drugs, and arms particularly easy. The organization's operatives in Europe may provide new forms of income through theft and document forgery carried out by new recruits, according to the report. The ransom paid as a result of the 2003 kidnapping also provided a significant windfall for the group. Algerian authorities accuse Iran and Sudan of giving material support to the GSPC, but experts say such support is unlikely.

Does the recent name change represent a resurgence of the GSPC?

Algeria-watchers are divided as to whether it signifies a new resurgence of Algerian Islamism or is simply a public relations move. Algerian authorities consider the shift to be a last-ditch attempt to revitalize a domestic insurgent movement enfeebled by years of combat and internal divisions. The Algerian state, however, has been known to suppress reporting on the real strength of insurgent groups in Algeria, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Indeed, there are indications that terrorism in North Africa is on the rise and that the GSPC is alive and well in Algeria. "Despite the official happy talk," says Olivier Guitta, a Washington-based foreign affairs consultant, "kidnappings by Islamists to raise money for their cause are a routine occurrence in Algeria. And not a day goes by without terrorists' attacking military personnel, government employees, or ordinary civilians, whom they regard as allies of the government."

The group is reported to have cross-border association with separatist groups in Niger, Chad, Mauritania, and Libya, in addition to Islamist organizations in Tunisia, Libya, and Morocco. But the name change doesn't necessarily indicate a pan-Maghreb al-Qaeda front. "The most we can say is that the GSPC has had contact with these groups," says Roberts of the International Crisis Group. "But the change of name is not a sign of unification of these groups."

Why is North Africa susceptible to Islamic terrorism?

North Africa is culturally and geographically distant from more radical strains of Islam in the Middle East. Experts say although the population doesn't condone al-Qaeda-style terrorism, political Islam has given people a means of social criticism under otherwise repressive regimes. As Ray Takeyh, a senior CFR fellow, points out, "An increasingly disillusioned middle class turned to the Islamists and their devastating critique of the prevailing order." Unemployment is high in the region, and there are large numbers of young people, two factors that could fuel terrorist activity. Emily Hunt observes that for those who would join terrorist groups, "al-Qaeda's global ideology intersects with local anger directed at undemocratic regimes that for years allowed mosques to be focal points of popular political activity."

Does GSPC have a significant presence in Iraq?

Yes. The GSPC has funneled North African insurgents to Iraq to fight as suicide bombers, foot soldiers, and mid-level commanders, says Hunt. Although counting foreign fighters is difficult, Evan F. Kohlmann, a terrorism consultant, estimates that North Africans represent between 9 percent and 25 percent of foreign fighters in Iraq are from North Africa, although the vast majority are still of Saudi and Jordanian origin. "They're a significant but not dominant presence," he says. Adil Sakir al-Mukni┬┐a key link between the GSPC and al-Qaeda in Iraq, a group of foreign jihadis founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi -- was deported by the Syrian government for helping shuttle foreign fighters into Iraq. The GSPC reportedly called on the Zarqawi network to attack French nationals in Iraq and applauded the 2005 killing of two Algerian diplomats there.

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