Early Al-Qaeda rumblings in the Maghreb?

Daily News Egypt
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Same place, but different game? This was the question in the heads of leaders in Morocco and Algeria last week. First, there was the suicide or killing of several Islamists in Casablanca on April 10. This was followed a day later by simultaneous car bombings in Algiers that killed 33 people and posed a direct challenge to the Algerian government. Both countries have seen their share of fundamentalist terrorism in the past – but the question was whether a new phase had dawned, following claims made last autumn that an “Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb had been formed. Were last week’s events a wake-up call for these historically unfriendly neighbors who must now find a way to cooperate? The twin blasts in the Algerian capital – which could have claimed more lives had a third vehicle containing 500 kilograms of dynamite exploded as planned – were claimed by a new branch of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network. In Morocco, meanwhile, the picture was less clear. The terrorists were apparently interrupted before they could execute an attack. Three of the men detonated the explosives wrapped around their bodies when encircled by the police, while a fourth was shot dead by the security forces, who lost an agent during the operation. Two more Islamists blew themselves up four days later on April 14. The Moroccan authorities insisted this was a purely local terrorist ring – in contrast to four years ago when they insisted that foreign militants were behind bombings directed against Western and Jewish landmarks in Casablanca, in which 33 people were killed alongside 12 bombers. The nature of the events in Casablanca last week prevents reaching firm conclusions on the role of Al-Qaeda behind terrorism in Morocco, but several analysts, including the widely-respected Mohammed Darif of Mohammedia University, have concluded that the confrontation between the government and the international terrorist network is underway. While such activity is a relatively recent development in Morocco, Algeria has lived in the shadow of Islamist terrorism, and the army’s brutal counter-insurgency offensives, since the abortive parliamentary elections of 1992. In the last few years of a waning conflict that claimed some 150,000 lives, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (SGPC) had become the sole surviving rebel organization following the surrender and destruction of other groups. In September 2006, the SGPC announced it had joined Al-Qaeda. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda’s number-two leader described the SGPC as a thorn in the side of the “crusader West’s attempts to bring gas-rich Algeria into its sphere of influence. Already this year there have been several attacks in Algeria (following a continued downturn in violence in 2006) whose sophistication suggests a departure in the confrontation between the state and rebels. In retrospect, recent simultaneous attacks against police stations were, it seems, merely a dress rehearsal for last week’s bombings, targeting the security forces in the capital and the government headquarters itself. Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem was clear on the meaning behind the attacks. Accusing the terrorists of wishing to destabilize Algeria in the run-up to legislative elections on May 17, Belkhadem said the country would “continue to advance toward progress and economic development. The Algerian prime minister added that the terrorists wished to damage the country’s image abroad, and in so doing dent economic prospects. Algeria’s wealth, however, is based on the exporting of hydrocarbons, and if it prospered throughout the gruesome civil war, hard-nosed oil executives will continue to ensure it does so today. The current windfalls from sky-high fuel prices have allowed President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s administration to launch massive investment in the country’s creaking infrastructure and insufficient social services. In contrast, over the border in Morocco, the government has had to rely on the economic pulling power of tourism, which is far more vulnerable to terrorist attacks. “Morocco’s security forces are being successful in catching the executors of the terrorist network, but we are forgetting that there is a large organization behind it, argues Darif, who talks of a pan-Maghreb web including Mauritanians, Libyans, as well as Moroccans and Algerians. Darif has cast doubt on the authorities’ efforts to trace the recent spate of attacks to a single ringleader. “Logically, it is impossible for one person to form such a group in just a few months. Many young recruits never know in whose name they are actually operating. On a more optimistic note in terms of Moroccan stability, Darif argues that Al-Qaeda’s main objective in the kingdom is to recruit fighters to go to Iraq. There would be benefits for Morocco and Algeria to work together on cross-border security matters. However, Algeria has not yet responded to the Moroccan gesture of opening their common border, which had been closed for 13 years. As the dust settled on the streets of Algiers and Casablanca last week, Moroccan diplomats presented an alternative plan for resolving the Western Sahara dispute – which still divides Morocco and Algeria. The Algerian-backed Polisario did not like it because it stopped well short of outright independence; but Morocco claims it is willing to negotiate a political settlement on the basis of a degree of political and economic autonomy for the former Spanish colony. Algeria has so far failed to react positively. The Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb will be hoping Algiers holds firmly to its diplomatic position. James Badcockis freelance writer based in Spain who specializes in North African and Middle Eastern affairs. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR

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