AQIM Returns in Force in Northern Algeria

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On August 26, 2011, al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) deployed two suicide bombers to attack Algeria’s premier military academy, the Académie Militaire Interarmes (AMIA) at Cherchell, killing 18 people, including at least three foreign military officers.[1] The dual bombing, which struck the officers’ mess hall just after the breaking of the Ramadan fast, made major headlines in Algeria, and earned sharp condemnations from the United States, the European Union, the African Union, France, Italy and the United Kingdom.[2] AQIM’s statement claiming credit for the attack called Cherchell “the most important symbol of the Algerian regime” and blamed the government for its “support of the regime of [Libyan dictator Colonel Mu`ammar] Qadhafi,”[3] referring to charges made by Libyan rebels and others of Algerian military support to Qadhafi, as well as the alleged presence of Algerian “mercenaries” fighting against the Libyan rebels.[4]

The attack was alarming not just because of the important symbolic value of the Cherchell academy, but also because it was the third successful suicide bombing and fourth attempted suicide bombing in Algeria in a two-month span, after the country had seen a steady decline in such attacks after August 2008.[5] Yet the sudden resurgence in suicide bombings in northern Algeria is not an anomaly; rather, it is part of a wider upward trend in terrorist violence in the area, one that follows several years of decline.

This article seeks to explain and contextualize the attack trends, provide possible explanations for the bloody revival, and deal with the potential political consequences for Algeria’s système, which manages to be both resilient and brittle more than a decade after the country emerged from a harrowing civil war.

Escalation of Violence in the North
Descended from the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), AQIM has a long pedigree in northern Algeria, especially the part of the Kabylie region that became known during the country’s civil war as the “Triangle of Death,” comprising the provinces of Bouira, Tizi Ouzou and Boumerdes.[6] Mountainous, heavily forested, ethnically diverse, and difficult to control throughout both the colonial and post-colonial period, this area has formed a key center of GSPC and then AQIM activity, and it is believed to shelter the group’s central command, including AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel (also known as Abu Mus`ab `Abd al-Wadud). Nominally divided into four zones encompassing northern Algeria and the Sahel,[7] the borders between AQIM zones of activity have increasingly become restricted to Kabylie in the north and a broad swath of territory touching Mauritania, Mali and Niger.

While GSPC activity increased throughout 2005 and into 2006,[8] it was the use of dramatic suicide bombings, including two particularly deadly and prominent attacks in April and December 2007, combined with accelerated violence in Kabylie, Algiers and to the west of the city, that truly announced the group’s presence within al-Qa`ida. Yet even by the latter part of 2008, as noted by Norwegian scholar Hanna Rogan and others, the group’s pattern of violence had gradually changed, as the organization became focused on lower-casualty attacks, often using remote-detonated Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and gun and knife attacks (although the number of “high casualty” and suicide attacks also increased during this period, Rogan noted that overall violence was slightly less than in previous years).[9] While violence picked up again in 2009, by 2010 both the number of bomb and gun attacks had dropped precipitously.[10]

In 2011, however, violence returned rapidly to northern Algeria, with more attacks and casualties than in previous years.[11] Basic data gleaned from the Francophone journals El-Watan and Liberté, as well as consulting Ennahar and Echorouk,[12] reveals that attacks suddenly picked up in April of this year, as a coordinated assault on an army post at Azazga in Tizi Ouzou Province killed 17 soldiers, while ambushes and gun-battles against gendarmes, soldiers and police officers in Thénia (Boumerdes Province), Ammal (Boumerdes Province), and Bouderbala near Lakhdaria (Bouira Province) killed at least seven, while the use of IEDs against municipal guard and police patrols killed at least eight.

The months of May and June saw a move back toward the use of IEDs interspersed with armed assaults on police and army posts (seven IED attacks, one ambush, two armed assaults, and a rifle assault). Of the 11 attacks in these two months, seven targeted the Algerian Armée Nationale Populaire (ANP), two targeted police, and one each targeted a group of civilians and municipal guards. From April to June, militants executed at least 17 attacks.

The months of July and August, meanwhile, witnessed at least 23 attacks, including 13 IEDs, six gun attacks, and the four suicide bombing attempts. Nearly half targeted ANP convoys, patrols and bases, while police convoys and posts, gendarmerie patrols, and civilians were also targeted. Additionally, this period saw two attacks against local militia members known as patriotes, who were first armed by the military during the civil war but have been progressively disarmed in the past few years.[13]

Yet of all these attacks, the rash of suicide bombings has caused the most disquiet in northern Algeria. The first was a dual suicide attack on July 17 against the police station in the town of Bordj Menaïel, which killed two people, followed by a failed attack disrupted outside of Algiers that resulted in the deaths of three AQIM members (including Abdelkahar Belhadj, the son of prominent and oft-jailed Islamist leader Ali Belhadj), a suicide car bombing on a police headquarters in Tizi Ouzou that wounded 33 people on August 14, and finally the Cherchell attack on August 26.

These attacks are notable and concerning for several reasons. First, they show that AQIM units, or katibat, in the north still have access to willing suicide bombers as well as the explosives needed to create mass carnage. Reports indicate that all three suicide bombings may have been committed by the Katibat al-Arkam, while the failed Algiers bombers also are said to have belonged to al-Arkam.[14] Al-Arkam has historically been known, along with Katibat al-Nour, for producing suicide bombers in the north,[15] and al-Arkam was, according to some sources, responsible for both major suicide bombings in 2007. It has shown that it can still engage in major attacks despite the death of its “brain,” Bourihane Kamel, in February 2011 in an ambush staged by Algerian security forces.[16]

Second, the outcomes of the attacks could have been far worse. While the Cherchell bombing was the deadliest single attack in several years in northern Algeria, both the Bordj Menaïel and Tizi Ouzou bombings involved cars packed with explosives that were stopped just short of reaching their intended targets.[17] Moreover, in the case of the planned Algiers bombing, there is no telling if security forces would have been able to stop the truck, again packed with explosives, had one of the bombers not thought better of the plan and tipped off the authorities.

Finally, these attacks show that the organization can still attack outside of its Kabylie stronghold, while also adopting new tactics, such as the use of motorcycles and explosive belts in addition to car bombs in suicide attacks.[18]

Factors Explaining the Rise in Violence
While any explanation for the rapid increase in violence since April based on publicly-available information would be at best informed speculation, it is possible to trace some of the most likely factors contributing to northern Algeria’s bloody spring and summer.

Changes in Algerian Security Practices
After being surprised by the sudden virulence of AQIM attacks in 2007, Algerian security forces slowly chipped away at AQIM’s katibat, especially in Kabylie, combining an increased security force presence and aggressive combined arms operations (known as ratissages) with more subtle methods, ranging from concentric circles of roadblocks around cities and sensitive locations and even strict controls on the distribution of fertilizer within villages.[19] These methods were so successful, according to observers, that by mid-2010 Algerian security forces were “increasingly regarding the situation as a police problem, rather than a military problem,” in the words of Stephen Tankel, an expert on militant groups who has conducted field research in Algeria.[20] While it is unclear what security practices on the ground may or may not have changed by 2011, the security services have faced charges of becoming lax in the aftermath of the most recent violence.[21] In response to the recent attacks, Algerian forces have again begun aggressively conducting sweeps in Tizi Ouzou, Boumerdes, and Bouira, reinstituted efforts to control automobile routes, and increased coverage of possible targets, all possible indications that the security forces had grown complacent, as some sources have alleged.[22]

Others, notably members of the country’s military and journals like El-Watan that are known to be sympathetic to the security services, have rejected accusations of lapses in behavior and enforcement in favor of critiques against the way the government of Abdelaziz Bouteflika has dealt with terrorism. Notably, these arguments have focused on Bouteflika’s 2006 reconciliation plan, which provides the possibility for repentant terrorists to receive amnesty for their crimes. Some, such as the former commander of Algeria’s 1st Military Region, Abdelkader Maïza, have argued that the progressive dismantling and disarming of local patriotes and militias known as the groupes de légitimes défense (GLD), who have faced sustained attack from militant groups since the 1990s, has contributed to a security vacuum in the area that has allowed violence to increase.

Regardless, there seems to be general agreement that the security situation in northern Algeria has been more permissive this year than in previous years, potentially allowing AQIM the breathing room to rebuild some of its arsenal and plan new attacks.

Instability in Libya
Since March 2011, Algerian and other African leaders have struck an alarmist tone about the prospect of the unrest in neighboring Libya—then in the throes of NATO bombardment and armed rebellion—fueling instability in Algeria. The arguments are two-fold. They argue that the unstable situation and armed conflict in Libya will encourage jihadist action and the movement of people back and forth. They also suggest that AQIM could gain possession of arms stolen from Libyan stocks.[23] Evidence has since emerged that surface-to-air missiles and other unspecified weapons have been looted from Libyan stores, weapons that, according to European officials, have fallen into the hands of AQIM, although the concern has been focused on AQIM’s southern units obtaining weapons, rather than the northern ones.[24]

Algerian press sources have argued that the increased aggressiveness and deadliness of AQIM attacks have been due in part to the situation in Libya.[25] These comments from official sources, however, could have been motivated by a desire by the Algerian government, who have pointedly opposed Western intervention in Libya, to show that continued unrest leads to disorder in the region.

It is, however, impossible to dismiss the possibility that some of the weapons leaking into the Sahel could have made their way north, and AQIM attacks in the north since April have certainly made use of high quantities of explosives and arms, in a manner not seen for some time before. Yet this explanation is predicated both on the availability of Libyan arms in the Sahel and the ability (and willingness) of AQIM’s southern units to move weapons north.

Support from Sahelian AQIM Units
Any weapons that have come into AQIM’s possession have likely either traveled through southern Tunisia (where suspected AQIM fighters have clashed with local security forces multiple times)[26] or through Sahelian countries such as Niger.[27] Yet while analysts generally perceive AQIM’s southern and northern factions as being divided,[28] the separation of north and south is not necessarily absolute.

AQIM’s southern units, led most prominently by Abdelhamid Abu Zeid, Yahya Djouadi, and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, as well as a host of other small unit commanders, are known most often for their criminal enterprises, including various trafficking activities and high-profile kidnappings of Westerners for ransom. Yet Abu Zeid and Djouadi are both regarded as being close to Droukdel, and as one specialist told the author, northern and southern AQIM “may not get along and they may be on different or personal agendas, however they all have proven that they can work together.” He added, “Belmokhtar and others continue to contribute to the northern commanders. That is indisputable.”[29]

Moreover, an ebb and flow of violence in the north combined with increased activity in the east and south fits a historical pattern that began with the GSPC. As the GSPC struggled in the north after the turn of the century, it was the mass kidnapping and ransoming of more than 30 European tourists in 2003 that helped breathe new life into the group.[30] The same pattern emerged in 2008 and 2009 when increasingly geographically and financially isolated northern AQIM commanders reached out and “demanded a growing contribution from their Saharan affiliates,” according to AQIM expert and scholar Jean-Pierre Filiu.[31] This has occurred in a period when AQIM in the south was becoming more involved in kidnappings and enmeshed in criminal networks.[32]

In short, whether the increase in violence in northern Algeria is due to an influx of weapons from the south, or a regeneration in capabilities based on reduced pressure from security forces and more freedom of movement, it is likely that AQIM’s units in the Sahel have played a contributing role in the north’s resurgence as a supplier of arms and other assistance. At this stage, however, it is difficult to say whether the increase in violence is due to a sudden flow of aid from the south, or if it is simply another cyclical violent outburst in the north after a period of rebuilding, again potentially with Sahelian assistance. As with much pertaining to the Sahel and the internal dynamics of individual AQIM units and leaders, however, the information at hand does not allow for a definitive judgment.

Terrorism within Algeria’s Political Context
For many in the north, the surge in bloodshed has brought back bad memories not just of the last decade, but also the civil war. Indeed, the violence and the outspoken positions against Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s security policies by some former officers brought whispers about the possible return of the “éradicateurs,” members of the security services who argued against any type of amnesty or reconciliation agreement with terrorists.[33] This nervousness is compounded by the tenuous and limited reform process being pursued by Algeria’s aging (and rumored to be ailing) leader at a time when Algeria’s nascent protest movement has been suppressed by a number of factors, including a lingering memory of the instability of the civil war.[34]

Yet the same factors that create apprehension also limit the possible reach and opportunism of members of Algeria’s politico-military elite that may want to capitalize on the violence for other gain. The military and other forces have already come under harsh criticism for being unable to contain the violence despite already having a strong security presence in Kabylie, while suspicions and accusations of the manipulation of militant groups dating back to the civil war—rumors that, though unverifiable, persist to this day—have also caused opposition political members and others to question a possible military role in the violence, despite a lack of evidence to support the claims.[35] Memories of what happened the last time the country was under military rule make it unlikely that senior officers would be able to make much headway, at least publicly, in wresting greater authority away from the civilian government.[36]

Regardless of what emerges from the infighting and tension in Algeria’s ruling classes, it seems likely that AQIM’s violence will continue to increase in the north. While the organization’s new activity does not approach its influence during its prime years, this new push may nonetheless force the Algerian government to reconsider how it confronts the group, and cause the wider community of observers to rethink how they view an organization long thought to be on the ropes in Algeria’s mountainous north.

Andrew Lebovich is a policy analyst with the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation, and co-edits the blog al-Wasat.

[1] “18 Dead in Algeria Military School Bombing: Ministry,” Agence France-Presse, August 27, 2011.

[2] “Washington, Londres, Paris, Rome, l’UE et l’UA condamnent, ‘Il n’y a aucune justification à cette violence,’” Liberté, August 29, 2011.

[3] Béatrice Khadige, “L’Algérie visée par Aqmi pour son soutien presume à Kadhafi,” Agence France-Presse, August 26, 2011.

[4] Despite these charges, the rebel Transitional National Council (TNC) has produced no firm evidence of Algerian support or the presence of Algerian fighters with Qadhafi’s forces.

[5] Kamel Omar, “Le retour inquiètant des kamikazes,” El-Watan, August 28, 2011.

[6] The region east of Algiers is considered the “Central Zone” of AQIM activity, one of four such zones simplified from the nine zones of activity used by the GSPC as well as the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). See Camille Tawil, “The Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb: Expansion in the Sahel and Challenges from Within Jihadist Circles,” The Jamestown Foundation, April 2010.

[7] The Sahel refers to the band of semi-arid land bordering the Sahara.

[8] Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the merger of the GSPC and al-Qa`ida in a video released September 11, 2006, and the re-born AQIM released a video under its new name in January 2007.

[9] Hanna Rogan, “Violent Trends in Algeria Since 9/11,” CTC Sentinel 1:12 (2008).

[10] Jacques Roussellier, “Terrorism in North Africa and the Sahel: Al-Qa’ida’s Franchise or Freelance?” Middle East Institute, August 2011.

[11] Djaffar Tamani, “Retour de la Peur en Kabylie,” El-Watan, April 19, 2011; “La Kabylie vit un de ses étés les plus chauds,” Le Temps d’Algérie, August 19, 2011; Hadjer Guenanfa, “Août, le mois le plus meurtrier depuis le début de l’année,” Tout Sur Algérie, August 31, 2011.

[12] For the purposes of this survey, this author considered attacks that included shootings, bomb attacks, ambushes, and assaults on posts or security structures. Rogan, however, used a somewhat more inclusive data set, taking into account actions such as robberies, false roadblocks, raids on villages and more. This author’s estimates are not meant to be conclusive or comprehensive, and are certainly lower than the number of actual incidents that could be attributed to AQIM or other violent groups. The data, however, does give a strong sense of both the trend in number of incidents, as well as the targets and tools chosen by militants.

[13] Tamani; Salima Tlemçani, “Le général à la retraite Abdelkader Maïza ‘La recrudescence des attentats est due aux événements qui se sont succeed depuis 2006,” El-Watan, September 4, 2011.

[14] M.T., “L’ANP frappée au Coeur,” Liberté, August 28, 2011; Mélanie Matarese, “Alger sous la ménace terroriste,” Le Figaro, July 27, 2011.

[15] Tawil.

[16] Neïla B., “Le dernier cerveau des attentats-suicides abattu à Bouira,” Liberté, February 6, 2011.

[17] “Droukdel tente briser l’étau resserré sur ses fiefs terrorises,” El Khabar, July 17, 2011.

[18] M.T., “Les terroristes algériens galvanizes par la guerre en Libye,” Liberté, August 29, 2011.

[19] Personal interview, Stephen Tankel, August 2011.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Tlemçani.

[22] Ibid.; Walid Ramzi, “Algeria Responds to Ramadan Terror Wave,” Magharebia, September 2, 2011; M’hamed Houaoura, “Pourquoi l’académie militaire était facilement ciblée,” El-Watan, September 2, 2011.

[23] “Le Tchadien Déby affirme qu’Aqmi s’est emparé de missiles en Libye,” Agence France-Presse, March 25, 2011; Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister, “Does AQIM Have Some Libyan Missiles?” CNN, March 30, 2011; “Security Official: Al-Qaida Exploiting Libya Unrest to Acquire Weapons,” Reuters, April 4, 2011.

[24] “Libya: al-Qaeda Acquires Weapons,” Telegraph, September 5, 2011.

[25] M.T., “Les terroristes algériens galvanizes par la guerre en Libye.”

[26] “Tunisie: 2 membres présumés d’Aqmi arrêtés avec une ceinture d’explosives,” Agence France-Presse, May 15, 2011.

[27] “Niger: Aqmi traquée, success pour les nouvelles autorités,” Radio France Internationale, June 18, 2011.

[28] Rogan.

[29] Personal interview, Andrew Black, September 2011.

[30] Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, “The Many Faces of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” Geneva Centre for Security Policy, May 2011.

[31] Jean-Pierre Filiu, “Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb: A Case Study in the Opportunism of Global Jihad,” CTC Sentinel 3:4 (2010).

[32] Ibid.

[33] Mohamed Tahar Bensaada, “Algérie: La recrudescence des attentats terroristes annonce-t-elle le retour des ‘éradicateurs’?” Le Quotidien d’Algérie, August 29, 2011.

[34] Anthony Faiola, “In Algeria, a Chill in the Arab Spring,” Washington Post, April 9, 2011.

[35] Bensaada; Claire Spencer, “Algeria: North Africa’s Exception?” Chatham House Expert Comment, August 30, 2011.

[36] The Algerian political system is of course more complicated than this, and should be thought of more as competing influence networks or “clans” rather than a specific civilian/military divide. Yet historically one can speak of periods of “civilian” and “military” rule.