Algeria seeking to head off al-Qaida resurgence

Military conducting sustained campaign under cover of media blackout; unconfirmed reports say at least 20 Islamists killed.

Since its public merger with al-Qaida in 2006, the al-Qaida Organization in the Islamic Maghreb, previously known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), has conducted multiple operations in Algeria, including sophisticated coordinated attacks on police stations as well as assaults on foreign workers employed in the country's burgeoning hydrocarbon sector. Moreover, the tenacity of recent attacks signifies the resurgence, or perhaps a last-ditch effort, of a group thought by many to be on its way out, incapable of achieving its nationalistic goal of an Islamic state in Algeria. The threat posed by the group seemingly culminated in mid-March, when the United States embassy in Algiers issued a warning that terrorists might be planning to attack a commercial aircraft carrying Western workers in Algeria. While the group's targets and tactics have evolved, garnering significant coverage and analysis, the Algerian response to the threat has been underreported. In late March, under the cover of a nearly complete media blackout, the Algerian military began what appears to be a sustained military campaign against the organization. According to the Algerian press, the campaign is taking place in the Kabylie region near the town of Amizour to the east of Algiers. As of April 2, the National People's Army was continuing its offensive against the group and entering its 10th day of combined military operations involving artillery and helicopter gunships as well as Algerian Special Forces. The strength of the military operations is likely designed to reassert the government's authority, particularly after the group carried out attacks in suburbs of the capital, previously believed secure. Few details regarding the precise nature of the government's operation and its outcome have been released; however, the al-Qaida Organization in the Islamic Maghreb has reportedly announced the death of Soheib Abou Abderrahmane, a senior member and close associate of the group's leader, Abdelmalek Droukdal. Furthermore, there have been unconfirmed reports that at least 20 Islamists and three soldiers were killed. Police units have closed off all roads leading into the area and are barring all civilians, including journalists, from entering the region. The military's recent surge comes in the wake of recent court rulings in which Droukdal was sentenced to death in absentia by a criminal tribunal in Tizi Ouzou for "establishing an armed group, the destruction of public property with the help of explosives and attempted theft." Concurrently, the Batna Court of Justice sentenced the leader to 20 years in jail, again in absentia, and levied a fine of 500,000 dinars for "attacking state security" and "establishing a terrorist group." Algeria, as the second largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, has significant reason for concern at the prospect of al-Qaida style tactics such as coordinated bombings and assaults against foreigners in the country. With oil prices soaring and ongoing instability in the Persian Gulf, it is in the government's interest to project an image of security, so as not to discourage foreign direct investment in the country's hydrocarbon sector. At a time when diversity of supply is more critical than ever, Algeria must strive to separate itself from the turmoil which seems to plague many hydrocarbon producing countries. The government's recent actions will go a long way towards achieving this goal and hopefully head off the group's resurgence before the balance of power tips further in al-Qaida's favor. As in the broader war on terrorism, the use of military force is only part of the solution. Unlike conventional wars, where an opponent's strength is more or less predetermined, the number of terrorists has never been finite. Matthew Chebatoris is a former US Navy Cryptologist currently working as a Counter-Terrorism Analyst for L-3 Communications. He holds an MA in Security Studies from the University of Birmingham and his research interests include Sunni extremism in Europe and North Africa. This article was originally published by the Jamestown Foundation, which can be found