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Algerian militants revitalized by al-Qaida brand

When Algeria's militant GSPC group rebranded itself as the North African arm of al-Qaida, some Western security officials dismissed it as a PR stunt, but they may have been wrong.
/ Source: Reuters

When Algeria's militant GSPC group rebranded itself as the North African arm of al-Qaida, some Western security officials dismissed it as a PR stunt.

Less than a year later, it has built up a deadly track record that makes it the prime suspect in Tuesday's twin bomb blasts in the capital Algiers which killed dozens of people. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

Its revival in the oil- and gas-producing nation has forced a sharp reappraisal of the threat it might pose to the wider Maghreb region and even parts of Europe, as well as on home turf.

"It's proof once again that the Algerian security apparatus is not in control of the situation," French counter-terrorism consultant Claude Moniquet said of Tuesday's attacks.

Security analysts said al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), as the old GSPC now calls itself, was the only group with the capacity to hit heavily protected areas of Algiers in which state buildings, embassies and foreign firms are located.

In the past year, AQIM has switched from guerrilla-style provincial ambushes to more varied strikes against a range of targets, from military barracks to foreign oil and gas workers and a bid to assassinate President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

It has adopted multiple, simultaneous suicide attacks, a hallmark of al-Qaida, and brought its war to the capital for the first time since Algeria's civil strife of the 1990s. The interior minister said one of Tuesday's bombings appeared to have been carried out by a suicide attacker.

Bouncing back
"Several months ago the Algerians were proclaiming victory, saying they'd eliminated those responsible for the attacks — the number one, the number two, the suicide bomber cells, the logistics and so," said Moniquet, who heads the Brussels-based European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center.

"But manifestly, in spite of everything, the terrorists retain the capacity to strike, to organize simultaneous attacks on Algiers in a reinforced district."

When the GSPC (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat) announced its new identity in January, some Western security officials saw it as an attempt by a fading militant force to boost its fortunes by tapping into a top global "brand," in the form of al-Qaida.

They may have underestimated the power of that brand to deliver tangible benefits.

Some now believe the relaunched entity is better placed now to raise funds and attract recruits, and suspect it has stepped up its training activities in the Sahel region of northern Africa, particularly in northern Mali.

They also suggest the emergence of a North African al-Qaida might encourage more militant Islamists in the region to join up locally instead of travelling to join the insurgency in Iraq.

"It's quite possible that by aligning themselves to the al-Qaida movement, they're able to appeal to a more zealous suicidal type of terrorist that wants to carry out a martyrdom operation ... I don't think that's an implausible explanation as to why we're seeing more suicide attacks in Algeria," said Henry Wilkinson of Janusian Security Risk Management in London.

Counter-terrorism officials also fear AQIM could pose a threat to countries like France or Spain, linked to North Africa by geography, colonial history and immigration. Police in several European countries arrested 14 Algerians and Tunisians last month in an anti-terrorism operation led by Italy.