The Algerian people are not unaccustomed to violence. Their brave struggle for independence from 1954 to 1962 cost many lives – a price considered worth paying to end 132 years of French rule. But the civil conflict that erupted in Algeria in 1992 after the regime cancelled elections (in December 1991) that FIS (an Islamic group) was about to win proved more destructive and lasted longer. Moreover, the lull in violence evaporated last year, when suicide bombers struck several times, culminating in the twin explosions on December 11 in Algiers that cost dozens of lives. President Abdulaziz Bouteflika had attributed the lull in violence to the way he had spent the wealth that resulted from the rise in oil price to improve the economy and enrich Algerians. He must now know that the mere scattering of petrodollars cannot persuade those who want him to vanish to end their armed assault on his rule and supporters.
One of the two bomb attacks carried out appears to have been aimed at Algeria's constitutional court, but happened to kill a bus-load of university students who were passing by at the time, and the 30-year-old bomber. But the other, aimed at a UN agency, hit its target, destroying the local office of the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees and damaging other UN offices across the street. Unfortunately 17 people were also reported to have been killed in the process, which began when the suicide bomber, Rabah Bechle, a 63-year-old grandfather of seven, crashed an explosive-packed truck into the UN office, killing himself too.
At the time, hospital sources reported the number of people killed as a result of the blasts to be 76, while the government put them at only 26. Whatever the true figure is, responsibility for the blasts was claimed on an Islamist website by “al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb”, as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) is now known. The GSPC, a splinter-group from Algeria's Armed Islamic Group (GIA), is now the most prominent Islamic group in the region. It was in 2006 that Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qa'ida's deputy leader, called it al-Qa'ida's “North African affiliate”, leading it to style itself as “al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb”. In claiming responsibility for the attacks, the group declared that its objective was to strike a blow at the “Crusaders and their agents, the slaves of America and the sons of France.”
The declaration is not wholly misplaced, as the Bouteflika regime cooperates closely with the “anti-terrorism war” being waged passionately by both France and the US. It was no surprise that both president Nicholas Sarkozy of France and US president George W. Bush quickly contacted president Bouteflika, expressing their regrets at the suicide-bombings and declaring their determination to continue their cooperation with Algeria to defeat “terrorists” in the region.
Leading European condemnation of the bomb attacks on the very day they occurred, Sarkozy said that France sympathises withAlgeria and will work with it and others to “fight these cowardly terrorists”. According to news analysts, he thought that the bombings might have something to do with his visit to Algeria a week earlier. He certainly offended many Algerians by refusing to apologise for France's colonial rule, and by securing so many lucrative contracts for French companies also created the impression that his country was trying to steal Algeria's new energy-based wealth. Algeria has substantial oil and gas reserves, and the hydrocarbon industry accounted for nearly 60 percent of its export earnings in 2005. Algeria's main trading partners are Italy,France, Spain, the US and Canada – countries that are not above laying their hands on the oil-wealth of Muslim countries if they get the opportunity.
But the Algerian people's anger with Sarkozy and with their leaders' cooperation with him centres on his anti-Islamic stance. He even recently visited Afghanistan and called on NATO to intensify its resistance to “Islamic terrorists” there. But Algerians see George W. Bush and the US as a greater enemy of Islamic activism worldwide, and resent their government's anti-Islamic alliance with America. Not surprisingly, when Bush contacted Bouteflika on December 13 to give him condolences and express his determination to step up US cooperation with Algeria to fight “Islamic terrorism”, many Algerians saw this as reinforcement of an already existing foreign intervention in their domestic affairs.
One intriguing observation that has followed the blasts appeared in an editorial in the International Herald Tribune on December 10. It argued that al-Qa'ida is not popular among Muslims and that if the US withdraws from resistance to it, and leaves the task toMuslims, it will be defeated by the Muslims directly. “Unlike the Islamic movements Hamas or Hizbollah, which have built a mass base by providing social services, al-Qaeda and its offshoots have no such base,” it said. “The war against al-Qaeda is a war that must be won by Muslims,” it added. The editorial concluded that “America should protect its shores, but otherwise keep its distance from a conflict that should be waged primarily with the world of Islam.”
Neither Bush nor Sarkozy is likely to heed this advice, and the Algerian people – and other Muslims – will continue to see the US andFrance as enemies of Islam, and al-Qa’ida’s resistance to them as commendable. In fact, it is not only in Algeria that Islamic movements opposed to their leaders' corruption and misrule, and their cooperation with the war on Islam, become very popular. According to a recent BBC World Service report, for instance, Hizb ut-Tahrir has become very popular in Uzbekistan as a result of its opposition to president Islam Karimov, who, like Bouteflika, is corrupt and supportive of the “war on terror”.