The Maghreb countries in North Africa are rich in oil and gas resources, and have substantial tourist potential. However, bureaucracy and corruption – familiar ills in every public and business sector – have blocked economic development. Consequently poverty is endemic; educational and employment opportunities are few in a region most of whose people are young and eager to learn and work. Add to this the fact that political (especially Islamic) opposition is severely suppressed and thereby driven underground, and it becomes obvious why the region has long been subject to violence, and has recently suffered suicide bombings for the first time.
Because the legally banned Islamic parties and groups are the best-organised and most effective opponents of the region’s oppressive rulers, it is equally obvious why they are both the main targets of the establishment’s crackdowns and the objects of widespread popular respect and admiration. Not surprisingly, therefore, it is not the region’s people who dismiss Islamic activists as ‘terrorists’, although many of them are secularists or do not approve of the use of bombs and suicide-bombers. Rather, it is the rich classes, the ruling elites and the tightly controlled media that brand activists as ‘terrorists’, and support or enforce the ban on Islamic parties. Western politicians and media that support the region’s secular elites and see Islamic radicalism as a threat to their own interests have blamed the recent violence on Islamic terrorists, mostly identified as al-Qa’ida supporters or members.
The recent unrest has been most vigorous in Algeria, where at least 23 people were killed and 162 injured when suicide-bombers struck in Algiers, the capital, on April 14. A vehicle exploded, hitting the offices of prime minister Abdulaziz Belkhadem in the centre of the city. He himself escaped, but according to officials 12 people died and 118 were injured in the explosion. At almost the same time 11 died and at least 44 were injured when two car-bombs exploded in the Bab Ezzour district on the road to Algiers international airport; one destroyed an electricity station and the other damaged the district police station. The bombings were claimed by the erstwhile Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which in January renamed itself the al-Qa’ida Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb. The announcement of its new name coincided with the expiry of the regime’s six-month amnesty for ‘militants’: this amnesty had been approved by a referendum in 2005.
Rabah Kebir, a leading militant, urged fighters to disarm last September. But by December a road-bomb had killed an American oil-worker and fresh clashes between the ruthless Algerian military and the GSPC had become inevitable, this inevitability being reinforced by the new name in January. Before, the GSPC had never attacked the oil and gas industries, which employ foreign workers and supply Western countries. Instead it concentrated its assaults on police and government buildings, and the attack on the prime minister’s offices in April 11 was consistent with its previous methods.
But the recent killing of an odd foreign energy worker, the group’s new name and its propaganda campaign against France and the US (accusing them of stealing Algeria’s oil and gas wealth) have been misinterpreted as proof that al-Qa’ida is now in operation throughout the region and is also responsible for the recent bomb-attacks in Morocco and Tunisia. These attacks have been much smaller and less destructive than those in Algeria, but are sufficient evidence that the Tunisians and Moroccans are also very angry with their rulers. In Moroccotwo brothers blew themselves up near the US consulate and the American Language Centre in Casablanca, killing only themselves. It was the second time in five days that suicide-bombers had killed themselves in the city; earlier, on March 11, a suicide-bomber had killed three people. In Tunisia, 14 activists and others were killed in gun-battles in December and January.
In Morocco the trial of 50 people accused of trying to overthrow the monarchy is due to begin in May. Last year King Muhammad VI ended military conscription and reorganised the security apparatus after the infiltration of the armed forces by ‘Islamists’. Moreover, the security forces claim to have discovered a “web of militants” with plans to attack foreign ships, hotels and police buildings by means of suicide-bombers. Yet the minister of communications sees no connection between them and external jihad groups, and has dismissed them as unprofessionals. “It really appears to be an amateur group, since the explosives we found on them and in the caches we discovered were basic and homemade from household items,” he said.
It is certainly true that the groups operating in Morocco and Tunisia are not as strong and experienced as the GSPC in Algeria. But the Moroccan minister was only trying to show that the king was not about to be overthrown and that the armed forces were in full control of the situation. He was by no means discouraging or contradicting reports in the Arab and western media that al-Qa’ida is behind the violence in the region. Those reports are so exaggerated that they even claim that western countries are in danger of attacks by the “al-Qa’ida backed Algerian group [the GSPC]”. An editorial in the Times of London on April 12 said: “As Britain has found to its cost, Algerian terrorists have been active across Western Europe. We are vulnerable to their attacks and must be both vigilant and very supportive of the people of North Africa”. The editorial also claims that the region is “an obvious haven for al-Qaeda, under pressure in the Middle East, where governments have targeted its leadership.”
One reason why the region’s rulers and their western allies are apprehensive about the GSPC’s growing influence is that its entire population, like those in the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world, are now so anti-American that attacks against the US’s interests are admired; and Islamic groups (like al-Qa’ida) perpetrating them have become very popular. Indeed, the results of a recent international survey of some Muslim countries, including Morocco, show clearly how unpopular the US has become, and how the peoples of those countries admire Muslim groups and favour Islamic rule. The results of the survey, for instance, show that at least half of all Egyptians want Islamic rule to be introduced in their country.
This growing popularity of Islamic groups and Islamic rule is partly attributable to the US’s targeting of Islam, through its so-called war on terrorism, and to its invasion of Iraq and support for Israel against the Palestinians, to take the most obvious examples. The rulers who fear the advance of Islamic groups in North Africa should break their links with the US and its allies, instead of blaming al-Qa’ida and the GSPC. Their war on Islam and Islamic activism will not save them.