Algeria is no stranger to violence: Islamic groups and the armed forces engage in deadly confrontations that extend over long periods and cause huge loss of life. It is not, therefore, surprising that the recent bombing attacks – attributed to al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – have led to widespread fears that the country is about to be engulfed in another civil war similar to the one in the 1990s, in which more than 150,000 people lost their lives. AQIM is the name adopted in 2006 by one of the groups that had a leading role in that civil war; it is believed by many to be the only remaining Islamic group in the country. Consequently, its warning to Algeria’s pro-Western rulers last July was taken very seriously, not only by the regime and its allies but also by Algeria’s people.
AQIM’s warning was in fact tantamount to a declaration of war: “We tell the sons of France, the slaves of America and their masters too, that our finger is on the trigger, and the convoys of martyrs are longing to rampage your bastions in defence of our Islamic nation.”
The group became prominent in April 2007 after unleashing several suicide attacks in Algiers, the capital. The attacks included a bold assault on the prime minister’s office, which killed 33 people. They caused widespread shock throughout the country, as AQIM’s attacks and influence had previously been confined to the eastern regions. But when the attacks were followed by a lull, Algerians began to hope that they were not the beginning of a return to a second civil war. However, in December the group carried out two more attacks in Algiers, hitting the UN’s offices and killing 41 people, including 17 UN staff. It is true that the attacks in December were followed by another long lull, which reassured Algerians somewhat. But that confidence was shattered by the recent attacks, particularly in August, though they were largely confined to the eastern region of the country, where AQIM is based.
Many Algerians – particularly the secularists among them — resent the attacks by AQIM, calling them terrorist assaults. But they also blame the regime of president Abdul-Aziz Bouteflika. Most Algerians see the regime’s widespread corruption and wasting of the wealth earned from the country’s vast oil and gas reserves as providing the reason or excuse for the attacks by the AQIM and for its supporters backing it. Despite the country’s mineral resources, Algeria is not a rich country; many Algerians are unemployed and poor. For instance, 70 percent of young Algerians are unemployed. And as if to add to the anger of the unemployed and the poor, rich Algerians do not bother to hide the vast sums of money they acquire, the corrupt methods they use to obtain them, or their links with the regime that secures their riches for them.
But economic problems are not the only reason for the Algerians’ anger. President Bouteflika’s corrupt rule and his ambition to prolong that rule are in fact the main cause of that anger and resentment. The president is widely believed to be planning to amend the constitution to enable him to run for a third term as president next year. According to analysts, Bouteflika is so determined to secure a third term that the persistent attacks by AQIM will not deter him, although they may make his self-imposed task more difficult.
Bouteflika and the military and police chiefs often boast publicly that they have defeated “terrorist groups” such as AQIM, but the recent attacks show that their claims cannot be taken seriously. According to analysts, AQIM is not as strong as the Islamic groups that fought in the civil war, but it is still well-trained and organised enough to sustain its assaults. A report in the Economist (August 23) explained the situation thus: “Though estimates of AQIM’s manpower are in the low hundreds, compared to the tens of thousands of rebels at the height ofAlgeria’s troubles they seem well-trained, well-financed, highly motivated and mobile. Most of the recent violence has been in the long-troubled mountain areas east of Algiers, but the group and its affiliates have struck as far afield as neighbouring Tunisia and Mauritania, as well as the heart of the capital, where last December they blew up the UN’s main office and a court building.”
In order to discredit the group’s activities in the eastern region and along Algeria’s borders with its neighbours, the government has accused it of committing widespread terrorist crimes there. In particular, it has accused it of opening terrorist training-camps deep in the Sahara, of kidnapping tourists, and of recruiting Islamic fighters from countries as far away as Nigerand Senegal. The government has also opened talks with Algeria’s immediate neighbours, such as Mauritania and Tunisia, to reach common agreements with them aimed at unifying their efforts against “Islamic terrorists” in northwest Africa. All of them are already cooperating with the worldwide US “anti-terrorism” programme, which is an ill-disguised war on Islamic activists and groups, and should not find any difficulty in agreeing a common anti-Islamic agenda. In fact, the military officers who recently carried out a coup in Mauritania are said to have done so because the serving president was too lenient with Islamic groups there.
But the Algerian government’s attempt to depict AQIM as a terrorist group, striking not only at governmental targets but also at civilians, has not succeeded: even Western analysts emphasise that AQIM’s campaign is directed at the state. According to Wolfram Lacher, a North African analyst with the Risk Control Group, “there has been a tactical shift towards much higher-profile targets, but it is important to remember that their focus is purely against the Algerian state.”
Clearly Bouteflika would be well advised not to amend the constitution and stay in power that way. His best plan is to leave office and seek safety abroad before he is overthrown and tried for his corruption and other crimes committed while president of Algeria. Whether he will agree with this assessment and act on it is another matter.