Fears grow of a radical Islamist Maghreb

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 14/02/07):

A wave of lethal bomb attacks on police stations and other targets in Algeria today has underscored concerns that al-Qaida and like-minded Islamist groups are rapidly gaining strength in north Africa. While the terrorists' immediate fight is with the pro-US governments of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, their longer-term target is western interests in the Maghreb - and possibly Europe itself.

The explosions, in which at least six people were killed and dozens wounded, follow an assault in December on American and British employees of an affiliate of the US oil services company Halliburton, formerly chaired by the US vice-president, Dick Cheney.

Another attack on an Algerian army post last month killed five soldiers. Ten of the assailants reportedly also died.A militant Salafist organisation formerly known as the Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) admitted responsibility for these incidents and today's bombings. It recently changed its name to al-Qaida in the Maghreb, in an attempt to emulate al-Qaida in Iraq, after receiving "official recognition" from Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's deputy. Yesterday's attack looks like its handiwork.

Several of the bombings took place in the Tizi Ouzou and Boumerdes districts, which were hotbeds of Islamist resistance during the 1990s Algerian civil war. The war claimed an estimated 200,000 lives and gave rise to the feared Armed Islamic Group, of which the GSPC is an offshoot. The Berber areas of the Kabylia mountains were also the scene of some of the worst fighting during the country's struggle against French colonial rule.

The 1954-62 war of independence, as described in the masterful book A Savage War of Peace by the British historian Alastair Horne, has come to be seen in US military circles as a classic battle of terror and counter-terror, with lessons applicable to Iraq today. According to Sir Alastair, Israel's Ariel Sharon labelled the book his favourite bedside reading "though it seemed he was reading from left to right and got the message entirely wrong".

Zawahiri also made a link between Iraq and Sunni Muslim Algeria last September when he boasted in a video that al-Qaida was opening "new fronts" across the Muslim world, and called on Islamists in the Maghreb to "crush the pillars of the Crusader alliance". And US officials say there is growing evidence of cooperation between militants across the region.

A plot to blow up western embassies in Tunis was reportedly foiled last month after the attackers, who included Tunisians and a Mauritanian, were intercepted on entering the country from Algeria. Moroccan nationals have been recruited as suicide bombers in Iraq and were involved in the 2004 Madrid bombings.

According to the Spanish newspaper El País, al-Qaida's organisational strengths are growing, with movable training camps in place in the "scrub country" of the Sahel, the thinly populated, semi-arid region that includes parts of southern Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger. The paper said a Moroccan activist arrested last week in Tarragona had been recruiting jihadis in Spain and sending them to the Sahel for training. That raised the spectre of more attacks on European soil. France is especially jumpy as presidential elections approach.

Alarmed that the area could become an Afghanistan-style "safe haven", the US has created the 10-country Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership and allocated $80m (£41m) for arms, training and intelligence-sharing. The US general William Ward told military chiefs meeting in Senegal this month they shared a "common goal of reducing the ability of violent extremists to harm or kill innocent civilians".

But even with local cooperation, policing such a vast area may be an impossible task.

Harsh crackdowns by Algeria and other governments to contain the terrorist threat have meanwhile kindled concerns about human rights abuses and authoritarian governance.

Amnesty International reported last year that "despite improvements [since the civil war], torture and other ill-treatment remain both systematic and widespread in Algeria in cases of arrests linked to alleged terrorist activity".

And according to Human Rights Watch: "The Tunisian government uses the threat of terrorism and religious extremism as a pretext to crack down on peaceful dissent. There are continuous and credible reports of torture and ill treatment."

Such official abuses may backfire on their perpetrators, increasing al-Qaida's appeal. But fear of the terrorists, coupled with Europe's increasing interest in Algeria's oil and gas, and Washington's desire for "moderate" Muslim allies, means serious pressure to check them will be unlikely.