The Magazine

The New Battle of Algeria

National reconciliation can kill you.

Jul 31, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 43 • By OLIVIER GUITTA
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ON JULY 10, a group of terrorists entered a campground in Gouraya, a Mediterranean resort 75 miles from Algiers, and randomly massacred 5 people. The victims were among the 22 killed by terrorists in Algeria in the first half of July--putting that month on track to be a little less bloody than those preceding it. In April, the death toll was 60; in May, 54; in June, 65--this in a country with a population roughly the size of California's, and a government insistent that Islamist terrorism has been basically defeated.

Despite the official happy talk, kidnappings by Islamists to raise money for their cause are a routine occurrence in Algeria. And not a day goes by without terrorists' attacking military personnel, government employees, or ordinary civilians, whom they regard as allies of the government. Just in recent weeks, the GSPC (Algerian Salafist Group for Prayer and Combat), the al Qaeda affiliate that is now the main Algerian terrorist group, orchestrated an assault that killed 17 customs officers when their vehicles were riddled with bullets; another that killed 7 police officers when their truck was hit by an RPG; and the execution of 5 farmers who were shot, then finished off with daggers, their bodies burned. The GSPC also plants bombs in public places to create panic. Boumerdès, for example, about 25 miles from the capital, was hit twice by terror attacks near the main downtown bus station. Authorities are wondering whether Algiers will be next.

In an attempt to end this low-intensity civil war (low-intensity by comparison with the vicious civil war that raged between 1992 and 1999, in which a military regime suppressed the Islamic Salvation Front at a cost of some 150,000 lives), the government last year announced a plan for national reconciliation. The plan was approved in a referendum in September 2005 and promulgated in March. It included a general amnesty for jailed terrorists and Islamists. The authorities released 2,200 Islamists from prison, and, according to Interior Minister Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni, an additional 200 or so Islamist fighters turned themselves in.

Unfortunately, the GSPC would have no part of reconciliation. Shortly before the referendum, its leader, Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, warned the Algerian people on an Islamist website, "If you participate in this referendum, you have declared war on Islam, you are following Satan, and you have abandoned Allah." Sure enough, in March, a GSPC goon squad gunned down a former military adviser to the group, Abdelkrim Kaduri, who had appealed to GSPC members to support the peace plan. "Do not let this opportunity for reconciliation slip by," Kaduri had urged just before he was killed. His murder was a deterrent to any dissidents who might think of helping the Algerian security services.

And in other ways, the attempt at reconciliation is looking more and more like a recipe for disaster, endangering the security of Western nations. Thus, two individuals freed in the amnesty, Mohamed Benyamina and Akil Chraibi, were part of extremist cells recently dismantled in France. Benyamina belonged to the Bourada cell, which had planned to attack the Paris-Orly airport, the Paris subway, and the headquarters of the DST (the French FBI). Chraibi, a student in Montpellier, was arrested in Algeria while providing the GSPC with explosive devices. French authorities are also concerned about preventing dangerous individuals from entering French territory. In fact, France considers the GSPC its biggest threat, especially since the group's declaration of allegiance to al Qaeda in July 2005 and its recent communiqué identifying France as the number one enemy.

Indeed, the GSPC is now probably the spearhead of jihad in north Africa. Its objective is to make the Maghreb a launching pad for al Qaeda operations in Europe, where the Algerian al Qaeda leader Khalid Abou Bassir is based. Already the GSPC is active well beyond the borders of Algeria. In November 2005, 17 Islamists affiliated with the GSPC were arrested in Morocco. They were allegedly preparing attacks against American and Jewish interests in that country.