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The Algerian Connection

Why did Saddam financially support an al Qaeda affiliate in Algeria?

12:00 AM, Aug 3, 2005 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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LATE LAST MONTH an Algerian-born terrorist named Ahmed Ressam received a commuted sentence of 22 years (prosecutors had recommended 35 years) in prison for his role in planning to blow up the Los Angeles airport. His sentence infuriated many since his involvement in the plot against LAX was immediately transparent. After all, he was captured in December 1999 after driving off a ferry from British Columbia in a vehicle laden with bomb-making explosives.

Ressam received a commuted sentence after providing investigators with good intelligence about the al Qaeda network which spawned the plot. (Ressam has since stopped cooperating.) Indeed, Ressam's failed attempt against LAX was part of a series of al Qaeda-related attacks against targets around the world (in Jordan, Australia, and elsewhere) at the turn of the new millennium. There is still much about these planned attacks we do not know.

Ressam's story, like that of so many other al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists, contains an endless list of murky connections to a host of nefarious people and groups. The most troubling of these ties is to al Qaeda's Algerian affiliates, the Armed Islamic Group (aka the "GIA") and its descendant, the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (the "GSPC"). The history of the GIA is an especially violent one and Ressam is just one of many terrorists to have operated under its auspices. Indeed, the Algerian tentacle of the vast terror network executed scores of lethal attacks spanning more than a decade.

IT IS A CURIOUS FACT, then, that Saddam Hussein provided financial assistance to the GIA when it was in its earliest stages of germination. There is still much we do not know about Saddam's relationship with al Qaeda's Algerian affiliate. But, Iraq's relationship with the GIA warrants further investigation given its tortuous history.

THE ROOTS OF SADDAM'S RELATIONSHIP with the GIA trace back to the 1991 Gulf War. The group's early history is particularly useful in understanding why Saddam would offer the GIA his support.

As the war approached, Saddam sought and received support from a conspicuous group of Islamist radicals. Among them was the Sudanese leader Hassan al-Turabi and an Algerian Islamist named Abbas Madani, both of whom traveled to Baghdad in the months prior to the war and declared their support for Saddam.

Madani was then the leader of Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front (the "FIS"), which was a consortium of four Islamist parties formed to obtain democratically-elected political power. Madani was somewhat more tempered in his support for Saddam than his cohort, Ali Benhadj, because he feared (correctly) that support for Saddam would end Saudi financial support for the FIS.
Benhadj overcame Madani's reticence, however, and moved the FIS firmly into Saddam's camp. According to Gilles Keppel (Jihad, The Trail of Political Islam), Benhadj--who was accompanied by "a detachment of Afghan-garbed jihadists fresh from Peshawar"--took to the streets and "delivered a harangue in front of the [Algerian] Ministry of Defense in which he demanded the formation of a corps of volunteers to join the forces of Saddam Hussein."

Writing in Al Qaeda's Armies, Middle East expert Jonathan Schanzer explains that as the Gulf War neared the "FIS became increasingly pro-Iraq and anti-U.S., as seen through their slogans, protests, and even training camps for volunteers to fight for Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The U.S. conflict with Iraq was a powerful symbol of FIS's soaring popularity."

INDEED, the FIS leadership leveraged popular support for Saddam within Algeria to the point that it was on the verge of taking power in 1992. To avoid a takeover by the Islamists, however, the ruling Algerian government and army cancelled the final round of elections. Martial law was imposed, Madani and Benhadj were thrown in jail, and the more radical elements within the FIS, including many former Arab Afghans, left its ranks to join the burgeoning GIA.

The "Arab Afghans" were among the earliest leaders of the GIA. Bin Laden's patronage of the group proved especially beneficial as hundreds of former veterans from the war in Afghanistan were soon redeployed to Algeria to swell the GIA's ranks. By some accounts, bin Laden is said to have personally arranged for the financing and necessary travel documents to be provided to upwards of 1,000 or more "Arab Afghans" who returned or relocated to Algerian soil. Al Qaeda's number two, Ayman al Zawahiri, is also said to have played a vital role in the group's formation.