The Blog

Soft Targets

Al Qaeda's new strategy.

12:00 AM, May 18, 2007 • By OLIVIER GUITTA
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WHILE THE April 11 suicide bombings in Algiers struck at hard targets--the government palace and a police station--soft targets are most likely the preferred point of attack for terrorists in the region.

Just a few weeks earlier, the U.S. Department of State had issued an updated travel warning for Algeria. It urged American citizens there to evaluate carefully the risk posed to their personal safety due to the increased frequency of small-scale terrorist attacks, including bombings, false roadblocks, kidnappings, ambushes, and assassinations. This warning is just the latest sign of a troublesome trend: terrorist groups now seem intent on striking at Western nationals.

Since the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) officially changed its name to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb late last year, it has made clear its intention to attack foreigners. The group's first such attack targeted a bus transporting Halliburton employees in December, killing one and injuring nine more. On March 3, the group staged another attack, this one targeting Russian contractors.

The CIA recently beefed up its presence in both Algeria and Morocco. And, most likely, it was CIA intelligence data that spurred U.S. embassy officials in Algiers to issue a specific warning on March 12 of a threat to aircraft transporting Western workers to Algeria. Incidentally, the two suicide attacks "foiled" (only the bombers died) in Casablanca on April 14 were aimed at the U.S. consulate and the American language Center.

Numerous Western governments have recently warned their citizens of potential attacks, and, according to a recent article in the Moroccan Al Bayane, partially translated by The Croissant, Spanish officials in the Maghreb no longer allow visitors to carry their cell phones onto consular property. But Algeria and Morocco are not the only dangerous places for foreigners.

On February 26, al Qaeda murdered four French nationals in Medina, Saudi Arabia. This attack came on the heels of a February 8 message put online at the Sawt Al Jihad (The Voice of Jihad) website calling for "cleaning up the Arabic peninsula of the presence of the Crusaders." Sawt Al Jihad also posted a text in June 2006 entitled "How to kill a Westerner."

Since 2003, Saudi authorities have drastically increased security around public buildings and vital infrastructure making it much more difficult for al Qaeda to attack government targets. On March 7, Saudi authorities warned all embassies in that country of the likelihood of further attacks against Western targets in yet another indication that al Qaeda has changed its strategy in response to those new security measures. The group may also be focusing on soft targets, such as foreigners, in order to create panic in the Western community. This shift could have a great effect. Indeed, by pushing Westerners to leave, al Qaeda achieves two objectives, crippling the Saudi economy and purging the peninsula of infidels.

Still, al Qaeda remains popular among Saudis. Even Prince Nayef, the minister responsible for fighting terrorism, recently acknowledged: "We are facing 10,000 people potentially ready to commit a terrorist act and behind them one million sympathizers ready to help them."

The Saudi military, too, seems to be at the very least sympathetic to al Qaeda's hatred of foreigners. According to Le Figaro, the military will exempt from training with U.S. instructors those officers who are unable to bear the presence of "infidels."

The Muslim World League condemned the February 26 attack against those four French citizens on the basis that one should not kill Muslims--the French nationals were indeed Muslims. But issuing such a statement obviously implies that it is okay to kill infidels.

The New York Sun recently revealed that the Saudi Ministry of Education's website states as one of primary goals "to arouse the spirit of Islamic jihad in order to fight our enemies." And how could it be any other way when the minister of education once headed the Muslim World League.

In this environment, from the Maghreb to the Gulf, attacks against Western targets are only likely to increase in frequency.

Olivier Guitta is the founder of The Croissant, a foreign affairs and counterterrorism newsletter.