Algeria's GSPC and America's 'War on Terror'
By Jonathan Schanzer -POLICYWATCH #666 -

Last week, intensified Islamist violence prompted
Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to launch his
military's largest counteroffensive against radical
Islamic elements in five years. The target of this
ongoing operation is the Salafist Group for Preaching
and Combat (GSPC), a breakaway faction of the Armed
Islamic Group (GIA). GSPC deserves special attention in America's "war on terror" for its extensive ties to al-Qaeda
and its devastating effect on Algeria.

Radical Islamic violence erupted in Algeria in 1992 when
the military nullified a sweeping electoral victory for the
Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). Led by the GIA (formed in
1993) and the armed wing of the FIS (known as the
Islamic Salvation Army [AIS]), Islamists launched a
ruthless campaign against the government, the military,
and civilians that included school burnings, religiously motivated killings, and bombings. Their goal was to
overthrow the secular Algerian government and replace
it with an Islamist regime.

As the war raged, it became apparent that the majority
of the Islamist combatants adhered to the rigid and
utopian Salafist branch of Islam, which excludes all but
one interpretation of the religion -- that revealed by the Prophet Muhammad and his "salaf," or companions.
Between 1996 and 1997, Salafist violence reached its
zenith. The GIA massacred thousands of Algerian civilians thought to support the regime and oppose their jihad.
After a decade of violence, the death toll is estimated at 150,000.

Enter GSPC
The massacres of 1996-1997 led to significant
fragmentation among Algerian Salafists. The GSPC was
formed in 1998 by Hassan Hattab (aka Abu Hamza), who
left the GIA and condemned "shedding the blood of
innocent people in massacres." Hattab's group rose to prominence after Bouteflika's January 2000 amnesty
deadline for Islamists. Although some 5,000 AIS militants surrendered their weapons, the GSPC refused the
amnesty, one of only a few groups to do so.

The GSPC began with 700 fighters, but now boasts an estimated 4,000. Its current tactics include attacks at
false roadblocks and raids on military, police, and
government convoys. Since January 2002, an estimated
900 people have been killed in Islamist-related violence
in Algeria. Although the GSPC does not always accept responsibility for its attacks, many believe that the group
is behind the majority of such operations, which have increasingly been launched in the heart of the country
and its suburbs. The U.S. State Department now calls
GSPC the "most effective remaining armed group" and the "largest, most active terrorist organization" in
Algeria today.

Ties to al-Qaeda
Before GSPC emerged in 1998, its cadres were part of
the GIA. Several hundred GIA members had fought in
the Afghan-Soviet war, and many of them had links of
one sort or another to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda provided support to those who returned to
Algeria and formed the GIA in 1993, but the GIA was by
no means an al-Qaeda front; it was a separate group
with which al-Qaeda felt some affinity and therefore

Once established in Algeria, the GIA launched several
attacks against the country's patron, France. On August
3, 1994, five French embassy officials were killed and one
was injured when GIA guerrillas attacked a French
compound in Algiers. In December 1994, the GIA hijacked
Air France Flight 8969 and unsuccessfully attempted to
blow up the Eiffel Tower. A 1995 bombing campaign
attributed to the group in Paris killed seven and injured
more than 100. In 1996-1997, however, the GIA was
responsible for a rash of massacres in Algeria that claimed
the lives of thousands and led to the group's decline; its indiscriminate tactics alienated it from the majority of
Algerians and, surprisingly, from al-Qaeda.

By rejecting the GIA's brutal tactics, the GSPC attracted
the financial and logistical support al-Qaeda. The Algerian
el-Khabir newspaper has even asserted that the GSPC
was created by bin Laden himself, though Algerian
authorities have every reason to exaggerate such links.
Nevertheless, French intelligence recently confirmed just
how tightly the two groups have worked together.
Moreover, the U.S. State Department's Patterns of
Global Terrorism 2001 report noted that GSPC
"adherents abroad appear to have largely co-opted the external networks of the GIA," including recruits,
finances, false documents, and weapons. This network
has helped to facilitate GSPC attacks not only in Algeria,
but worldwide.

For example, the State Department has accused
"Algerian extremists associated with the GSPC of planning
to disrupt the Paris-Dakar Road Rally" in 2000. In addition, Italian police arrested several suspects linked to a GSPC
cell in Milan on April 4, 2000, while four individuals thought
to be members of a GSPC cell in France were arrested in
connection with a plot to bomb a Christmas market in
eastern France in 2000. The Algerian suspects implicated
in the millennium bombing plot are also thought to have
ties to the GSPC, although the evidence is not yet

GSPC after September 11
Soon after the attacks of September 11, 2001, a press
release appeared in the Algerian al-Youm daily, allegedly penned by Hattab, threatening that the GSPC would
"strike hard" at "American and European interests in
Algeria if they implement their threats to attack Arab
and Muslim states . . . [or] if they continue to harass
[the] Islamist network in the U.S., U.K., France, and
Belgium." Several days later, on September 23, 2001, President George W. Bush's Executive Order 13224
blocked the finances of the GSPC and other terrorist
groups. On March 27, 2002, the group was designated
a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. government.
In May 2002, the State Department documented the
growing strength of the GSPC in Patterns of Global
Terrorism 2001, noting that "civilians have been
attacked" despite the group's alleged focus on
government targets.

Indeed, the GSPC's global profile has expanded
significantly over the past year. In late September 2001, Spanish police announced that they had dismantled an
al-Qaeda cell of six Algerians belonging to the group.
They were in possession of false passports and
sophisticated forgery equipment. In January 2002,
the Observer in London obtained a GSPC video
imploring viewers to "kill in the name of Allah until
you are killed" and to "fight all the sick unbelievers."
In April, Dutch authorities arrested several Algerians
accused of supporting the group's terrorist activities.
Most recently, two Algerian men arrested in Pakistan
on September 21 were believed to be members of the

As America's "war on terror" enters its second year, the
GSPC remains relatively unnoticed, despite the fact that
it is among the most active of the twenty-seven groups commonly listed under the aegis of bin Laden's network.
The GSPC's surge in terrorist activity is a painful
reminder that even loosely affiliated and relatively
obscure al-Qaeda subgroups can destabilize the Middle
East, terrorize Europe, and perpetrate acts of violence
around the globe.

President Bouteflika met with President Bush in
November 2001, and the two leaders promised to
cooperate in the fight against terrorism. But words are
not enough. Algeria's GSPC has emerged as a critical
arm of the al-Qaeda network that demands sustained attention in counterterror efforts worldwide.

Jonathan Schanzer is a Soref fellow at The Washington Institute.

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