By Jonathan Schanzer
October 28, 2003

U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near
Eastern affairs William Burns visited Algeria
on October 25-26, just days after a new
Algerian terrorist organization was added
to the Treasury Department's list of
Specially Designated Global Terrorists
(SDGT). The visit also came amid reports
that several Algerian groups with al-Qaeda
ties have spawned splinter groups and
are gaining ground. The imminent
expansion in security cooperation
announced at the end of Burns' visit will
constitute the strongest ties between
the United States and Algeria in
decades. Yet, even this expansion may
not be enough.

Background: GSPC Activity
The primary terrorist threat in Algeria
today is an al-Qaeda affiliate known as
the Salafist Group for Preaching and
Combat (GSPC). The group is active
primarily in the provinces east of Algiers,
but also has numerous financial and
logistical cells that assist the al-Qaeda
network throughout Europe. GSPC was
designated a Foreign Terrorist
Organization by the State Department in
March 2002 and placed on the Treasury
Department's SDGT list in September

GSPC was formed in 1998 by
approximately 700 breakaway fighters of
the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), a primarily
"Afghan Arab" movement that became
increasingly hated in Algeria for its brutal
and indiscriminate violence against
civilians. Since the mid-1990s, the GIA's
numbers have dwindled to an estimated
100 fighters. GSPC, by contrast, has
expanded to as many as 4,000 fighters
due to both support from al-Qaeda and
its own stated opposition to "shedding
the blood of innocent people in
massacres." Despite breaking its word
on this latter issue, GSPC has become
the dominant Islamist force in Algeria.

Although violence has diminished greatly
since the peak of Algeria's civil war in the
1990s, fighting continues, and GSPC is
responsible for much of it. Since the
beginning of 2003, some 820 Algerians
have been killed in the continuing
bloodshed. The worst areas are east of
Algiers, particularly in the Kabilya province,
where the GSPC presence is strongest.

The most notable incident was the spring
2003 GSPC kidnapping of thirty-two
foreigners (from Germany, Austria,
Switzerland, Sweden, and the
Netherlands). The kidnappers were headed
by GSPC leader Amari Saifi (a.k.a.
Abderrezak al-Parra). On May 13, Algerian
forces recovered some of the hostages in
the desert after a four-hour gun battle in
which nine terrorists and one soldier were
killed. Another group of foreigners,
however, remained in captivity. One
German hostage eventually died from
heatstroke. On August 18, Germany, with
help from Libya, secured the release of
the remaining hostages, whom GSPC had
transferred to Algeria's neighbor Mali.
According to some sources, a ransom
payment was made, although the details
are unconfirmed. Such a payment could
have been made by Libya, which may
have given money through the Gaddafi
International Foundation for Charity
Associations as a means of indirectly
financing continued GSPC operations. The
payment could also have come from Mali,
with the expectation that compensation
would be made by the hostages' home
countries in the form of increased
development aid.

In September, international media
reported several battles between
Algerian government and Islamist forces.
In one raid, fifteen GSPC members
suspected of kidnapping the Europeans
were killed in hideouts east of the
capital, and a significant weapons cache
was uncovered. In another military
offensive, intensive shelling killed a
number of GSPC fighters. In October,
Islamist guerrillas operating in the
southern Medea region struck back. In
one attack, fighters set off a bomb as a
convoy drove past and then opened fire,
killing eight soldiers.

GSPC has been quite active abroad as
well. In 2001, seven men, along with
suspected high-level al-Qaeda operative
Abu Qatada, were arrested on suspicion
of involvement in GSPC's "English cell."
Also that year, Spanish police dismantled
a six-man cell that had sent high-tech
equipment and intelligence to operatives
in Algeria. According to President Jose
Maria Aznar Lopez, the cell had
"financial connections to the terrorist
organization led by bin Laden." In
September 2002, two Algerians believed
to be members of GSPC were arrested in
Pakistan with false passports and
forgery equipment. In April 2003, Dutch
authorities arrested several Algerians
"accused of supporting terrorist activities"
carried out by GSPC. Finally, the Italian
government definitively linked a high-
ranking GSPC member in Milan to cadres
of Ansar al-Islam, the al-Qaeda affiliate
that continues to attack U.S. soldiers in

Splintering Terrorist Groups
Algeria's terrorist groups continue to
splinter and multiply. For example, the
kidnapping of the European tourists
constituted the announcement a new
faction of GSPC. According to several
reports corroborated by French and
Algerian officials, Abderrezak al-Parra
likely undertook the kidnapping
operation without the consent of GSPC
leaders, including the group's founder,
Hassan Hattab. By mid-October, the
Algerian and French media verified that
a power struggle had indeed emerged
within the group. While some reports
suggest that Hattab remains in control,
others claim that he has been replaced
by Nabil Sahwari (a.k.a. Abu Ibrahim
Mustapha). Sahwari released a statement
on September 11, 2003, declaring that
GSPC operated "under the direction of
Mullah Omar and of the al-Qaeda
organization of Usama bin Laden."

To further complicate matters, on October
20 the U.S. State Department announced
another Specially Designated Global
Terrorist group from Algeria known as
Dhamat Houmet Daawa Salafia. This
group previously operated under the
name of Katibat al-Ahual (Horror
squadron), a splinter of the GIA led by
Mohammed Benslim. According to the State
Department, the group "is well organized
and equipped with military materiel, and
has engaged in terrorist activity in Algeria
and internationally. It is responsible for
numerous killings since the mid-1990s,
and has escalated its attacks in recent
years." More pointedly, the statement
notes that the "group has links to

GSPC's operations in Algeria and
throughout Europe are an issue of serious
concern in the war on terror. Clearly, even
this relatively obscure al-Qaeda
subgroup has global reach. For historical
reasons, however, the United States has
largely left this problem in the hands of
France. Even as Paris and Washington
continue to exchange barbs over Iraq,
perhaps Algeria can emerge as one area
in the war on terror where U.S. and
French interests clearly converge.

It is encouraging that Algiers is eager to
build a stronger relationship with
Washington based on counterterrorism.
Although Washington should build on this
momentum (evidenced by the 2001 and
2003 meetings between Presidents George
W. Bush and Abdelaziz Bouteflika), any
enhancement in military ties should be
used as leverage to demand increased
democratic and economic accountability
and reform. State Department reports
indicate that the Algerian government
needs to devote more effort toward
improving human rights, lifting state
controls on the media, and implementing
much-needed economic changes. Algerian
national elections scheduled for spring
2004 represent an excellent opportunity
for the United States to match its
commitment to democratic development
with its commitment to fighting terrorism.

Jonathan Schanzer is a Soref fellow at The Washington Institute.

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