13 Jan, 2007
It came as a bolt from the blue. A double car bomb struck two high-security locations in Algiers, shattering the din of the late morning rush hour on December 11, 2007. One of the attacks tore the front of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) building in Hydra, an uptown residential locality where other UN buildings and several ministries and foreign embassies are situated. The other explosion targeted the constitutional court, also in a well-guarded area and the site of other important state buildings.
The government put the number of dead at 26. However, press reports suggested the fatalityfigure could be higher than 67, and put the number of injured at 177. The United Nations disclosed that at least 11 of its staff had been killed and several others were still missing. The near-simultaneous blasts were suggestive of Al-Qaeda's involvement; a suspicion that was later confirmed when the BQMI (Al-Qaeda¿s Branch in the Islamic Maghreb) took responsibility for the attack on its website.
To many North African commentators, the destruction has raised the fear of a return to civil war that had ravaged Algeria in the 1990s. Others have suspected an Al-Qaeda plan to subsume Algeria's internal conflict into its war on the West. In this respect, some analysts point out at Al-Qaeda's perverse symbolism in selecting the date for the attack. The date "12/11" is not only an echo to Al-Qaeda's other attacks (the 9/11 strikes on the US and the 3/11 blasts in Madrid), but also plays on an important day in Algerian history bearing the same date.
December 11, 1960 is considered a turning point in the Algerian war for independence from their former colonial ruler, France. It is said that massive pro-independence protests had marked a visit that day by France's then-president, Gen. Charles de Gaulle. Since then, Algerians have marked the anniversary of the event to remember the cruelty unleashed by French forces against young Algerian demonstrators. Curiously, the government building struck on Tuesday is located on a street named after the date: December 11, 1960, Boulevard.
To many observers, however, Al-Qaeda¿s patent barbarity affords little room for symbolic subtleties. This horrible attack, they say, was merely an attempt to counter the several recent setbacks suffered by the terrorist network across the globe. Still, certain political analysts contend that the BQMI has sought to exploit a growing unease among certain sections of the Algerian society over the Bouteflika government's present cooperation with France. The terrorists seem to be sending out a message to the disgruntled elements in the Algerian society, that somehow the administration is betraying the glorious freedom fighters of the national revolution. It is to be noted here that French President Nicholas Sarkozy recently visited Algeria and spoke of forming, in league with Algeria, an axis of Mediterranean Union.
This is an unsettling development for Al-Qaeda in northern Africa, for it could stymie its resurgence in this part of the world. In fact, any such union could foil BQMI¿s current efforts at unifying radical religious groups in Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. The organization has also been trying to cast its net wide into Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, and Eritrea.
Moreover, Al-Qaeda aspires to use BQMI for extending its reach into Europe as well, especially in France. With growing antipathy toward the perceived hawkish attitude of the new French President on Middle East issues, many disgruntled ethnic Algerian elements in France would feel the pull of Al-Qaeda, now that it has aligned itself to an indigenously powerful Algerian terror outfit.
In fact, Bin Laden's deputy, Ayman Al-Zawahari has repeatedly threatened Europe, particularly France, in recent times. French President Nicolas Sarkozy's closer ties with the US and pro-Israel positions seem to have pushed France high on Al-Qaeda's hit list. Since his taking office, analysts say, radical websites have harped on Sarkozy's Jewish ancestry and his alleged links with the "Jewish lobby," as justification for terrorist strikes against France.
In order to better understand Al-Qaeda's recent resurgence in northern Africa it would be important to note its link-up with the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, known by its French acronym GSPC, in September 2006. The merger led to the renaming of the terror organization, now known as the "Al-Qaeda Branch in the Islamic Maghreb." For Al-Qaeda, this new alliance has been a shot-in-the-arm. After losing its base in Afghanistan after November 2001, and having recently suffered major reversals in Iraq (with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki recently declaring his government's victory against terrorism in the country), the terror syndicate has clearly found a new ally in northern African and with it a new lease of life for its global terror campaign.
Before it had merged with Al-Qaeda, the GSPC had vowed to avoid senseless violence and spare civilians as much as possible. However, since its alliance with Al-Qaeda, the organization seems to have changed its modus operandi. Terror experts point out that multiple and simultaneous attacks have become more common since its alliance with the international terror network. The attacks now target not only foreign interests, but also seek to maximize the number of civilian casualties.
Moreover, this alliance has increased the level of terrorist violence in Algeria, and the year 2007 has clearly been one of the most violent for the country since its decade-long civil war that ended five years ago. In addition to sporadic killings and blasts throughout, some major terrorist operations grabbed international attention this year. In April, coordinated strikes against government offices in Algiers and a police station left 33 people dead. Again, two explosions in the month of September claimed up to 50 lives.
However, by the targeting the UN building and the Algerian courts on December 11, Al-Qaeda has raised the terror alarm to a new level. The attacks targeted Algerian and international organizations and sent a message that the country is becoming the new hotbed for international terrorism. Therefore, the twin blasts may have far greater significance than just the horrific destruction and loss of life suffered by the Algerian capital on that Tuesday morning. The shockwaves produced by these blasts would have been acutely felt across the Mediterranean.