Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb's dilemma
In the past few weeks AQIM has scored many successes: pulling off a double suicide attack on Dec. 11 in Algiers that killed officially 31 (but maybe up to 76), killing in two separate attacks four French tourists and three soldiers in Mauritania.
But AQIM's big victory may turn out to be the cancellation for the first time of the famous and popular Paris-Dakar rally. Indeed, French authorities warned the organizers of the race that the risks of terror attacks by AQIM were too high to let the event run.
Nonetheless, AQIM is facing very strong internal strife.
For the GSPC, the decision to join Al-Qaida meant the beginning of a rebellion in its ranks. In fact, according to a top French official cited recently by Le Monde and testimonies from several GSPC dissidents, for the past few months, Abdelwadoud Droukdel, aka Abu Mussab, GSPC's leader, has been allegedly trying to curb the dissension among his organization.
But facts are proving that this strategy is not working and this has become all the more apparent since the triple spectacular and bloody suicide bombings in Algiers on April 11 (killing 33 and injuring 222) and the Dec. 11 attacks.
Indeed, the decision by Droukdel (an ex-Afghan, specialized in explosives) to use terror bombings against civilians -- given that they are easier to carry out than a classic guerrilla war -- has triggered the ire of the Algerian population, as demonstrated by the major public outcry and outpour of emotion after the 4/11 and 12/11 bombings.
This new strategy also triggered major turmoil in the ranks of the GSPC. According to some ex-GSPC elements, Droukdel's idea to merge with Al-Qaida and perpetrate terror attacks under this banner was not approved by lots of his close associates.
Confirming this is Benmessaoud Abdelkader, aka Abu Mossaab, the emir of the south, who surrendered to Algerian authorities over the summer. Abdelkader explained to the Algerian media in August that the crisis began when Droukdel along two of his close advisers decided to join Al-Qaida without consulting the base and the different phalanges leaders. For the latter, the announcement was a total surprise.
According to Abu Al Barra, another GSPC member who surrendered, the divergence of views between Droukdel and his close associates increased after the April 11 attacks.
He thinks that this might even bleed the GSPC of its most influential leaders; among them Touati Athmane, aka Abu Al Abbas, (in charge of the center of the country) and Sheikh Abdennaceur (religion expert leader of the group). According to El Watan, all these terrorists close to Droukdel voiced their disagreement with the new "suicide bombers strategy" that they deem "imported from Iraq and serving only Al-Qaida." For them, the GSPC is following the same path that led to the death of the Algerian GIA (Armed Islamic Group) in the mid-1990s, the organization it originally spun off from. Incidentally, the rebellious elements have been kicked out of the leadership and have been replaced by hardcore elements. Also the situation is so dire that these dissidents run the risk of being physically eliminated.
The main consequence of this new allegiance to Al-Qaida is that it has pushed some GSPC leaders to turn themselves in. Others are waiting for "new orders" to decide what course of action to follow: either to go on or to accept the National Reconciliation Charter (a plan approved in a September 2005 referendum and promulgated in March 2006 that included a general amnesty for jailed terrorists and Islamists) and surrender.
Among the most influential GSPC members thinking about this is Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the emir of the south and the Sahel. He has allegedly contacted authorities to negotiate his surrender if he was issued a passport. Even if negotiations are not successful, it remains that Belmokhtar does not answer to the organization's leader Droukdel anymore. According to Abdelkader, Belmokhtar is in a wait and see mode, very much expecting a scission of the GSPC.
Further proof of this rebellion is that numerous anonymous calls were recently placed to authorities, most likely from terrorists, allowing the security services to prevent a couple of bombings in the center area, in particular in Boumerdès and to the east of the capital. Also, according to Abdelkader, even some of the foreign fighters inside the organization, including Tunisians, Malians and Nigerians already defected. Confirmation of this mini-rebellion was brought forth when Echorouk, citing security sources, claimed that Droukdel had ordered his followers to keep watch on all his members and limit their movements. Also, Droukdel has taken its members to strongholds in eastern Algeria and rural places where they were divided in small groups.
Responding to the public outcry and the dissidence among his own troops, Droukdel has been active on the media front: communiqués, video clips and audio recordings. First, in a 23-page statement released at the beginning of June 2007, signed by one of GSPC's ulema (religious authority), Abu Al Hassan Rachid, stated that the 4/11 suicide bombings are "licit and based on examples taking place at the time of Ibn Taymiya. Using suicide bombers is indeed justified, as also the fact of picking sites full of civilians in order to strike the apostates." He added that "civilians who die in terror attacks against apostates will go to heaven" and that to avoid being killed, civilians are advised to avoid going to sites near public buildings. In another communiqué, signed by Droukdel, he gave a contradictory explanation. He said that using suicide bombings was in fact due to a lack of human and material resources: Indeed, suicide attacks require less human resources and little logistics than the ambushes against security services.
AQIM's new modus operandi is alienating a lot of people both in its ranks and among Algerian Islamists. Incidentally, the AQIM's brand has been also a tool to recruit youngsters, motivated by joining the global jihad.
In light of the recent defections, it is possible that a split-off of the Algerian terror group might occur between those who want to stick with Al-Qaida's objectives and those who are focusing solely on Algeria.
Olivier Guitta, an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a foreign affairs and counterterrorism consultant, is the founder of the newsletter The Croissant (www.thecroissant.com).