assessments

Algeria: The GSPC Fingerprints on the Oct. 30 Bombings

4 MINS READOct 31, 2006 | 05:35 GMT
Summary
Near-simultaneous truck bomb attacks against two Algerian police stations took place Oct. 30. This appears to be the work of Algeria's main jihadist organization, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which is likely trying to reverse Islamist militants' declining fortunes in the country. The GSPC is unlikely to be able to rejuvenate the Islamist insurgency in Algeria, but the group could participate in attacks on both sides of the Mediterranean in the future.
Two truck bombs exploded nearly simultaneously at police stations in Reghaia and Dergana, Algeria, on Oct. 30. Though some features of the attacks suggest an al Qaeda-style operation, the target set and tactical breakdown indicate that Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) could be behind the bombings. Eyewitness accounts indicate that the two explosions occurred close to midnight local time. The blast in Reghaia was first, and the attack in Dergana followed within 10 minutes. The accounts also paint the attacks as well-planned and well-executed. The same tactic was used in both bombings; one team attacked the front of the police station with machine-gun fire and grenades while the second team armed the truck bomb and escaped to a safe distance before remote-detonating the bomb. For such well-executed attacks, the damage was marginal. Three civilians were killed and the police stations suffered moderate structural damage — the sides of the buildings where the bombs were detonated were blown out and fires burned several offices — but the buildings remained standing.
Though the bombings do bear some characteristics of an al Qaeda operation, the tactical breakdown of the attacks does not match with typical al Qaeda strikes. Whereas al Qaeda attacks often involve suicide bombers delivering their payloads straight into their targets, the attackers in Algeria detonated their bombs from a distance, sacrificing damage for the ability to escape. The target set and time selected for the attack also is inconsistent with standard al Qaeda tactics. The attack occurred close to midnight when the streets were relatively empty. This goes against al Qaeda's usual tactic of maximizing the number of available civilian casualties. Also, neither blast was near any politically significant target such as a government building or foreign hotel. Algerian militants influenced by al Qaeda tactics are the more likely perpetrators. A large number of Algerian militants are believed to have traveled to Iraq to participate in the insurgency against the coalition and Iraqi government. In September 2005, the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimated that 600 Algerians were fighting as foreign jihadists in Iraq. At the time, this was believed to be 20 percent of the total strength of the foreign insurgents in Iraq — the largest of any single group. The targets suggest that GSPC is behind the bombing. GSPC previously targeted police stations and security convoys as part of its effort to establish an Islamic state in Algeria. These latest attacks could have been carried out by a new generation of GSPC fighters, battle-hardened and trained in insurgent tactics in Iraq and aiming to re-establish operations in Algeria. Although the Algerian government's successful campaign against the GSPC has diminished the militants' capabilities since the early 1990s, there has been an increase in militant activity in North Africa in recent months. Militant cells planning attacks have been broken up in Morocco, with dozens of militants arrested, and North African militants have been arrested in Europe while planning attacks against targets there. In an effort to sustain its operations in Algeria, the GSPC is launching attacks to try to keep the government from reaching an accommodation with the country's main Islamist movement, Front Islamique du Salut (FIS). A string of attacks would discourage Algiers from pressing ahead with its amnesty program. However, the GSPC is unlikely to be able to derail the peace process between the government and the FIS. The day before the bombings, Rabah Kebir, a top FIS leader, ruled out theocracy as a political goal for his group. Kebir, who returned from 14 years in exile in September, said, "We want to build a modern state, not a religious state ... a democratic state which respects press freedom and human rights. We don't want to go back to the 1990s because we don't want to set up a theocratic state but rather a civilian state." Given that the bulk of Islamists in the country have opted for the path of moderation, it is unlikely that the GSPC will be able to revive the Islamist insurgency. This will encourage the GSPC to look increasingly to the transnational arena rather than the domestic front to sustain itself.

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