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Terrorist attacks in Algeria : why now ?

Latest update : 2008-09-03

September marked the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan. After the wave of terrorist attacks that shook several Algerian provinces this summer, is there reason to fear new attacks?


Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has been back on the front stage since the beginning of the summer. At least ten explosions took place in the provinces of Boumerdes, Skikda and Bouira between June and August earlier this year, claiming the lives of nearly 90 people and injuring at least 150, mostly military personnel.


In an interview with The New York Times on July 01, Abdelmalek Droukdal, the head of AQIM, warned about an increase in attacks.


This latest wave of bombings seemed like an effort to demonstrate his credibility to the Americans - who were the first to offer him a platform - and to the West in general.


Now the question is whether the increase is just a coincidence or the result of a strategy. 


Exploiting the Islamic calendar


As Ramadan approached, Algerian authorities stepped up security measures in and around cities, in particular near public buildings, favourite targets of Islamist armed groups. Last year’s Ramadan period proved lethal, with two successive attacks on September 6 and 8 resulting in a total body count of 58 dead and 257 injured. A third attack took place on September 21 in the midst of Ramadan and targeted Europeans and Algerians.


That’s because “the Islamic calendar (Hijri calendar) is of particular importance to al Qaeda activists, “ says Mathieu Guidère, North Africa and Middle East specialist and author of ‘Al Qaeda conquering the Maghreb’ (Editions du Rocher publisher, 2007). “The month before Ramadan, known as Shaban, is recommended for fights and wars after the month of Rajab, when it is forbidden to fight, and before the culmination of Ramadan,” Guidère adds.


The month of Ramadan has long been long favoured by fundamentalist leaders. Before AQIM and al Qaeda, the Armed Islamic Group and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat used to take advantage of this time to step up attacks during the Algerian Civil War. All these organizations considered that the holy month was auspicious to fighters who had died as ‘martyrs’ and that they would be admitted directly to paradise. To justify this idea, fundamentalists rely on the words of the Prophet Muhammed as reported by two famous Islamic scholars, Bukhari and Muslim: “when Ramadan comes, the gates of Paradise are opened and the gates of Hell are closed, and the devils are put in chains.”


In a French-language interview with France 24’s Sylvain Attal on Aug. 20, Khadija Mohsen Finan, head of the North African Programme at the French Institute for International Relations disagreed. “Testimonies from former activists tell us that the calendar doesn’t play that essential a role. They act when they have the chance,” she said, criticizing the idea that the calendar plays a greater role.


An eye for an eye or how to hold ground


The attacks carried out by AQIM are part of a retaliation campaign openly fought between al Qaeda and the Algerian government.


“The terrorist groups are essentially avenging the death of 12 of their members killed by the army and the security forces in Beni Douala (province of Tizi Ouzou),” on Aug. 8, the Algerian interior minister Yazid Zerhouni said in an interview with the El Khabar daily the day after the attack of a police station in Zemmouri El Bahri (Boumerdes). The succession of terrorist attacks and combing operations by government forces is very representative of this policy where a blow answers to a blow.


Declarations by AQIM spokesperson Salah Abou Mohamed also support the idea of reprisals. In a statement broadcast by Al-Jazira, AQIM claimed responsibility for the attacks of August 17 and 19 as well as for the double attack of August 20, justifying a “revenge expedition” launched after “a wicked operation by the secret services.”


“It is clear that this is a strategy of confrontation, a demonstration of force and an attempt by both parties to hold the ground,” says Anne Giudicelli, from the TERRORISC consulting firm.


However, says Anis Rahmani, editor-in-chief of the Algerian daily Ennahar Eldjadid and a security expert, “AQIM seeks revenge every time one of its leaders is killed. Close to 25 al Qaeda leaders have died so far since January. “It is doubtful that AQIM will be able to avenge them all” because their infrastructure has been damaged by the army operations, he adds.


Does this mean that AQIM is running out of steam? The Algerian army’s last operation on Aug. 24 was followed a few days later by skirmishes between fundamentalists and security forces in Batna (south-east of Algiers) and two bomb blasts against military targets in Ain Defla (west of Algiers). A new revenge expedition?

Date created : 2008-09-02