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Attack in Algeria Reopens Country’s War Wounds, Stirs Terror Fears

December 12, 2007 at 6:15 PM EDT
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Two truck bombs exploded in Algiers, Algeria, Tuesday, causing heavy damage to U.N. offices and killing more than 31. A branch of terror group al-Qaida claimed responsibility. Experts assess what the attacks mean for Algeria, Northern Africa and the West.
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GWEN IFILL: Next, another deadly attack, this time in the North African nation of Algeria. Margaret Warner has the story.

MARGARET WARNER: Emergency crews spent the night digging through the rubble of the gutted U.N. buildings in Algiers. As rescuers searched for survivors and bodies, family members of the missing waited at the scene for word of their loved ones.

Yesterday’s twin car bombings by an al-Qaida-affiliated group hit the Algerian supreme court building and, minutes later, the U.N. buildings in an upscale neighborhood of the Algerian capital.

Today, the unofficial death toll estimates soared well above the Interior Ministry’s official tally of 31, with scores — perhaps hundreds — more reported wounded.

One thing remained certain: At least nine of those killed were U.N. staff, making it the worst single attack on a U.N. installation since the 2003 bombing at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad. Twenty-two died in that blast.

Speaking from a climate conference in Bali, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was among the many world leaders condemning the bombing.

BAN KI-MOON, United Nations Secretary-General: I’d like to condemn, in the strongest terms, this is just unacceptable, in whatever the circumstances. It cannot be justified in any circumstances.

MARGARET WARNER: A group called al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for the attack in a Web site posting. It described the U.N. offices as “the headquarters of the infidels’ den” and declared its aim is to overthrow the Algerian government.

The terrorist group is an offshoot of the Islamic guerrilla movement that waged a bloody, decade-long civil war in the 1990s that left at least 150,000 people dead.

The organization renamed itself al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb last January. Since then, it has claimed responsibility for a number of bombings that have killed more than 80 people.

Al-Qaida responsibility

Mary-Jane Deeb
Library of Congress
The U.N., actually, is symbolic. It means that al-Qaida is joining with the Algerians to fight not an internal war in Algeria, but a much broader war, a war of the Islamic nation, if you want, Islamic war again the West.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on these attacks and what they may mean for Algeria, North Africa, and the West, we turn to Daniel Byman, director of Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies. His new book is "The Five-Front War: The Better Way to Fight Global Jihad."

And Mary-Jane Deeb, who served as a United Nations monitor during the Algerian elections of 1997.  She is chief of the African and Middle East Division at the Library of Congress, but the views she expresses here are her own.

And welcome to you both.

Let's start by just talking a little bit more about this group, al-Qaida and the Islamic Maghreb, Professor Byman. Tell us more about this group. And do you have any doubt that they are, in fact, behind this?

DANIEL BYMAN, Director, Center for Peace and Security Studies: This is a group that grew out of the Algerian civil war. That produced a number of very bloody, nasty groups that over time became linked with a more Salafist brand of combatant that, increasingly over time, became linked with bin Laden.

And there's no doubt that this group is behind the attack. They've claimed credit for it. And it's the type of target, the type of method that al-Qaida surrogates tend to favor.

MARGARET WARNER: So what explains the U.N. as a target here?

MARY-JANE DEEB, African and Middle East Division, Library of Congress: The U.N., actually, is symbolic. It means that al-Qaida is joining with the Algerians to fight not an internal war in Algeria, but a much broader war, a war of the Islamic nation, if you want, Islamic war again the West.

And so, by attacking the United Nations, it simply says this is a war against Western presence in the Muslim world. And, Algeria, you are part of this global war that we are fighting in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

Making links with al-Qaida

Daniel Byman
Georgetown University
Initially, the links were primarily financial and ideological, al-Qaida ideas that were expanding the horizons of a very local group. Over time, though, we've seen personnel go both ways.

MARGARET WARNER: So the fact that this local group, Dan Byman, adopted the al-Qaida name and adopted this affiliation, do you agree that that really has a significance, that it has caused the group to expand its agenda and its aims?

DANIEL BYMAN: Expand and change. The group initially was very focused on Algeria, on overthrowing the Algerian government, and its targets were...

MARGARET WARNER: And installing a theocratic government.

DANIEL BYMAN: Absolutely, a theocratic government that followed a very, very narrow version of jihadist ideology. But this is a much more international agenda. It's much more focus on the world, not only Algeria itself, but well beyond it.

MARGARET WARNER: And what do these links consist of with al-Qaida? I mean, are they operational? Are they logistical? Is it financial?

DANIEL BYMAN: Initially, the links were primarily financial and ideological, al-Qaida ideas that were expanding the horizons of a very local group. Over time, though, we've seen personnel go both ways. In particular, we've seen people go from Algeria to Iraq and learn ideas there, be trained there.

But so far, the operational links are elusive. It doesn't look like bin Laden himself is calling the shots, but there does seem to be some broad strategic agreement on the type of targets.

MARGARET WARNER: Mary-Jane, fit this into the broader context of North Africa for us, if you could. The director of homeland security, that is the homeland security adviser to the White House, Frances Townsend, went to Algeria, Morocco, and Libya earlier this year to express and talk about U.S. concerns about al-Qaida moving into that region.

And she was quoted as saying that the U.S. was worried that al-Qaida could use this area really as a base, not only to attack Europe, but perhaps to the United States. Is that a valid concern, in your view?

MARY-JANE DEEB: Well, certainly, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia are on the front line. They are on the shores of the Mediterranean. It is quite possible for operatives in North Africa to move easily to Europe, and then from Europe to the United States, you know, is another step.

But I would say that definitely those countries are critical, because those have migration to Europe. There's a very great number of people moving, legally and illegally, from North Africa into Europe. And I think that homeland security is very worried about this movement of people.

Algeria "particularly vulnerable"

Mary-Jane Deeb
Library of Congress
It is a military junta. And that left a lot of Algerians very disappointed, dissatisfied with the type of regime that they have in power. On the other hand, they also are faced -- that is, the Algerians are also faced with the Islamists.

MARGARET WARNER: And is Algeria particularly vulnerable to either al-Qaida influence or just generally the sort of message and mission of radical groups among these North African countries?

DANIEL BYMAN: Algeria is the country that historically has had the most problems. The civil war in the 1990s killed well over 100,000 people. And although the situation is far more stable than it was 15 years ago, it's still less stable than Algeria's neighbors.

MARGARET WARNER: And why?

DANIEL BYMAN: The government there has less legitimacy in the eyes of many people, doesn't have the kind of traditional authority that Morocco's government has, and simply the history of violence and the incredible brutality on both sides has embittered many Algerians.

MARY-JANE DEEB: And I would concur. And I would add that there are certain factors today that make Algeria even more vulnerable, and that is the election, or the re-election, rather, of the president, Bouteflika. That was really manipulated by the junta in power. And...

MARGARET WARNER: This is a military junta.

MARY-JANE DEEB: It is a military junta. And that left a lot of Algerians very disappointed, dissatisfied with the type of regime that they have in power. On the other hand, they also are faced -- that is, the Algerians are also faced with the Islamists.

So they have little choice in terms of who to look up to or to look for help to. Al-Qaida knows that, that Algeria is a very vulnerable country, a country that is searching for leadership, if you want. And, therefore, it is proposing, in a way, an alternative to domestic Islamists and to the government forces there.

MARGARET WARNER: Is there any way of knowing how much support this Islamism as a political movement has within the population as a whole?

MARY-JANE DEEB: You know, it's difficult to say. People have estimated it somewhere between 15 percent and 30 percent, but then exactly what does that mean?

Those who carry out violence or violent acts are usually a very small minority of people. But then there are those who support them, but who would not really kill anyone.

Then there are those who will give money for the broader Islamic cause, but really don't want to know what people are doing. And then there are those who are neutral, and then there are those who are critical.

So there's a vast difference in opinion between people in Algeria. There's a big continuum, and there's also a revulsion with the violence that has taken place.

So, in fact, these actions today may very well boomerang and create a stronger reaction in Algeria against Islamists than al-Qaida anticipates.

Handling terrorism

Daniel Byman
Georgetown University
Algeria has a lot to offer al-Qaida. It has a large reservoir of skilled fighters, people trained in violence, and extensive networks in Europe. And these are attractive from an al-Qaida point of view.

MARGARET WARNER: So how well -- how is the government there now trying to handle this threat? Because there have been several bombings, including what looked like an assassination attempt on the president earlier this year. And how well equipped are they to fight it?

DANIEL BYMAN: The government is quite well equipped to fight the general threat of terrorism. During the 1990s, it developed an extensive intelligence operation, a very effective security services, although quite brutal, but also did things like an amnesty program and tried to co-opt rival leaders, so it was really effective across the board.

The most recent attacks have not elicited a massive crackdown. And that may be a strategic decision by the government, that they don't want to drive people who are undecided or are not sympathetic to the radicals into their arms.

So, in a way, the government -- by its standards, at least -- has been showing some degree of restraint. And I think their hope is that, because the targets are U.N. targets, because they feel that the bounce will not elicit sympathy, that simply by going for more low-profile efforts, arrests of radicals and so on, they can cut this off before it starts to snowball.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Algeria has been enjoying a bit of an economic -- I don't know if boom is too strong a word -- but because it's a major natural gas exporter, rising energy prices have helped this economy. Do attacks like these undermine that in any way?

MARY-JANE DEEB: Not really. There is so much demand for oil and gas that those attacks will really not affect Algeria in this way. What is important is the increase in the wealth generated by gas and oil is not reflected in developments in the country.

In other words, there is not enough housing. Health care is deplorable. The education system is not keeping up. And, therefore, there is resentment against the government.

MARGARET WARNER: So bottom line here is, Professor Byman, do you expect Algeria to continue to be a sort of al-Qaida target, that is, for al-Qaida to see Algeria as a good potential target for operations?

DANIEL BYMAN: Absolutely. There is a strong sense of ideological sympathy between what the Algerians now believe and what al-Qaida believes. But also there are a lot of personal connections.

And Algeria has a lot to offer al-Qaida. It has a large reservoir of skilled fighters, people trained in violence, and extensive networks in Europe. And these are attractive from an al-Qaida point of view.

MARGARET WARNER: Daniel Byman and Mary-Jane Deeb, thank you both.

DANIEL BYMAN: Thank you.