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Algeria: Ragtag Insurgency Gains a Lifeline From Al Qaeda

by Souad Mekhennet, Michael Moss, Eric Schmitt, Elaine Sciolino and Margot Williams

Tuesday 1 July 2008

(Published in: The New York Times, July 1, 2008)

Transcripts of an Interview with Abdelmalek Droukdal:
- English -Arabic (pdf)

A photograph provided by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and verified by The New York Times shows Abdelmalek Droukdal, fourth from left. His group has become a force in Osama bin Laden’s global jihad.

A photograph provided by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb shows Abdelmalek Droukdal, third from right, an explosives expert and leader of one of the most potent Qaeda affiliates. The photograph’s authenticity was verified by The New York Times.

The group’s most audacious attack came last December when suicide bombers struck the United Nations and court offices in Algiers, killing 41 people and injuring 170 others.
- Zohra Bensembra/Reuters

NACIRIA, Algeria — Hiding in the caves and woodlands surrounding this hill-country town, Algerian insurgents were all but washed up a few years ago.

Their nationalist battle against the Algerian military was faltering. “We didn’t have enough weapons,†recalled a former militant lieutenant, Mourad Khettab, 34. “The people didn’t want to join. And money, we didn’t have enough money.â€

Then the leader of the group, a university mathematics graduate named Abdelmalek Droukdal, sent a secret message to Iraq in the fall of 2004. The recipient was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, and the two men on opposite ends of the Arab world engaged in what one firsthand observer describes as a corporate merger.

Today, as Islamist violence wanes in some parts of the world, the Algerian militants — renamed Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — have grown into one of the most potent Osama bin Laden affiliates, reinvigorated with fresh recruits and a zeal for Western targets.

Their gunfights with Algerian forces have evolved into suicide truck bombings of iconic sites like the United Nations offices in Algiers. They have kidnapped and killed European tourists as their reach expands throughout northern Africa.

Last month, they capped a string of attacks with an operation that evoked the horrors of Iraq: a pair of bombs outside a train station east of Algiers, the second one timed to hit emergency responders. A French engineer and his driver were killed by the first bomb; the second one failed to explode.

The transformation of the group from a nationalist insurgency to a force in the global jihad is a page out of Mr. bin Laden’s playbook: expanding his reach by bringing local militants under the Qaeda brand. The Algerian group offers Al Qaeda hundreds of experienced fighters and a potential connection to militants living in Europe. Over the past 20 months, suspects of North African origin have been arrested in Spain, France, Switzerland and Italy, although their connection to the Algerians is not always clear.

The inside story of the group, pieced together through dozens of interviews with militants and with intelligence, military and diplomatic officials, shows that the Algerians’ decision to join Al Qaeda was driven by both practical forces and the global fault line of Sept. 11, 2001.

Mr. Droukdal cited religious motivations for his group’s merger with Al Qaeda. Some militants also said that Washington’s designation of the Algerians as a terrorist organization after Sept. 11 — despite its categorization by some American government experts as a regional insurgency — had the effect of turning the group against the United States.

“If the U.S. administration sees that its war against the Muslims is legitimate, then what makes us believe that our war on its territories is not legitimate?†Mr. Droukdal said in an audiotape in response to a list of questions from The New York Times, apparently his first contact with a journalist.

“Everyone must know that we will not hesitate in targeting it whenever we can and wherever it is on this planet,†he said.

Interviews with American, European and Arab officials and a former lieutenant in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb indicate that more opportunistic factors were at play in the growth of the group.

A long-running government offensive against the Algerian insurgents had nearly crushed the group, officials said. They needed the Qaeda imprimatur to raise money and to shed their outlaw status in radical Muslim circles as a result of their slaughtering of civilians in the 1990s.

The Iraq war also was drawing many of the group’s best fighters, according to Mr. Khettab and a militant who trained Algerians in Iraq for Mr. Zarqawi. Embracing the global jihad was seen as a way to keep more of these men under the Algerian group’s control and recruit new members.

Then, in March 2004, a covert American military operation led to the capture of one of the group’s top deputies. A few months later, Mr. Droukdal reached out to Mr. Zarqawi to get the man released. Mr. Zarqawi seized the opportunity to convince him that Al Qaeda could revive his operations, a former top leader of the Algerian group says.

Just as the Qaeda leadership has been able to reconstitute itself in Pakistan’s ungoverned tribal areas, Al Qaeda’s North Africa offshoot is now running small training camps for militants from Morocco, Tunisia and as far away as Nigeria, according to the State Department and Mr. Droukdal. The State Department in April categorized the tribal areas and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb as the two top hot spots in its annual report on global terrorism.

The threat is felt most acutely in Europe and in particular in France, which ruled Algeria for 132 years until 1962 and is a major trading partner with the authoritarian government in Algiers.

“We’re under a double threat now,†Bernard Squarcini, chief of France’s domestic and police intelligence service, said in an interview. “A group that had limited its terrorist activities to Algeria is now part of the global jihad movement.â€

Last month, France signed military and nuclear development agreements with Algeria. Washington has also provided training to the Algerian military, and American companies have supplied equipment.

Even so, Western intelligence and diplomatic officials say the Algerian government has balked at making them full partners in investigating the group. Officials spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of security concerns.

In Europe, the authorities are eyeing the Algerian group warily, but are not convinced that the group can strike outside Africa.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said last week that the merger of Al Qaeda with the Algeria organization and others like it brought fresh risks.

“These groups, as best we can tell, have a fair amount of independence. They get inspiration, they get sometimes guidance, probably some training, probably some money from the Al Qaeda leadership,†he said, adding that “it’s not as centralized a movement as it was, say, in 2001. But in some ways, the fact that it has spread in the way that it has, in my view, makes it perhaps more dangerous.â€

Adopting Qaeda Tactics

Last Christmas Eve, five French tourists from Lyon were picnicking in midafternoon near the town of Aleg in Mauritania, some 1,700 miles southwest of Algiers. Suddenly, they were ambushed by three men in a black Mercedes. One of the gunmen turned an AK-47 on the tourists, killing four and wounding the fifth, French investigators said.

“It was total horror,†said François Tollet, 74, a retired chemist who lost his two sons, a brother and a friend in the attack. He survived when the body of one of his sons fell on him. The gunmen fled across Senegal and Gambia before they were captured in an operation directed by French intelligence in Guinea-Bissau; agents determined that the men belonged to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. (Maghreb refers to the western edge of the Arab world.)

The attack reflected what officials and militants say are the group’s tentacles in the northern tier of Africa. Camps in Mali, for example, are being used to begin operations in Algeria and Mauritania, according to French intelligence.

Mr. Droukdal described a growing network of militants only partly controlled by his far-flung deputies — the kind of autonomous jihad cells that counterterrorism officials say are particularly hard to combat. His comments to The Times included an audio file that was verified by a private voice expert who works for federal agencies. The Times also reviewed a set of 12 photographs sent by the group to verify Mr. Droukdal’s identity.

Asked about the slayings in Mauritania, he said, “The brothers implementing the process are connected with us, and we have previously trained some of them, and we offer them adequate support for the implementation of such operations.â€

The epicenter of the group remains in the hills east of Algiers, where the roads are blocked by skittish police officers who finger their rifle triggers when cars approach. “Who told you to get out of the car?†a checkpoint officer yelled at one driver, backing away as the other guards swung their weapons into the faces of the passengers.

Inside police headquarters in nearby Naciria, the commander said he was so busy battling militants that he had no time to hang photographs of three officers killed in recent suicide bombings. “These terrorists don’t know any mercy,†he said. “This is Al Qaeda, what do you think?â€

Even as the group expands its ambitions beyond Algeria, parts of the country remain a bleak battleground between militants and an oppressive government that follows its citizens and limits political opposition.

The Algerian government killed or captured an estimated 1,100 militants last year — nearly double the number in 2006, according to the State Department. But the group has begun using sophisticated recruitment videos to replenish its ranks with a new generation of youth that the State Department says is “more hard-line.â€

The group has also benefited from a national amnesty program. Wanted posters at police stations and checkpoints include numerous men who were pardoned and released only to join the new Qaeda franchise.

American military officials estimate that the group now has 300 to 400 fighters in the mountains east of Algiers, with another 200 supporters throughout the country. Led by Mr. Droukdal, 38, an explosives expert who joined the insurgency 12 years ago, the group has shifted to tactics “successfully employed by insurgents and terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan,†according to the State Department.

In adopting these Qaeda-style tactics, it staged at least eight suicide bombings with vehicles last year, including two sets of attacks in central Algiers on the 11th of April and December, dates that now fill Algerians with dread. It dispatched the country’s first individual suicide bomber, who singled out President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria.

The group has also stepped up its use of remote-controlled roadside bombs, and there are increasingly deadly clashes with militias armed by the government to fight the militants.

“We don’t arrest them anymore,†said Mohammad Mendri, 65, the mayor of a village who leads a militia near the coastal city of Jijel. “We just kill them.â€

Its list of Western targets is growing. In December 2006, militants bombed a bus carrying workers with an affiliate of Halliburton, an American oil services company.

Other attacks killed Russian and Chinese workers. North African men trained in the group’s camps shot at the Israeli Embassy in Mauritania’s capital, Nouakchott. The group is also holding two Austrian tourists whom they kidnapped in Tunisia in February.

Its most audacious attack came last December when suicide bombers struck the United Nations and court offices in Algiers, killing 41 people and injuring 170 others. The attack drew praise from Mr. bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, who compared it to the 2003 bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad by Mr. Zarqawi.

A Merger’s Rocky Start

The on-and-off relationship between Al Qaeda and the Algerian militants began more than a decade ago. In 1994, Mr. bin Laden was looking for a new base to set up operations for his fledgling group. Algeria, with its rugged terrain and proximity to Europe, was an ideal spot.

Already, some 1,500 Algerian Islamists had returned home after helping the C.I.A. force the Soviets from Afghanistan. The men helped form a coalition of militants called the Armed Islamic Group. They took up arms in the insurgency against Algeria’s military-backed government in a conflict that has left more than 100,000 dead.

Mr. bin Laden, in Sudan at the time, asked the militants to let him move to a mountainous area they controlled, according to Mr. Khettab, the former top militant leader. J. Cofer Black, who was stationed in Khartoum for the C.I.A., said he never heard this account, but found it plausible. “We knew he was looking for some place to go,†Mr. Black said.

Mr. Khettab said the militants turned down Mr. bin Laden. “We refused, and said we don’t have anything to do with anything outside,†he said. “We are interested in just Algeria.â€

The West was already deeply concerned about the rise of radical Islam in Algeria. In 1991, an Islamic political party trounced Algeria’s secular government in national polling, and the Algerian military blocked the elections.

Moderate Arab states, along with Europe and Washington, feared the installation of a fundamentalist Islamic republic on the model of Iran or Sudan and backed the government.

The crisis escalated further when violence spread to Europe. In late 1994, Armed Islamic Group gunmen hijacked an Air France jet bound for Paris intending to use it as a missile before they were killed during a stop in Marseille, according to French security officials. The following summer, three Paris bombings killed eight people and injured dozens.

Algeria’s military turned to infiltrators to help defeat the group from within, according to accounts from three high-level defectors from the Algerian Army and security service. Several massacres of villagers, for which the Islamic group was blamed, were believed to have been arranged by the military.

Even Mr. bin Laden and his backers denounced civilian killings as counterproductive to their cause, and the group withered. In 1998 a faction of militants created a new organization, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat.

The new group revived the guerrilla war against the government, with minimal singling out of civilians, according to two United States Air Force officers at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., who analyzed 10 years of its operations through early 2006. Their study concluded that the group “does not appear to be a ‘terrorist’ group as much as an internal insurgency against the government.â€

The Bush administration took a different view of the group. On Sept. 23, 2001, President Bush included it on a list of organizations that “commit, threaten to commit or support terrorism.â€

Shifting Strategies

The terrorist designation rankled Salafist group members, but there was dissent over whether to stay focused on the fight with the Algerian government. Two years later, the group’s leader, Nabil Sahraoui, issued a statement for the first time endorsing “Osama bin Laden’s jihad against the heretic America†and expressing his desire that the group join Al Qaeda. By this time, a United States Air Force general had the Algerian group in his sights.

“Africa had emerged strategically to the United States,†said Gen. Charles F. Wald, former deputy commander of the Pentagon’s European Command, which had responsibility for Africa. “A significant amount of our energy is going to be coming from Africa in the future.â€

The wide open spaces of the Sahara where arms, drugs and cigarette smugglers roam and tribal law reigns were also seen as potential jihadist havens. In March 2003, 32 European tourists were kidnapped there by one of the militant group’s top operatives.

“He was a very dynamic guy,†General Wald said of the kidnapper, Amari Saifi, who is known as El Para. “Could have played in a Hollywood movie. Handsome as hell. They’d take pictures of themselves out there posing.â€

El Para got as much as $10 million in ransom, and General Wald said he decided to give chase. He tracked him for months through the deserts of Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

In early 2004, General Wald was hosting a meeting of African defense ministers in Stuttgart, Germany, when his aides saw El Para crossing into Chad. “Right there in my office they negotiate a mission for the Chadians to go after these guys,†the general said. El Para was captured in Chad in March 2004.

From their base in the mountains east of Algiers, militants were struggling on rations of beans and rice when news of the arrest came in. A strategy meeting was held on how to free El Para, according to a participant.

The idea was to press the French government, which in turn they hoped could press his Chadian captors, the participant said. Mr. Zarqawi was seen as a possible cudgel. In the fall of 2004, Mr. Droukdal, the group’s new leader, sent Mr. Zarqawi the message that was crucial to their merger. He asked if Mr. Zarqawi could kidnap French citizens to trade for El Para.

“Zarqawi said, ‘No problem; we will support you,’ or something like this,†recalled the former group member who said he saw the message. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized by the group to discuss the episode.

Before the plan was set in motion, El Para was handed over to Algeria, where he was recently sentenced to death. Nonetheless, Mr. Droukdal “kept in touch, and Zarqawi invited him to become part of Al Qaeda,†the former member said.

In his comments to The Times, Mr. Droukdal confirmed that Mr. Zarqawi played a “pivotal role†in the merger, along with other intermediaries. Mr. Droukdal explained his wrath toward the United States, saying: “We found ourselves on the blacklist of the U.S. administration, tagged with terrorism. Then we found America building military bases in the south of our country, and conducting military exercises, and plundering our oil and planning to get our gas.†(Navy surveillance planes have flown missions from the Tamanrasset air base in southern Algeria.)

In January 2005, Mr. Zarqawi began including Mr. Droukdal in his public statements praising Qaeda leaders. Officials in Washington and Europe confirmed that American intelligence agencies intercepted the message that Mr. Droukdal sent to Mr. Zarqawi.

According to a senior intelligence officer who spoke on condition of anonymity, the initial contact with Mr. Zarqawi was followed by communications with North African militants who had risen to senior posts in Al Qaeda’s central leadership. They included Abu Laith al-Libi, a Libyan militant killed this year by an American airstrike near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

In September 2005, Mr. Droukdal declared France “our No. 1 enemy, the enemy of our religion and of our community.†A year later, the merger was formally announced by Mr. Zawahri, who said, “Our brothers will be a bone in the throat of the American and French crusaders and their allies.â€

Expansion to Europe

Last December, French officials arrested eight men from Paris suburbs and seized computers, electronic material, night-vision goggles, global positioning equipment, cellphones, weapons-making machinery and 20,000 euros, or about $30,000.

Investigators said they believed that the men, both French-Algerians and Algerian passport holders, were sending logistical equipment to support an attack to Algeria. Whether or not the case leads to convictions — six of the men have been released — investigators say they viewed the arrests as the first concrete link they had found between France and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, known by its initials as AQIM.

The Spanish police said they made a similar discovery in June when they arrested eight Algerian-born men on suspicion of providing financial and logistical support to the Algerian group.

European investigators are examining a group of Tunisians with alleged ties to the North African Qaeda operation who are suspected of running a fund-raising and recruitment cell stretching from Paris to Milan. So far, despite its stated intentions to strike Europe and the rest of the West, investigators say they see little evidence that the North Africa branch of Al Qaeda is exporting fighters and equipment for an attack in Europe.

“Their ambition is to attack in Europe, but I wouldn’t hard-sell it,†said Gilles de Kerchove, the head of counterterrorism for the European Union. “I wouldn’t say AQIM is poised to attack in Europe.â€

Although the Algerian government has been a ready trading partner with the West, it has been a reluctant ally in the West’s effort against the Qaeda group. Algerian officials have declined to share key information on the United Nations bombing and have also refused to release the names of insurgents it freed from prison, according to American diplomatic and intelligence officials.

The F.B.I. recently opened an office in Algiers in an attempt to foster improved information-sharing between Algeria and the United States, as well as France. “We’re trying to make this like an extended family,†said Thomas Fuentes, the F.B.I.’s director of international operations.

The tension between the Algerian government and its people continue. The government has reneged on public promises to spend more of its energy wealth on its unemployed youth who are prime recruits for Al Qaeda, according to American intelligence analysts. The Algerian government, which would not comment for this article, minimizes the threat. “Terrorism has been vanquished, despite the sporadic manifestation we are facing up to in the most energetic manner,†President Bouteflika told Reuters in March.

But there is new evidence that Qaeda commanders see potential in its North African franchise.

Intelligence agents intercepted yet another message between headquarters and the Algeria branch this year. Mr. Zawahri sent Mr. Droukdal a private message, according to a top German intelligence official, noting that controversial Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad were set to be republished. He asked Mr. Droukdal to help in taking revenge.

Souad Mekhennet and Michael Moss reported from Algeria, Morocco and Germany; Eric Schmitt from Washington; Elaine Sciolino from Paris; and Margot Williams from New York. Sophie Cois contributed reporting from Paris, and Basil Katz from Lyon, France.