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Algeria's Islamists Go Regional

Algeria's Islamists have stepped up attacks against government installations with a suicide car bombing at a police station east of Algiers this week. Another police station was attacked earlier this month in the town of Naciria. But most analysts point to a series of spectacular bombings in April and December as the beginning of the country's Islamist resurgence.

In December, twin suicide bombings destroyed U.N. offices and a government building in the Algerian capital, killing nearly 40 people. Al-Qaida's North African wing claimed responsibility for both attacks. Many analysts say both bombings were an extension of a new Islamist strategy that began with a series of attacks that killed more than 30 people near Algiers in April.

Many of Algeria's extremists, such as the Armed Islamic Group, were routed after a long civil war that killed an estimated 100-thousand people. The conflict began after the government scrapped legislative elections in 1992 when an Islamic party appeared poised to win an absolute majority in parliament.

The brutality of extremist violence during the civil war cost Islamists a great deal of the public support they had before the elections were canceled. Their ranks splintered in the 1990s as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat broke away from the Armed Islamic Group, while Islamists lost more members after a 2005 general pardon. Last year, the Salafist Group merged with al-Qaida, renaming itself al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa.

Joining Forces With Al-Qaida

Middle East expert Fawaz Gerges of New York's Sarah Lawrence College says Algeria's Islamists found themselves in a struggle for survival. "What has happened in the last year-and-a-half is that Algerian jihadis were trying very hard to survive the onslaught by the Algerian government. The Algerian jihadis were defeated on the battlefield by the Algerian government," says Gerges. "And the conventional wisdom among jihadis was that the only way to survive was to join al-Qaida and change their war from against the 'near enemy,' the Algerian government, to targeting the 'far enemy,' Western targets and symbols."

Gerges argues that an alliance with al-Qaida gave the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat the benefit of the terror network's brand name, as well as access to its resources and recruits. "Their rank and file shrank to about 200 [or] 300 militants. And the reason why they made the decision to join with al-Qaida was really based on the calculation that, by attacking Western targets and symbols, they might be able to get not only public sympathy, but also even more recruits. Their numbers now have increased from about 200 to about one-thousand," says Gerges.

Limits Reached?

Some experts note that belonging to al-Qaida requires the North African wing to carry out sophisticated suicide attacks across the region. And while some analysts worry that an Islamist resurgence in Algeria could spill across Europe's southern border, many argue that Islamist attacks in countries such as Morocco, Tunisia and Mauritania have been less successful and, in some cases, have failed.

William Zartman of The Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies says Algeria's Islamist activity is limited. "We have seen a number of incidents from time to time and the resurgence of anything that we have seen is in Algeria, which is not typical of North Africa. Morocco has been relatively under control," says Zartman. "That doesn't mean that something is not going to happen. But we haven't had incident there. And the organization there of the jihadis is different."

What makes Algeria different, according to some analysts, is that many Algerian militants who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan have recently returned home. Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington says Moroccans and other North African Islamists tend to operate outside of their home countries in places like Europe.

"What we are seeing once again is what happened earlier on with the Mujahedin in Afghanistan. That is that you are having many people from North Africa going to Iraq to fight against the Americans there. And these people, the ones that don't blow themselves up in suicide attacks, get some training," says Ottaway. "They also establish political contacts. And they come back [to their home countries] and they then become part of these local radical groups. And we are beginning to see the beginning of that process."

Many Arab governments are concerned about the return of the so-called "Afghan Arabs" to their home countries. There is reason to worry, says Ottaway. "There was no really concerted effort to start addressing the grievances that created the background from which these movements arise. I am not suggesting that you are going to make terrorism disappear overnight by dealing with socio-economic issues in the country. But there is still this unsettled socio-economic situation in the country that does provide a good recruiting ground for new radicals," says Ottaway.

Trouble Ahead?

Most experts agree that persistent socio-economic problems allow Islamists to regroup time and again. Some argue that revived Islamist cells are weak and more of a security nuisance than a national threat. But The Johns Hopkins University's William Zartman says that while the threat of Algeria's Islamists is limited for now, it could have long-term consequences.

"They destabilize. They trouble the governments. And they're certainly, certainly, not likely to overthrow the governments and come to power. They are a threat to the government because they make the government take harsh repressive actions and they move toward this state of security services. They aren't there yet, even in Algeria," says Zartman. "But it just increases the need and therefore the importance of things like military security [services] and others."

In the end, some analysts argue, only Muslim public opinion can reject and neutralize al-Qaida's North African jihadis.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.