International Experts: Al-Qaida Facing Crisis in North Africa

International experts on al-Qaida say the terrorist movement is facing a crisis in North Africa, where it once hoped to build a regional network. They say only about 500 Islamist fighters remain in al-Qaida's North African base of Algeria, down from more than 10,000  in the country in the mid-1990s.
French historian Jean-Pierre Filiu says since the 1990s al-Qaida has been trying to use Algeria as a base to set up a North African network. But he says al-Qaida  failed to achieve its goal because Algerian Islamists were more focused on fighting Algeria's military rulers, who canceled 1992 elections that an Islamist party was poised to win.

Filiu, a professor at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, says the insurgents numbered more 10,000 in the mid-1990s. Most of them were defeated or surrendered to the government during the war.

Some Algerian Islamists however formed a splinter group that swore allegiance to al-Qaida in 2007 and began suicide bombings against foreigners and locals. Now, Filiu says only about 500 fighters remain in action, calling themselves al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb - a reference to North Africa.

He says they tried to recruit followers to fight the U.S.-led war in Iraq. But the French professor told a forum in Washington Wednesday al-Qaida's recent setbacks in Iraq robbed the Algerian militants of a recruiting tool.

 "What the Iraqi invasion gave them, and the integration into al-Qaida gave them, was a new impetus, a new dynamic - obviously, the dynamic now is broken," he said.

Filiu says al-Qaida was able to carry out only one major suicide attack in Algeria in 2008 - a car bombing that killed 43 people at a police academy in the country's north. But he says it failed to stage more big attacks because it has alienated Algerians.

"In the Islamic Maghreb like everywhere, al-Qaida is at war with Muslims - we should never get tired of repeating it - most of al-Qaida's victims are Muslims, and the people who stand on the front lines against al-Qaida are Muslims," said Filiu.

Another speaker at the forum was University of Virginia professor William Quandt. He says al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb remains essentially an Algerian group driven by domestic interests.

"I am not sure what the al-Qaida brand does for them - maybe they get a little bit of money, maybe they get a little bit of training somewhere for some of their people. But by and large, I see this as just one further faction of what originally was a fairly broad Islamist opposition front, and this is the tail-end of it that remains, with a new name," he said.

Quandt, a former member of the U.S. National Security Council, says Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has marginalized Islamist militants through a combination of repression and amnesty.

Mr. Bouteflika vowed to keep seeking national reconciliation after being elected this month to a third term as president, a post he has held since 1999. Quandt says Mr. Bouteflika's refusal to allow former Islamist rebels to run for office could lead to growing frustration with the government.

"I do worry about what happens when people feel the system is very closed to them. Some small numbers of those may turn out to be the next wave of recruits for whatever the new organization will call itself," he said.

 Quandt says Algeria's dependence on the revenue of its oil exports means a prolonged economic downturn could leave the government vulnerable to unrest.

Michael Lipin

Michael covers international news for VOA on the web, radio and TV, specializing in the Middle East and East Asia Pacific. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Lipin
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