Just five months ago, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika boasted proudly that his country had “definitively beaten” terrorism. On Wednesday, though, his country suffered a painful return to the past. Three coordinated bombs exploded in deadly symmetry in and around Algiers around 10.45 a.m. local time, leaving at least 24 dead and more than 200 injured. One attack, a possible assassination attempt on Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem, wrecked his government offices; another hit a police station on the airport road outside the capital. Belkhadem, who was not injured, called the attack “a cowardly, criminal terrorist act.”
Shortly afterward, the Al-Jazeera TV network reported that Al Qaeda in Islamic North Africa had claimed responsibility for the blast, saying it was carried out by three suicide truck bombers. It was hardly the first assault on the Algerian capital. But the city has been largely free of such attacks since the North African nation began trying to rebuild itself after a civil war pitting government forces against Islamist militants killed an estimated 200,000, after it started in 1991. The bombings came just as the gas-rich country’s economy has soared on the strength of high oil prices, and construction projects have bolstered much-needed infrastructure.
Wednesday’s attacks were not isolated incidents. Just 24 hours earlier, three belted suicide bombers killed themselves in the Moroccan city of Casablanca as police pursued them. One would-be bomber was killed by police without detonating his belt; one police officer died in one of the blasts. The four were reportedly sought in connection with the 2003 Casablanca bombings, which left 45 dead, and a deadly incident last month in a Casablanca Internet café. In that incident, too, one man blew himself up to avoid capture by police.
Until January, Al Qaeda in Islamic North Africa (also known as Al Qaeda in the Maghreb) was known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. The name change, according to a statement posted online by the group at the time, was approved by Osama Bin Laden and signaled the next step in a four-year-old rapprochement between the two Islamist groups. Last month, French counterterrorism investigator Jean-Louis Bruguière asked, “What does the label Al Qaeda in the Maghreb mean? It’s a stated willingness to regionalize the organization.”
Indeed, on Tuesday, one Akil Chraïbi, a Moroccan resident of France, was sentenced to 12 years in prison by an Algerian court for his links to the group. Algerian authorities accused Chraïbi of helping to organize a channel for ferrying weapons and explosives from Morocco to Algeria. Analysts see evidence of such plans, together with arrests in recent months of mixed-nationality teams of terror suspects in the region, as signs of a trend in which militant groups are joining forces from Morocco east to Libya. Moroccan Minister of Information Nabil Benabdellah today called on the countries of the Arab Maghreb Union (Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya) to bolster cooperation to fight terrorism in the region. The Union’s capacity to cooperate has traditionally been hampered by the political dispute between Morocco and Algeria over the fate of Western Sahara.
Algerian authorities have stepped up action against Islamist forces in recent weeks. Before today’s attacks, an estimated 33 people had been killed this month alone in cat-and-mouse confrontations between law enforcement and Islamist factions. The latest bombings will also raise questions about Algiers’ reconciliation strategy, in which the government introduced amnesties and weapons’ drop-off programs last year. Belkhadem, a conservative who has long espoused dialogue with the Islamists, criticized the bombers for rejecting the amnesty, saying that Algerians had “stretched out a hand to them, and they respond with a terrorist act."
The bombings have also sent disturbing ripples across the ocean to Europe. Counterterrorism officials in France, Algeria’s former colonial power, fear that the North African Al Qaeda group will expand its operations to the neighboring continent. Bruguière called its recent moves “our major preoccupation” and said it was “clear that it constitutes a direct threat for France.” Both Al Qaeda in Islamic North Africa leader Abdelmalek Droukdal and Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri have singled out France in their recent threats. And as France’s election campaign ramps up, French security services have stepped up their operations too. Interior Minister Francois Baroin tonight announced increased security for campaign meetings ahead of the presidential election rounds on April 22 and May 6. “We are in a state of red security alert. We cannot forget what has happened in other European countries during the election period, whether it be Spain or Britain,” said Baroin, referring to attacks on Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005. “Look what happened in Morocco yesterday, in Algeria today, which only confirms the need for vigilance, which we should have at all times, in all places, in all circumstances, throughout the country.”
Legislative elections scheduled this year in both Algeria and Morocco may also provide a fresh trigger, as the Qaeda group steps up its activity in the region. The Algerian vote is scheduled for May 17; the Moroccan poll is due to take place on Sept. 7. As bad as this week’s violence has been, some fear it may just have been a test run for fiercer attacks in the weeks and months ahead.