The new role of Algerians in alleged terrorist plots against the United States is attributable largely to a combination of three factors--skills, anger and lack of association in the past with anti-American extremism--according to senior U.S. officials and experts on Algeria.
At least three suspects apparently have ties with Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group (GIA), but they may also be acting independently, under directives from others outside the GIA or international terrorist Osama bin Laden. The GIA, despite a bloody ongoing campaign against Algeria’s government that has cost 100,000 lives over the past eight years, does not have a new agenda against the United States, U.S. officials now believe.
The most important factor is capability--and the connection to Bin Laden produced during training. More than 2,000 Algerians trained in camps funded by Bin Laden and other Arab extremist groups in Afghanistan, both during the 1979-89 Soviet occupation and in the 1990s as the militant Islamic movement expanded its goals and its list of targets.
Many of the early leaders in the GIA, which is the French acronym for the Armed Islamic Group, came out of the Afghan camps. Although most of those early leaders were killed by the Algerian military from 1994 to 1996, they had trained others or dispatched new members to train in Afghanistan. So the link to Bin Laden remained strong.
Bin Laden is also believed to have provided ongoing funding for GIA operatives after they returned to Algeria, U.S. officials say.
But experts on Algeria also warn against blaming Bin Laden.
“One has to be careful not to overplay the Bin Laden role. It’s quite possible that they figured it all out on their own,” said Mona Yacoubian, an expert on Algeria and a former State Department analyst.
“They may be part of what is now a near-global network of misfits--some of whom have had ties with Bin Laden at some point--who are out to make their own statements. They could be inspired by Bin Laden but not necessarily carrying out something ordered by him. And being who we are, the United States is an obvious choice and the millennium an obvious time.”
The second factor is that Algeria is one of the few places with an ongoing hot conflict and active “available” guerrillas in a region that is otherwise moving toward accommodation with the outside world, both in the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict and by renouncing terrorism. This year, under pressure from the United States and Europe, even Libya, once a major sponsor and refuge for terrorists, turned over two terror suspects linked with the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi also has formally condemned terrorism, although U.S. officials say that he would have to do more substantively before Washington lifts sanctions against his nation.
In contrast, the ongoing political turbulence and economic crisis in Algeria continues to produce young men who are unable to get jobs, are angry at the system and are ripe for recruitment by dissident groups and religious ideologues.
The third factor is that Algerians have not been as suspect as other Arabs linked to anti-American acts. In part because of language, Arabs from countries where English is the second language, such as Egypt, Iraq and Jordan, have been more closely associated in the past with anti-American terrorism both at home and abroad. It’s also easier for English-speaking Arabs to blend in in the United States. Algeria is a former French colony, one of the reasons Algerians have tended to prefer to move to Canada, where French is one of the two major languages.
U.S. officials and experts on Algeria doubt that the GIA has made a policy shift that now targets Americans. GIA members have targeted France, which was the colonial power in Algeria for decades. But Americans have been immune from GIA attack since a 1992 military coup aborted a democratic transition on the eve of elections that an Islamist party appeared about to sweep.
“We’re not aware of any new GIA agenda or any new anti-American feeling among Islamists,” said a well-placed U.S. official.
After years of holding Algeria at a distance, the United States warmed up to its new president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, last summer when Algiers hosted an Organization of African Unity summit. At the same time, however, Washington has made strong statements calling for a dialogue to reconcile the government and the opposition. After the assassination of an Islamist leader last month, Washington said that extremism of any kind should be condemned.
“We haven’t seen any new manifestoes or calls for ‘death to America’ that indicate someone thinks we’re now on the side of the government and therefore should be a target,” the U.S. official said.
“We’ve never suffered a single casualty--injury or death--in eight years of unrest in Algeria,” the official said. “We’re not targets in Algeria. Nor has there been rhetoric against the United States. It’s hard to believe they’d go after us in the United States.”
The GIA, which emerged in the mid-1990s after the moderate Islamic Salvation Front political party was pushed aside by the military, is a deeply splintered movement. Some factions are based in a region of Algiers; others are personality driven. But all share a primary goal of ousting the secular government and replacing it with an Islamic state.
In recent years, Algerians who have fought with GIA factions have shown up to fight with Muslim brethren in Bosnia, Chechnya and other hot spots.