Two bombs that killed at least 26 people, including 11 United Nations workers, in the Algerian capital on Tuesday were orchestrated by a resurgent Al Qaeda-linked group seeking to overthrow North African governments, Algerian authorities said.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, one of the region’s most proficient militant organizations, claimed responsibility for the nearly simultaneous attacks in Algiers -- one in front of the Constitutional Council and the second at a U.N. compound. The group reportedly posted pictures of the two rifle-wielding suicide bombers on an Islamist website.
The coordinated blasts erupted at a time when international terrorist organizations are going through a readjustment. There has been a general weakening of Al Qaeda in the Middle East, while at the same time there’s a fear that scores of North African militants who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan are returning home armed with tactics and strategies to battle their governments and reach into Europe.
“Al Qaeda is retreating in important spots, namely in Iraq and Saudi Arabia,” said Diaa Rashwan, a Cairo-based terrorism expert. “It is left with only one region, which is the Maghreb [North Africa] in general and Algeria in particular, to make up for its weakness elsewhere and prove its presence. This has been proven by the series of bombings that occurred in the region throughout this year.”
Interior Minister Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni said the explosions began about 9:30 a.m. when two suicide bombers detonated their vehicles.
At least 10 people were killed when a car blew up at the entrance of the new Constitutional Council near the Supreme Court; the blast ripped through a bus carrying students to the University of Algiers campus in the western neighborhood of Ben Aknoun. The Constitutional Council oversees the country’s elections, which are often the target of Islamist attacks.
Minutes later, in a high-security neighborhood of embassies and French colonial architecture, a bomb concealed in a cistern atop a small truck exploded and tore through a U.N. compound. It destroyed the United Nations’ Development Program office and severely damaged offices of the U.N. high commissioner for refugees. The world organization said 11 of its employees, including two from UNHCR, were killed in the blast.
“The situation on the ground is very confusing,” said Marie Okabe, a U.N. spokeswoman. U.N. staffers “are trying to locate people in hospitals. They’re digging through the rubble.”
At least one person had been pulled alive from the rubble, and others were missing. The U.N. had 19 permanent and 21 temporary international staff members and 115 local staffers in Algeria. The agency provides services to 90,000 refugees, mostly in the southern part of the country. In New York, the U.N. staff union reported that 19 of its members had been killed worldwide in 2007.
Algerian authorities said 26 people were killed and 177 wounded in both attacks -- those figures were significantly lower than media reports quoting hospital and police sources, which indicated that as many as 67 people had died. The interior minister added that information obtained through interrogations of militants arrested in earlier raids suggested that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was behind the attacks and was planning others.
Algerian Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem told reporters: “These are crimes that targeted innocent people. Students and schoolchildren were among the victims. Nothing can justify the crime.”
One Algerian journalist, who asked not to be named, said by telephone Tuesday: “The United Nations building was nearly destroyed and is falling apart. The fire brigades are here. There are still people trapped inside. Windows were smashed and there was blood in the streets.” Mostafa Khalafy, a Moroccan-based terrorism expert, told Al Jazeera cable news channel: “The methodology, the timing and the tools say that the organization of Al Qaeda in Maghreb stands behind this operation.”
“These political and security targets show that the organization is still strong and capable of hitting the furthest point inside Algeria, of upgrading its tools and of adapting with the security policies that the Algerian government implements,” he added.
The bombings occurred on the 11th day of the month, marking what has become a symbolic date in terrorist circles. Al Qaeda’s 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S. occurred on Sept. 11, and the 2004 train bombings in Madrid on March 11. On April 11 this year, suicide bombers belonging to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb killed 33 people in the Mediterranean port of Algiers.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was previously known as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, or the French acronym GSPC, which emerged from the remnants of anti-government militants from Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s.
The war, which killed an estimated 150,000 people, began after the government canceled elections the main Islamic party was expected to win. Many GSPC militants, including scores who trained in Afghanistan, accepted amnesty packages. The most committed members refused to surrender and are believed to be coordinating with radical networks across North Africa, including Libya and Tunisia.
“The GSPC is one of the few groups to effectively straddle the divide between local and international Islamist terrorism and to give equal priority to attacking both the ‘near’ and ‘far’ enemies,” according to a report this year by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The report adds that group has sent many fighters to Iraq and has vowed attacks in Europe, especially against French targets. Algeria was a French colony until its independence in 1962.
Tuesday’s bombings “come after a speech by Ayman Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s deputy leader, this year that he had asked attackers to target France, Spain and Algeria,” Al Jazeera reported.
The Algerian group, which wants to establish an Islamic theocracy across North Africa, has ideological ties to Al Qaeda, but its strategic and operational links to Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network are unclear. Rashwan, the Cairo-based terrorism expert, said Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was the only organization in Algeria capable of carrying out such well coordinated attacks.
“This is not the first time the U.N. has been targeted by Al Qaeda,” he said, referring to the bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad in 2003. “Al Qaeda holds the U.N. as a party to the conflict and believes it is a tool in the hands of the U.S. This has always been clear in Bin Laden’s and Ayman Zawahiri’s discourse.”
Terrorist strikes across Algeria, including suicide bombing that injured two French construction workers traveling in a convoy, have intensified. In September, separate attacks killed at least 57 people, including a bombing at a coast guard barracks and another that struck a crowd southeast of Algiers that was awaiting a visit by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
Times staff writers Sebastian Rotella in Madrid and Maggie Farley at the United Nations, Noha El-Hennawy in The Times’ Cairo Bureau and a special correspondent in Algeria contributed to this report.