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Suicide bombs shatter Algerian calm

A policeman and a bomb disposal expert at the site of a bomb attack in Bouira, 20 August 2008

By Aidan Lewis
BBC News website

Two devastating suicide bomb attacks in as many days have raised fresh doubts this week about Algeria's ability to deal with a re-branded Islamist insurgency.

The attacks are the latest in a series of car bombings that have halted a slow return towards normality in the North African country.

They expose the failure of a two-pronged policy combining military crackdowns with offers of amnesty to rebel militants, observers say.

The attacks shattered the relative calm that held in Algeria during the first six months of this year.

On Tuesday, a car packed with explosives slammed into a police college in Issers, ripping through the front of the building where recruits were waiting for an exam and killing almost 50.

The government is not openly dictatorial, but it is incompetent and unresponsive
George Joffe
Cambridge University

Less than a day later, two more deadly car bombs detonated near a military barracks and a hotel in the town of Bouira.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying they were planned in revenge for an army ambush in which a group of militants had been killed.

Military campaign

Both attacks occurred in the area just east and south of the capital, Algiers, where recent violence has been most intense.

That area skirts Kabylia, a Berber-speaking region where Algerian security forces have long struggled to extinguish rebel groups.

"There has been a constant military campaign that clearly is very difficult to achieve, largely because the region is mountainous and the local population is either indifferent or sympathetic to the extremists," said George Joffe, a North Africa specialist at Cambridge University's Centre of International Studies.

At the same time, he said many militants have rejected a recent government amnesty that was launched as part of a peace and reconciliation plan passed by a referendum in 2005.

"The Algerian authorities are facing a major problem in terms of conceiving a way of dealing with this," he said.

File photo of Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Tokyo, 7 July 2008
Abdelaziz Bouteflika has yet to say if he will stand for a third term

On a deeper level, the government's failure to carry out political and economic reform is seen to be behind Algeria's continuing instability.

Despite an oil and gas windfall and a major economic development programme, many Algerians remain poor and alienated from their government, Mr Joffe said.

"The government is not openly dictatorial, but it is incompetent and unresponsive," he added.

Under the leadership of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Algeria has been trying to rebuild after a brutal civil conflict in which up to 200,000 people are estimated to have died.

That conflict began in 1992 when the army cancelled the second round of the country's first multi-party national elections, which a radical Islamist party was poised to win.

The Islamist insurgency that followed was gradually whittled down by a combination of military force and amnesties for rebels.

'Poisoning lives'

But in September 2006 the Salafist Group for Call and Combat - the last insurgent group of any strength - confirmed an alliance with al-Qaeda, and the nature of attacks started to change.

The group was renamed as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the North African branch of Osama bin Laden's network.

It has claimed large-scale suicide bombings, including two in the centre of Algiers last year that targeted government offices and UN buildings, as well as attacks against employees of foreign companies.

The extent of any links with al-Qaeda's broader structure has not been clear, but the tactics employed in recent attacks have been traced to those employed in other countries, including Iraq.

ATTACKS IN ALGERIA 2007-2008
20 August 2008: Twin bombings kill 12 and injure 42 in Bouira
19 August 2008: 48 killed by suicide bombing outside police college in Issers
10 August 2008: Eight killed by suicide bombing outside police station in Zemmouri
8 June 2008: French engineer and driver killed east of Algiers
5 June 2008: Roadside bomb kills six soldiers east of Algiers
January 2008: Suicide bombing kills four policemen in Naciria
December 2007: Twin car bombs kill at least 37 including 10 UN staff in Algiers
8 September 2007: 32 die in bombing in Dellys
6 September 2007: 22 die in bombing in Batna
July 2007: Suicide bomber targets barracks near Bouira, killing nine
April 2007: 33 killed in attacks on government offices and a police station in Algiers

The Algerian rebels are thought to have remained focused on fighting their own government, while drawing on international Islamist grievances to raise their profile and attract new recruits.

Meanwhile, the Algerian government has insisted the rebels are on the verge of being eliminated.

Following the Issers attack, the government said in a statement it would "unflinchingly fight terrorism, with a strong determination until its total elimination in our country".

"At the same time, Algeria will not deviate from the path of national reconciliation… which has already given major progress in the consolidation of security across the national territory," the statement said.

But some Algerians are afraid that the policy of reconciliation has backfired, with citizens now reluctant to inform on rebels out of fear that those rebels may return to communities with a pardon shortly afterwards.

There have also been reports of some amnestied militants rejoining rebel groups.

Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that President Bouteflika's second term ends next year, and he has yet to confirm whether he will change the constitution to allow himself a third term.

Omar Belhouchet, editor of Algeria's El Watan newspaper, wrote on Wednesday that in this context of political indecision, militants were taking advantage of ambiguity in the state's approach to Islamist extremists.

"The armed groups no longer have the ability overturn power by force and install the Islamic Republic for which they are fighting and killing citizens," he wrote.

"But they are poisoning the lives of Algerians, considerably clouding its reputation abroad, and weakening the state's capacity in international negotiations."


SEE ALSO
Bombing kills dozens in Algeria
19 Aug 08 |  Africa
Timeline: Algeria
25 Jun 08 |  Country profiles


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