Friday, November 05, 2004

Algerian Salafism

A couple of posts earlier, I quoted Albert Camus, who in his time had quite a lot to say about Algerian Islamic militancy and terrorism, particularly in his "Letter to an Algerian Militant"(1955), and the essay "Algeria 1958". In the latter essay - it was published in 1958, remember - he wrote:

The Arabs can at least claim kinship, not in a nation, but in a sort of Moslem empire, either spiritual or temporal. Spiritually that empire exists, its adhesive force and doctrine being Islam. But there also exists a Christian empire, at least as important, which there is no question of bringing back as such into temporal history. For the moment, the Arab empire does not exist except in the writings of General Nasser, and it could not come about without worldwide upheavals that would mean the Third World War in a short time. The claims for Algerian national independence must be seen in part as one of the manifestations of this new Arab imperialism in which Egypt, overestimating its strength, aims to take the lead and which, for the moment, Russia is using for its anti-Western strategy. The Russian strategy, which can be read on every map of the globe, consists in calling for the status quo in Europe (in other words, the recognition of its own colonial system) and in fomenting trouble in the Middle East and Africa to encircle Europe on the south. The happiness and freedom of the Arab populations are of little account in the whole affair. One has only to think of the slaughter of the Chechens or of the destruction of the Tartars in the Crimea or of the destruction of the Arab culture in the once Moslem provinces of Daghestan. Russia merely takes advantage of such dreams of empire to serve her own designs.

It might be a good idea to keep those words of Camus at the back of one's mind when reading Kathryn Hahr-escolano's analysis, in the latest issue of the Jamestown Foundation's Terrorism Monitor, of Algerian Salafism and the threat it poses to democracy in Spain - and other parts of Europe - today:
The involvement of Moroccan Islamists in the Madrid terrorist attacks on March 11 has overshadowed the significantly larger role that Algerian Salafists — with ties to al-Qaeda — have had in recent terrorist activities in Spain. In mid-October, Spanish authorities dismantled an Algerian Salafist terrorist cell which was identified as part of al-Qaeda's European network with plans to blow up the National Court in Madrid. The role of Algerian Islamists in both the March 11 attacks and the National Court terrorist planning suggests that Spain has become a new locus of operations for North-African based al-Qaeda terrorism.

Algeria's two principal Salafist groups form part of al-Qaeda's North African network. The Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) — an organization that two years ago kidnapped European tourists in the Sahara desert — is the country's most hard-line group fighting the Algiers regime. The GSPC is on the United States' list of "terrorist groups" since 2002 because of links to al-Qaeda. As with other Muslims around the world who identify themselves as Salafists, GSPC members advocate a pure interpretation of the Qur'an and strict observance of the original texts of Islam and the traditions of the "pious ancestors".

The other militant group is the Armed Islamic Group, known by its French acronym GIA: The GSPC is an off-shoot of the GIA. Many members of the outlawed Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) migrated to the GIA. Algeria's civil war unleashed a flood of fleeing Islamists who primarily traveled to France, but they also found "havens" in London, Cologne, and Spain. Although the Algerian government's counter-terrorist campaign against the GIA and the GSPC has significantly diminished the numerical strength of both groups and their operational capabilities, nonetheless the extreme jihadist orientation of the dedicated members remains intact. Moreover, the alignment of Algerian and other North African Salafist groups to al-Qaeda's European terrorist network represents a nexus of terrorist resources that will serve to strengthen al-Qaeda's reach into the continent.


Given the geographical proximity and the historical relations between Spain and Algeria, it is no accident that Algerian Islamists were involved in the attacks. For a variety of historical and sociological reasons, Algerians, and Moroccans have immigrated to Spain and successfully blended in. Prior to 9/11, most Spanish officials did not view the influx of North African immigrants with major concern. Following 9/11 and particularly 3/11 — in which immigrant Moroccan Islamists orchestrated the attacks — large portions of Spanish society together with the government have become increasingly suspicious of the North African immigrants.

The concern and reaction of the Spanish authorities is certainly not disproportionate to the threat that faces their country. Salafi groups have operated in Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco for many years. These groups can potentially reach out to "compatriots" in Spain and execute attacks in that country and other European states. Increasingly, Spanish authorities are going to have to deal with the triangle of terrorism: Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco, which form a rear base for al-Qaeda.

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