Algerian security forces reportedly have Hassan Hattab in custody, the former Emir and founder of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). Hattab has spent recent years attempting to negotiate an amnesty agreement with Algiers, to no avail.
The surrender took place Sept. 22 in the Hussein Dey district of the capital, Algiers, while Hattab was having Iftar dinner with a friend who had agreed to an amnesty offer from the Algerian government. There are conflicting reports stating that this was in fact an arrest and not a surrender. (Stratfor)
In Algeria high oil price and resulting buoyant revenue have given the "distributive state" a new lease on life. As a result, the regime’s capacity to co-opt opposition and buy social peace is high and the effective pressure for fundamental institutional reform is low.
Hattab helped found the GSPC after splitting off from the mainstream Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in 1998 when the civil war was winding down. At that time, Hattab disagreed with GIA's targeting of civilians and wanted to distance himself from the policy. Hattab then ran into disputes within the GSPC as the group was increasingly drawn to the campaign espoused by al Qaeda. He "resigned" in 2001 and was succeeded by Nabil Sahraoui (Security forces killed Sahraoui in 2004).
Thereafter, Hattab decided to take up Algerian President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika's amnesty offer announced in March 2005. His negotiations with Algiers did not go as well as planned. The Algerian government sentenced him in absentia to death and then life imprisonment in two separate "court rulings."
Since he was ousted from the GSPC's leadership in 2001, Hattab has held little influence in Algeria's Islamist militant scene. On a number of occasions, the GSPC -- which was renamed the al Qaïda Organization for the Countries of the Arab Maghreb (AQCAM) in 2006 -- issued statements saying Hattab was not to be trusted and labeled him a "stranger to Jihad." Hattab's surrender is unlikely to have a significant impact on the operational capabilities of al Qaeda's North African node.
Al Qaïda's North African nodule has its fair share of trouble dodging Algeria's security forces, managing intra-Islamist tensions and maintaining a viable support network in the country. But with the amnesty program rapidly losing its relevance and the group actively importing skills from veterans in Iraq and Afghanistan, Algeria will have difficulty uprooting the movement.
Top Algerian militant surrenders
Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni said "we consider him to be repentant," speaking at a press conference in Paris.
The GSPC grew out of another of Algeria's leading militant groups, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). The GIA took up arms in 1992 after elections were cancelled in which Islamists were poised to win. Some 200,000 have since died in a brutal civil war.
Algeria was pushed into extreme crisis by the regime's decision to open the country to free elections in the late 1980s and the military's closure of that democratic bridge. Though laudable in theory and widely applauded at the time, the lack of pluralistic experience and democratic institutions led to dangerous hyper competition between secularists and newly enfranchised Islamists. When the FIS won the parliamentary election in 1991, the secular, military-backed FLN regime cancelled them, leading the Islamists to take up arms.
Insecurity has been increasing in Algeria, and across North Africa, since the GSPC re-launched itself as al-Qaïda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), at the beginning of this year. Mr Hattab said the GSPC, which is now called AQIM, wanted to turn Algeria into "a second Iraq."
Left: Troops in pursuit of militants - from French Berber TV
Hattab said members should take advantage of a government amnesty. Since 2000, more than 6,000 Islamic radicals have accepted government amnesty deals. But several hundred are holding out. However, several thousand Islamic radicals have fled Algeria, and can be found in other Muslim countries, and in Europe, where many are still involved in planning armed resistance to the quasi military dictatorship of Algeria.
When the Algerian army suddenly canceled the second round of parliamentary elections unsurprisingly, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which had a clear majority to win, soon launched an offensive attack on the army. While violence ensued, several Islamic militant groups were formed -- including the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), and the Salafist Group of Preaching and Combat (GSPCI).
Nonetheless, the Islamic guerrilla warfare began to decline when President Abdelaziz Bouteflika came to power in 1999. Bouteflika introduced a civil concord that offered amnesty to the armed Islamic groups. The concord was accepted by “many of the rebels,” and Bouteflika, when reelected in 2004, introduced a second amnesty based on his “Charter for Peace and Reconciliation.” Approved in the 2005 national referendum, the amnesty granted Islamic militants immunity from prosecution if militants had not been implicated in serious crimes, such as “massacres, rapes and bombings.” Although progress remains slow, many Islamic militants have come forward to sign the amnesty. The Islamic militant insurgency has also drastically decreased, from 30,000 in the mid-1990s to 500 in 2004 and currently only a few hundred. With the recent dissolution of both the AIS and GIS, the GSPC remains Algeria’s only operative Islamist organization.
The struggle between the Islamists and the military junta has spilled over to neighboring states. The government of Mauritania has continued it's opposition to Algerian Islamic militants because it too, faces similar internal forces. Mauritania declared a pardon for many political criminals to celebrate its coming to power in 2005, but excluded members of the GSPC. GSPC members have been fleeing army and police operations along Algeria's densely populated coastal areas, and moving to the desert areas down south. This has brought the GSPC to Mauritania, and caused Nouakchott to take up arms against the Islamic radicals. There have been numerous operations where the US availed logistics and supplies to Mauritanian forces in their pursuit of Algerian rebels in remote mountainous and desert areas.
Algeria, an oil rich nation, has reemerged as a repressive state zealous on the “War on Terror.” Since September 11, Algeria has launched a renewed crack-down on Islamists. Although the GSPC-- recently renamed the “al Qaïda in the Islamic Maghreb”-- has scaled back attacks, the army has stepped up the offensive. In response to the GSPC’s January attack on Batna, the army has called on the general population to come forward with any information about armed Islamic militants. In light of sparse but ongoing attacks by Islamic militant groups, the army created an intelligence unit, known as the Department for Information and Security (DRS), to “detain and interrogate" individuals who may have “alleged links” to any of Algeria’s Islamic armed groups.
Despite receiving praise from the U.S. for its “co operation on the war on terror,” Amnesty International argues that Algeria uses 9/11 “as a pretext to justify mass human rights violations.” Operating “within great secrecy,” the DRS has used forced detention and “extrajudicial measures” to withdraw information from detainees. Since there is no freedom of the press, the international community has paid “scant attention” to the army’s draconian counterterrorism approach.
According to the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, the DRS extracts confessions using torturous methods such as nail pulling, attaching wires to women and men’s addendum, or putting rags soaked with cleaning fluid into their mouths. Unsurprisingly, Amnesty International has issued several memorandums calling on President Bouteflika to look into the army’s excessive use of detention and torture. Unfortunately, like the judiciary and civil service of Algeria, the president “lacks the authority” to hold the DRS accountable.
Under the 2001 Association Agreement with the EU, Algeria has also committed itself to “respect human rights and democracy.” Although the agreement only came into force in 2005, Algeria has blatantly ignored the clause, allowing its human rights record to deteriorate. Meanwhile, the army and its security forces have also been implicated in several massacres blamed on Islamic militant groups. At the same time, France, Algeria’s colonial buddy, has attempted to prosecute Algeria’s former defense minister Khaled Nezzar for torture. Unfortunately, despite both the internal and external attempts to bring the perpetrators to justice, the army still does not see themselves accountable to either the people or the courts.
Therefore, getting to the root of the problem requires looking beyond the "Islamist movement” and cracking down on the true source of strife: namely, the army. Operating under a thin veil of military dictatorship, Algeria’s state of affairs is being controlled by a “military caste” that is intent on “discrediting the Islamists.” While the U.S. turns a blind eye, Algeria’s justice system is being warped into a quasi version of Guatanamo Bay. Although the U.S. continues to believe Algeria could be a “useful bulwark” to halt the spread of militant Islam, the army is blatantly operating “outside the law.” Despite attracting less international coverage, Algeria’s internal crisis remains as real as the Darfur genocide and Zimbabwe’s sky-high inflation crisis. In light of these situations, it is up to the international community to shine the spotlight on Algeria’s real criminals, the military usurpers of democracy, who are effectively undermining the rule of law.
The Emir of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) [Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat] Abdelwahab Droukdel, alias Abou Mossab Abdelwadoud
The official manifesto of the group reads: ‘No truce, no dialogue, no conciliation, no security agreement and no covenant of protection.' There is some disagreement within the former GSPC over national commander Abdelmalek Droudkel's decisions first to merge with al-Qaïda in September 2006 and then later to rename the group the Al-Qaïda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), in January 2007.
On September 8, Al-Qaïda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), issued a statement via its official website affirming that it was responsible for the kamikaze attacks against a Coast Guard barracks in Dellys and the attempted assassination of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Batna. These attacks, which are the fourth and fifth instances respectively that an AQIM member has successfully undertaken a kamikaze operation in Algeria, signify the continuance of a relatively new attack trend initiated with the advent of AQIM. Although intended to bring media attention to AQIM and its struggle, the liberal use of this tactic and the killing of innocent Muslim civilians may do more to harm the organization than help it.
The schism instigated by Droudkel's decision to ally with al-Qaïda has likely prompted Droudkel to step up attacks in order to dispel any perception that his group has been weakened. AQIM has carried out two deadly attacks in the last few weeks.
UPDATE - A Top Member of Al-Qaïda in the Islamic Maghreb Killed
Left: Sofiane El-Fassila, executive director of kamikaze operations, Abou Tourab and Oussama Abou Ishak were killed in the ANP operation.
Algerian security forces identified an Islamic militant slain over the weekend as the No. 2 leader and explosives expert of al-Qaïda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Sofiane el-Fassila, alias Hareg Zoheir, was an alleged mastermind of several recent kamikaze bombing attacks in Algeria that were claimed by the insurgent group now calling itself Al-Qaïda in Islamic North Africa, newspaper reports said Tuesday, citing security officials.
El-Fassila and two suspected accomplices were shot dead Saturday near a roadblock put up by security forces in the town of Boghni in the restive Kabylie region east of Algiers, the daily Liberte reported.
Security forces (ANP), have been conducting sweeps in the region and searching for el-Fassila, who had been wanted in connection with April 11th kamikaze bombings targeting the prime minister's office and a police station in an Algiers suburb. Thirty three people died in those attacks.
According to these sources, DNA tests proved that the “Emir” of the Central area of Algeria, Sofiane Abou Heider or Sofiane El-Fassila, alias Hareg Zoheir, figured among the three armed elements put to death. It seems that the success of this operation was facilitated by new measures adopted by the ANP, which consists of conducting regular patrols, sweeps and roadblocks.
According to the same sources, Sofiane was a specialist in explosives and was credited with the introduction in Algeria of the kamikaze technique. Sofiane is regarded as the number 2 operative of Al-Qaïda in the Islamic Maghreb after Abou Moussab Abd El-Ouadoud, alias Abdelmalek Droukdel, the national “Emir” of the militant organization.
It should be noted that Sofiane was the person in charge of the attacks last April 11, 2007, perpetrated against the seat of government and the police station of Bab Ezzouar, as well as the kamikaze operations, which targeted the military station of Lakhdaria, the barracks of the coastguards at Dellys and most recently, the car bomb attack that was aimed at the French workers of Razel close to Kadiria, in the Wilaya of Bouira.
Born in 1975, Sofiane Abou Heider was in effect the true commander of the Al-Qaïda branch to the Maghreb because of his extensive knowledge of the terrain and his operational control. Indeed, after superseding rival “salafist Jihadists” within the organization, he was installed as the head of the “Central zone” replacing Yahia Abou Al-Heithem, alias Abdelhamid Saâdaoui. The aims of Sofiane El-Fassila was to reactivate the use of car bomb attacks and kamikaze tactics in order to put seige to the military government, which holds control over all civic institutions in the nation. The ultimate goal was to dethrone the military and establish a government that represents and listens to the people.
Sofiane El-Fassila appeared last online in a film put out by the GSPC in which he appeared in company of assistants preparing the attacks targeting the military squad at Yakourène, in the Wilaya of Tizi Ouzou. The film also showed sequences of the attack. The group has aired a number of these videos online depicting their attacks against the military. In addition, the investigations carried out by the security services revealed that among the militants killed at Boghni were Abou Tourab, alias Abdelhamid Amir, “Emir” of “katibat El-Farouk,” whereas the third is none other than Usama Abou Ishak, alias Rabah, actively sought since the attacks of last April 11 in Algiers. This last militant was also a specialist in the manufacture of booby-trapped cars.The necessary condition for democratization is that the Algerian legislature acquire important decision-making powers. Only if this happens will the legislature be able to hold the executive to account (and thereby curb corruption by civic and military sectors) and, by so doing, guarantee the independence of the judiciary. Only if the national parliament becomes a real locus of decision making, - instead of its current ineffective role of stamping decisions made elsewhere - in which the major interests in society need to be effectively represented, can social pressure ensure that elections are wholly free and fair and political parties—the kind necessary to a democratic system of alternating governments—develop. And only if the elected representatives of the people become the source of government mandates can the demilitarization of the Algerian political system be definitive. Give the people a voice and they will put down their arms. Nevertheless, the pressures put upon competing classes vying for the oil revenue subjugate conciliation in lieu of accumulation.