Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Wednesday, December 12, 2007
"On the eve of Eid we are heralding to the Muslim nation the good news of two operations carried out by two martyrs," the group calling itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb said in an online posting.
It named two men who it said were responsible for suicide bombings at the constitutional council building in Algiers and at a building housing United Nations agencies, which it called "the headquarters of the international infidels' den." It claimed that a total of 110 people had been killed in the two attacks.
The Algerian government put the death toll at 26, while other reports from the Algerian capital said more than 60 people had been killed. Citing preliminary reports, a U.N. spokeswoman said 11 U.N. employees may be among the dead.
The U.N. said the offices of the U.N. Development Program, which also housed staff from other U.N. agencies, collapsed after the explosion.
The terrorist posting said the attack honored Sufyan Abu Haidra, who had been killed fighting Algerian troops.
It appeared to be a reference to an al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb leader killed on October 6 at an army roadblock. In an Oct. 8 report, the Algiers newspaper Echorouk said the 28-year-old dead terrorist (whose name it spelled Sofiane Abu Heider), was described by experts as the group's "real leader." It said he had been appointed head of operations in and around Algiers early this year to revitalize a campaign of bombing and terrorism.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is the name adopted in a statement last January by a longstanding Algerian terrorist group called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC).
The GSPC has been operating since the mid-1990s, focusing mostly on attacks against the Algerian government, and in 2003 announced it was pledging allegiance to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda. Since taking its new name, the group has carried out a number of high-profile attacks in Algeria, including bombings in Algiers in April and in two other towns in September.
Echorouk quoted Interior Minister Nourredine Yazid Zerhouni as saying that according to confessions of GSPC members arrested after the latest bombings, the group was responsible for Tuesday's attacks.
At the time the GSPC changed its name, terrorism experts speculated that the move may indicate a commitment to fight not just the secular Algerian government but also the governments of neighboring countries, such as Morocco, Tunisia and Libya.
The use of the term "Islamic Maghreb" also demonstrated al-Qaeda's strategy of turning the broader region into a front for jihad, in line with the goal of restoring a caliphate.
Last September, bin Laden deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri called for jihad in North Africa.
In another audio tape statement, released last month, al-Zawahiri announced that another terrorist group based in the region, the Fighting Islamic Group in Libya, had joined al-Qaeda.
Zawahiri called for the toppling of the leaders of Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, and the targeting of Western interests.
During the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of Algerians died in violence between Islamists and the government. The conflict was sparked in 1992 by a decision by the military to cancel general elections Islamic fundamentalists were widely expected to win, and to ban all non-religious activities at mosques.
After President Abdelaziz Bouteflika took office in 1999 the violence levels fell, although the GSPC continued to mount attacks, mostly bombings aimed at both military and civilian targets.
Walid Phares of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies said in a memo Tuesday the world was dealing with a different al-Qaeda from the centralized one based in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan before November 2001.
He said remnants of the group had "adapted in many other areas and are trying to find a spot from which they can regenerate a fully fledged regime, such as in Iraq, Somalia, Waziristan [in Pakistan] and also North Africa."
Eid al-Adha is a four-day holiday tied to the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and the Muslim belief that Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son, Ishmael. (The biblical account names Isaac as the son that Abraham was willing to sacrifice before being stopped by God.)
Isaac and Ishmael are regarded as forefathers of the Jewish and Arab peoples respectively.
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