Three generations of terrorists
The Algerians were angry at the publication of the warning and the image it created, as though U.S. intelligence knew something that Algerian intelligence did not. The Algerian Foreign Minister, Noureddine Yazid Zehrouni, could not agree to this. Zehrouni, responsible for internal security in the country, controls the information about terror groups, and when a warning is published that is not coordinated with him, he suspects an American plot to humiliate his intelligence service.
This confrontation did not calm anyone. On the contrary, the impression that the countries of the Maghreb - Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Libya - are concerned about a renewal of terror acts of the sort that occurred in the 1990s has only been reinforced. The nightmare of those years, which exacted about 200,000 deaths, calmed down significantly in recent years; some of the local terror organizations even "repented," and their members were granted amnesty in the national reconciliation that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika declared. Even small terror groups that refused to join this arrangement are now asking the president to extend the amnesty period and include them in the process.
The fear today is of a new sort of terror that does not rely on local political justifications and operates along the lines of Al-Qaida. In Algeria they are pointing the finger at Iraq, the new exporter of international Islamic terror. In a series of reports on the new terror in the London-based Arabic daily Al Hayat, impressive data exists on entire groups of civilians, especially from the Maghreb, Jordan and Syria, who since the beginning of the Iraq war have volunteered to go out to fight the Americans.
The Algerian volunteers would fly with that country's airline to Syria, where an Iraqi representative of the terror organizations would wait for them and take them across the border. They would do the first part of their military training in Algerian camps, and get their baptism of fire in Iraq. Iraq has thus become the new Afghanistan, a production line for creating and training foreign terrorists.
Upon their return to their homeland, in the attempt to import the religious ideology and fighting methods they learned in Iraq, it became clear to most of them that their names were already in the hands of the intelligence services, information that appears to be the fruit of cooperation between Algeria and Syria. Some of these volunteers have even been extradited from Syria to Algeria, and a number of them have been tried. Algerian law imposes a punishment of life imprisonment on anyone who cooperates with an illegal organization outside the country.
When a precise mapping of these volunteers was carried out, it emerged that some went to Iraq to fight the Americans, and some went to Iraq to join the branch of Al-Qaida that was established by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed last summer.
The distinction between these two groups has also been manifested in the punishments that have been meted out to the militants. The Algerian Al-Qaida activists received the stiffest sentences possible, whereas terrorists who operated against the American occupation in Iraq were sentenced to relatively light punishments.
Thus, for example, members of a group that carried out a terror attack against military armored vehicles in which American soldiers were killed were sentenced to only three years in prison. The classification is aimed at distinguishing between terror groups - the fight against whom requires international cooperation - and local terror groups. It presents three "generations" of terrorists: volunteers who were trained and fought in Afghanistan during the period of struggle against the Soviet occupation between 1979 and 1989, volunteers who fought the American occupation in Iraq who are now returning to their homeland, and the third generation of terrorists who are not active in any defined territory and are not under any specific religious authority. They obtain their knowledge and their missions via the Internet, and are prepared to act anywhere against opportune targets, especially Western targets.
The differences among these three generations are in the sense of mission, the possibility of locating them and keeping them under surveillance, and the loose connection between the terrorists and the state to which they belong. There are organizations that upgrade themselves in the spirit of the times. An example of this is the Algerian organization, the Salfite Group for Preaching and Struggle, which was founded in 1966 and to which the terror attack in Algiers this month has been attributed.
This is a group that broke off from the Militant Armed Islamic Group, which was itself for a short time part of the Islamic Salvation Front. The Front is the umbrella organization that won a sweeping victory in the local elections in Algeria in 1990, and in the first round of the parliamentary elections in 1991. After the authorities canceled the election process, fearing an absolute victory by supporters of the organization, the civil war in Algeria broke out in full force. This war showed for the first time the military abilities of volunteers who had fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets and had returned to act on behalf of local interests in Algeria.
In effect, during the first decade of the civil war, during which groups split and established fighting organizations and terror gangs, it was clear the struggle was directed against the government, which was considered heretical and atheistic, and not against the West and its representatives. The aspiration to establish a government that would derive its authority from religion was the common denominator among most of the Algerian organizations, which differed from one another by their modes of action and the targets of their attacks.
The Salfite Group for Preaching and Struggle joined Al-Qaida - at least according to statements by its leadership - only at the end of 2006, shortly before the speech by bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahari, on the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. From that moment the organization's name was changed, and it is now called Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb Countries.
However, from reading the organization's charter, it is difficult to know from where it derives its religious authority: Do they accept Zawahari of Al-Qaida as a spiritual leader, or is there an unknown religious sage who is distributing his words over the Internet? This compares with the previous period when this organization, like other organizations in Algeria, had sources of religious authority in their own country.
The "transition" from being a local organization to a branch of Al-Qaida does not necessarily indicate significant change in aims and ideology. The main goal was and remains harming the Algerian government and its "pagan army," as stated in the organization's aims. Though the organization has an aim that crosses borders - the destruction of the Arab governments that do not observe religious law - operational logic has it that an Algerian organization will move against the Algerian government and not in another country.
Not only ideology, but also past conflicts between leaders play a role in shaping the image of the organization. Thus, for example, last week the founding leader of the organization, Hassan Hattab, disassociated himself from the terror attacks that the group had carried out the previous week in Algiers. In the past, conflict developed between Hattab and the current leader of the organization, Abu Mus'ab Abed al Wadoud, over the control of the group and its modes of action. Hattab's successor in the role, Nabil Saharawi, who was killed two years ago, is the one who began the process of getting closer to Al-Qaida, mainly for economic reasons, and thus, in Hattab's opinion, distanced himself from the organization's primary aim.
Conflicts between commanders and changes in direction as a result of this characterize the organizations in Algeria and also in Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Egypt. But the problem worrying those Arab governments is that in the past four years, out of the chaos, these organizations have "won" a country, Iraq. There they can train relatively conveniently, maintain relations with weapons dealers, teach combat in real battles, obtain funds and integrate into the supra-national hierarchy of the organizations. Here lies the terror threat that the Iraq war has engendered.