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North Africa’s Rising Radicals

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
April 16, 2007


On April 11, simultaneous suicide bombings (CNN) in Algiers killed thirty-three people and injured hundreds, while ripping the facade off the prime minister’s office building. Before and after the Algiers bombings, a series of smaller suicide attacks (IHT) rattled Casablanca, the commercial hub of neighboring Morocco, prompting the United States to close its consulate there. The recent attacks raise fears that a new front is emerging in the global jihad.

It doesn’t help allay concerns that the group behind the Algiers attacks, whose emergence is examined in this Backgrounder, recently pledged loyalty to al-Qaeda, changing its name to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. CFR Fellow Steven A. Cook says the Algiers bombings marks “a major escalation,” and the Power and Interest News Report, an independent conflict analysis organization, suggests the attacks are part of a new strategy aimed at boosting the group’s profile. A letter to the Algerian president, which claimed responsibility for the attacks, also expressed the desire to “transform Algeria into a second Iraq” (Reuters). But the Economist expresses some skepticism, questioning whether this is all “just propaganda to revive the flagging spirits of North African insurgents.”

Western officials have expressed concern (LAT) that the plotters could soon set Europe or the United States in their sights. Antoine Basbous, director of the Observatory of Arab Countries, tells the Associated Press, “There is a new force at the gates of Europe.”

The emerging terrorist threat poses a challenge for the authoritarian governments of Algeria and Morocco. Arezki Daoud, editor of the North Africa Journal, warns of several groups across the region that may unite under “al-Qaeda’s spiritual guidance.” Experts say these nations must find a way to clamp down (CSMonitor) on the terrorists without radicalizing more of their citizens or isolating moderate Muslims. The New York Times examines efforts to do this amid rising tensions between North Africa’s secular regimes and its growing religious populations. In Algeria, the response so far has been largely military (Jamestown). A forthcoming book from Steven Cook examines the role of the military in such political systems.

This rising radicalism, according to Lebanon’s Dar Al-Hayat, can be linked to deplorable socioeconomic conditions which have given rise to large, disaffected youth populations. This notion is dismissed by Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, director general of Al-Arabiya TV, who says extremism, not poverty, spawned the attacks (MEMRI). A number of North Africans have also reacted strongly against the violence: Moroccan bloggers roundly condemned (Global Voices) the recent bombings in Casablanca, as did (AP) the imam of the Grand Mosque of Algiers.

Notably spared from attacks so far is Libya. Long the loosest of North African cannons, the Libyan regime was recently removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. When Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte visits Tripoli this week, it will be the highest-level diplomatic contact in half a century. But this warming of relations should not be mistaken for total reconciliation: Eight senators sent Negroponte a letter last week urging him “to send a strong message” (PDF) to President Muammar Qaddafi, that the United States is disappointed in Libya’s failure to settle its remaining terrorism claims lodged by U.S. victims.

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