What is Behind the December 11th Bomb Attacks in Algiers?

By Dr. Noureddine Jebnoun

2007 has been one of Algeria’s most violent years since the “red decade” of the 1990s. The December 11th attacks in Algiers were the latest in a long line of bombings that have increased in intensity since February, when seven bombs exploded simultaneously, killing at least six people in the southeast area of Algiers. Up until now, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) modus operandi has shifted from targeting Algerian security and military installations to attacking governmental facilities and foreign interests with simultaneous suicide attacks. Furthermore, the 11th day of the month has become the most deadly day in AQIM’s calendar. Among the ten major attacks launched during the last ten months, three occurred on April 11, July 11 and December 11 respectively.

By targeting Algeria’s Constitutional Council and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) building, as well as the offices of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Algerian capital, AQIM is brutally pursuing at least three objectives. First, the AQIM is registering its disapproval of Algerian Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem’s attempts to push a constitutional amendment that would enable President Bouteflika to serve for a third term.

Secondly, by calling the Algerian UN headquarters a “Green Zone,” and labeling its staff members a “den of international infidels,” AQIM is symbolically reliving the August 2003 attack on the UN’s mission in Iraq, which killed Chief of Mission Sergio Vieira de Mello and caused the UN to depart from Iraq. AQIM aims to isolate the Algerian regime from the international community, symbolically represented by the UN, by implementing a process of “Iraq-ization” of Algeria and creating a new magnet to draw Maghrebi youths into an insurgency pipeline for North African volunteers. Once trained, radical youth will possess the lethal expertise to launch attacks in other countries in the region, ultimately moving their actions to Europe.

Finally, the most recent attack occurred just days after the French president’s visit to Algeria, sending the message that the Algerian government is weak and Western powers, such as the U.S. and France, cannot count on the regime despite its efforts to promote itself as a “key regional ally” in the Global War on Terror (GWOT). Without a doubt, the December 11th attack severely discredited the Algerian government’s claims to have triumphed over so-called “residual terrorism.”

AQIM displays the characteristics of traditional guerrilla and terrorist movements. It changes its network structure according to environment and targets. In rural areas, where it can more easily fade into the mountains because government control is normally weakest, AQIM uses guerrilla tactics. Also, AQIM is very well informed about the movements of the Algerian army and security forces, including military convoys. In urban areas, AQIM usually employs assassinations, bombings, kidnappings, robberies, and attacks against symbolic targets in order to gain maximum media attention.

AQIM’s Operational and Tactical Trends

The sophistication, coordination, synchronization and high-level targets show two important changes in AQIM’s capabilities:

* First, attacks on hard targets evidence AQIM’s ability to breach existing security systems surrounding official complexes. This indicates AQIM’s enhanced capacity to plan and execute advanced operations.
* Second, the targets were urban and the weapons were extremely sophisticated. The use of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) illustrates a dramatic shift from previous attacks.

As for likely future developments in the North African theater, four key trends are emerging:
· Combat styles are shifting from rural to urban.
· Iraqi jihad-style tactics are evident in AQIM’s modus operandi.
· High profile targets are increasingly western interests in the region, as well as officials of North African governments and political symbols of state power.
· The recruitment of teenagers indicates that “martyrdom” is valued, and may even offer the only opportunity for youths to make their mark and be remembered.

Regional security challenges

Maghrebi governments now confront three strategic challenges:

1. How can North African governments manage the transition from conventional to unconventional threats and respond to the risks posed by groups that know no fixed bases, borders, or centralized authority structures? It was not easy for the U.S to shift its military doctrines and modus operandi from symmetrical to asymmetrical threats; it will be not simple for North African governments, either.
2. Political violence occurring elsewhere in the world may be partly rooted in the Maghreb region, which means that people who emigrate to Europe might be involved in these activities. This not to say that social and economic conditions in North Africa inspire actions in Spain, France or Italy, but rather, that negative reactions from European governments can intensify the frustration of Maghrebi people, and encourage them to seek a new fantasy or virtual world (the so-called “real” community of Islam, especially in Iraq or Afghanistan), through which they can express their frustration by violent means.
3. The foundations of counterinsurgency doctrine are not military, but rather political, economic, and social. Security forces play a small role in counterinsurgency efforts. The main goal is to foster a new social perspective that provides options other than violence. In Algeria, a large portion of the population is enduring increasingly precarious conditions. More than 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and the middle class is experiencing pauperization. What can people do when a family has only one monthly wage of $180USD, when children do not go to school because their parents are unable to afford the transport or necessary equipment, and when patients die in hospitals for lack of basic services or medicines, or because more and more doctors are fleeing the country?

As long as the only dreams capable of motivating both young and old are those of escape through drugs, emigration, or suicide, the security situation will remain dire – not only for the Maghreb region, but for Europe as well.

Noureddine Jebnoun holds a PhD in Political Science, Strategic and Security Studies from the University of Paris I Pantheon-Sorbonne. Currently an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Dr. Jebnoun has been a Mediterranean Dialogue Fellow at the NATO Defense College of Rome. He is a past assistant professor of Strategy and Geopolitics at the Tunisian War College and led a seminar on Terrorism and Counterterrorism Strategy at the Higher Institute of Interior Security Forces at the Tunisian Interior Ministry. He is the author of the CCAS’s forthcoming Occasional Paper, Is the Maghreb the “Next Afghanistan?”: Mapping the Radicalization of the Algerian Salafi Jihadist Movement.