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YOU CAN'T APPEASE THEM
by Amir Taheri
Arab News
April 14, 2007

Until just a few days ago, most policymakers and analysts in the West often cited Algeria as a successful example of dealing with Islamist terror through political means rather than the use of force. The idea is that accommodating the Islamists by offering them a share of political power while adopting part of their social agenda would temper their appetite for total domination.

The resurgence of terrorism, as witnessed in the recent series of attacks including a spectacular suicide operation that killed 30 people in the capital Algiers on Wednesday, casts doubt on the validity of that analysis.

For, during the past six years, President Abdulaziz Bouteflika has gone out of his way to accommodate the Islamists. He started by freeing thousands of militants, including hundreds with blood on their hand, from prison.

He continued with an amnesty that allowed thousands more to come out of the hiding and resettle in society, often with generous grants from the government. In some cases the government "compensated" the supposedly repenting terrorists for losses sustained while away doing the "jihad".

In countless cases, these amnestied criminals have used their time with normality as an opportunity to rest, have their teeth done, and in many cases even get married and father a brood before returning to the forests and mountains to resume their "jihad".

Dozens even went to Iraq to fight the "jihad" there.

The Iraqi authorities are currently holding at least 130 of them.

Bouteflika went further by reinstating thousands of Islamist sympathizers who had been purged from the civil service. He replaced Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahya, the man who had led the successful war against Islamist terror for almost a decade, with Abdulaziz Belkhadem, who was the target of the latest suicide attack.

Ironically, Belkhadem, who sports the correct Islamist Vandyke, is himself a moderate Islamist. In the coalition Cabinet that he heads at least a third of the portfolios are held by moderate Islamists with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

To woo the Islamists, Bouteflika has also promulgated a family law that cancels most of the rights granted to women under Algeria's original, secular constitution. The "moderate Islamist' regime installed by Bouteflika has also rewritten school textbooks and reorganized the nation's cultural life to take into account some of the grievances of the jihadists about the advent of a heathen social system inspired by the "infidel" from across the Mediterranean.

The Bouteflika experiment, no doubt prompted by the best of intentions illustrates at least two facts. The first is that the jihadists will not be content with a share of political power. They do not want anything in particular; they want everything.

The second is that concessions given to Islamists disheartens the rest of the society, thus weakening its resolve to resist the diktats of the jihadists.

In the kind of strategy adopted by Bouteflika, the more the state gives to the insurgents the more they would demand.

The jihadist movement in Algeria was never only, or even mainly, about what Bouteflika has offered. Mustafa Bouyali, the man who fathered the jihadist movement in the mid-1980s, made it clear from the start.

"The Arab Maghreb (that is to say Tunisia, Morocco and Libya) is the gateway to Andalusia (that is to say Spain) and only the first step toward planting the banner of the Only True Faith over Europe," he wrote in February 1986.

Bouyali's heirs, notably Ali Benhadj, one of the founders of the Front for Islamic Salvation (FIS) have echoed that sentiment on a number of occasions.

The global ambitions of the Algerian jihadist movement were highlighted last September when the Salafi group for Preaching and Armed Jihad (GSPDA) announced its dissolution into a new outfit named Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb. At the time, the news was greeted by Al-Qaeda deputy leader Ayman Al-Zawahri as "a source of chagrin, frustration and sadness" for Algeria's authorities.

Since last December, the group has targeted buses in Algiers carrying Western technicians and businessmen, including some affiliated with the US corporation Halliburton. In March it blew up a bus carrying Russian workers close to the Algerian capital.

Six people were killed and 13 injured in seven explosions outside police stations in the eastern Kabylia region in February and 33 Algerian soldiers are reported to have lost their lives this month. At least 22 smaller attacks have taken place in Ain-Deflah, Shlef and the forests south of the capital. Other incidents across the Maghreb point to the group's possible regional ambitions.

In January 12 people were shot dead by the security forces in Tunisia near the small town of Solimane south of the capital Tunis.

The authorities initially described the attackers as ordinary criminals but later admitted that the men were Islamic militants with connections to the Algerian branch of Al-Qaeda.

Meanwhile, in Morocco, the security forces are on high alert after three suicide bombers blew themselves up on Tuesday. There have also been attacks in Mauritania where the newly elected democratic government maintains relations with Israel.

The GSPDA grew out of another of Algeria's leading militant groups, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), and together the groups are blamed for some 150,000 deaths since 1992.

Two years ago, deputy GSPC leader Amari Saifi was sentenced to life in prison for kidnapping 32 European tourists in 2003. The former paratrooper was captured by Chadian rebels in mysterious circumstances and passed on to Libya before standing trial in Algeria.

The original leader of the GSPDA was one Hassan Hattab, who also spent a spell fighting in Afghanistan and Chechnya, but later defected to the Algerian authorities in 2003. His successor was Nabil Al-Saharoui who was killed in action in 2004. The current leader is one Abou Mossab Abdelwadoud, a former university science student and notorious bomb maker in his thirties, who took over in 2004.

Another leading member is Mokhtar Belmokhtar, known as the "one-eyed", a former soldier who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. He leads the Saharan faction of the group and has organized the importing of arms for the underground network from Niger and Mali. The group is thought to have between 600 to 800 fighters spread throughout Algeria and Europe.

Since the rise of Al-Qaeda globally, security experts have warned that the Sahara's wide-open spaces and porous borders make it a haven for militant groups.

North Africa is only one of the four "gates" in Al-Qaeda's dream of world conquest. Pakistan is known as "Bab Al-Hind" (The Gate of India) while the Caucasus is "Bab Al-Saqalibah" (Gate of the Land of Slavs). Turkey is "Bab Al-Roum" (The Gate of Europe). Iraq is " Bab Al-Arab" (The Gate of Arabia).

As the latest attacks in Algeria and Morocco show the "arc of jihad" now stretches from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic.

 

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