December 20, 2007 Special Dispatch No. 1788

Reactions to the December 11, 2007 Algiers Attacks

December 20, 2007
Special Dispatch No. 1788

On December 11, 2007, two suicide bombers exploded car bombs in Algiers in the largest terrorist attack since the "black decade" of the 1990s. In a communiqué dated the same day, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (formerly the GSPC) claimed responsibility for the attacks, which they named after Sufyan Abu Haydara, one of their commanders who was killed by the Algerian military in October 2007. The names of the suicide bombers were given as 'Abd Al-Rahman Abu 'Abd Al-Nasser Al-'Asimi and Sheikh Ibrahim Abu Othman.[1]

Details on the two bombers began to surface in the days following the attack. "Sheikh Ibrahim Abu Othman" who targeted the U.N. building in the Hydra neighborhood, was Rabah Bechla, who had joined up with the jihad groups in the mid-1990s.[2] Bechla, 64, had an unusual profile for a suicide bomber.[3] He had become a supporter of the Front of Islamic Salvation (FIS) before it was outlawed in the early 1990s, after he failed to receive the governmental support that was his due as the son of a "martyr," the term used in Algeria for those killed in the war of independence. His children told reporters that they had asked him to leave the GSPC and take advantage of the amnesty provisions of the National Reconciliation, but that he had refused. His family lives in poverty, especially since his wife died of cancer, but his eldest son Younes said that it was ignorance, not poverty, that had made his father blow himself up. [4]

"'Abd Al-Rahman Abu 'Abd Al-Nasser Al-'Asimi," who targeted the seat of the Constitutional Council in the Ben Aknoun neighborhood, was a 31-year-old former member of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) whose given name was Larbi Charef. He had received a pardon under the provisions of the National Reconciliation law, and mere days after his release in 2006 joined up with the GSPC.[5] His father, Mouloud Charef, said that his son's action had brought him no honor, and that he didn't understand how he could have blown himself up among Muslims, adding "We are not among Jews, where I could imagine my son doing something like this."[6]

The following are reactions to the terrorist attacks from the Algerian press:

Official and Political Reactions

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika issued no public statement following the attacks; in fact, his public silence was such that one newspaper ran a December 14, 2007 item stating that he was indeed in the country.[7]

Algerian Prime Minister Yazid Zerhouni said on national television: "We can diminish the number of terrorist attacks to an acceptable level, but it is impossible to guarantee complete, 100% security in a city like the capital…" He added that the terrorists had taken advantage of the security forces' sense of assuredness after they had succeeded in cracking GSPC suicide-bomber cells in Boumerdes and Algiers. He said further that it is easy to place a bomb "here or there," but that such attacks did not detract from the security forces' recent successes against the terrorists and would not influence the general direction of the country.[8]

In addition, the major political parties issued statements condemning the attacks. The National Rally for Democracy, Algeria's second-largest party, called the attackers 'mercenaries' whose only goal was to massacre the people and undermine the country's stability. The Movement for a Society of Peace, an Islamic party that is a member of the ruling coalition, called the attacks 'perfidious.' Another Islamic party, El-Islah, called on the terrorists to repent, and said that it remained committed to the National Reconciliation.[9]

For its part, the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH) condemned "these barbarous attacks that sow terror and grief in our country," and said that "the Algerian people cannot continue to bear indefinitely and helplessly such a hellish burden".[10]

The conflicting death tolls were a subject of some controversy. On the evening of December 11, 2007, Prime Minister Zerhouni accused the foreign media of inflating the number of victims.[11] The El-Watan daily compared the government's behavior to its practice in the 1990s of drastically underreporting civilian fatalities. The newspaper summarized the conflicting reports: on the afternoon of December 11, AFP reported 62 dead, Al-Jazeera counted 48, and El-Watan itself, after consulting doctors at the bombing sites and in the hospitals, arrived at the figure of 72. In the evening, Zerhouni set the death toll at 26.[12]

Others noted the significance of the date. In Algeria, December 11 is marked annually as the date of massive demonstrations on the occasion of French president Charles de Gaulle's 1960 visit – demonstrations often credited with swaying de Gaulle towards leaving Algeria.[13] In addition, the Ben Aknoun attack took place on a street named "December 11, 1960." One mosque imam said in his Friday sermon: "They chose December 11, 1960 Street in Ben Aknoun in order to tell us that they are enemies of the history of this umma and enemies of its jihad."[14]

Other observers focused on the fact that that the 11th of the month seems to have become a favored date for Al-Qaeda.

One Would Expect Our Intelligentsia-in-Training to Say…

In contrast with the unanimity shown by the political class in condemning the attacks, Mustapha Hammouche, a columnist for the daily Liberte, found the reactions of university students at the Ben Aknoun campus – many of whose classmates died in the attacks – to be troubling:

"Students protested yesterday at Ben Aknoun following the attack. One would have thought that students of law and political science, no less, and students in media studies (again, no less,) would start by bemoaning the death of so many victims and the loss of a number of their comrades, and then denounce the terrorist group behind the carnage, which, as it happens, claimed responsibility [for the attacks]. Following that, their intellectual capacities would allow them to perceive that Islamism is responsible for the attacks and allow them to name the ideology [behind] the crime.

"But no. Instead of all of that, our intelligentsia-in-training prefer the easy way… When asked by our colleague from El-Watan, our demonstrators began by discounting Al-Qaeda's authorship of the attacks. 'They should stop babbling on about Al-Qaeda and the GSPC,' said a certain Sara, with the self-assuredness of someone who has understood everything and cannot be taken for a ride. She added: 'They (i.e. those who accuse Al-Qaeda and the GSPC) shouldn't be laying this on Islam.' One must admire the elision of this young 'intellectual': accusing Al-Qaeda or the GSPC is laying 'this' on Islam…

"If one must, on occasion, acknowledge the existence of Al-Qaeda and attribute to it an occupation that cannot be other than that of terrorism, there remains the American escape route: 'It is the U.S. that, at the Pentagon, makes and breaks the world. Who created Al-Qaeda? They're just something that the CIA thought up…' said Hakim…

"Plenty of wrongs around the globe can be imputed to the U.S., but certainly not that of the development of Islamist terrorism… But it's easier to blame a superpower, as this permits us to give up before this impregnable fortress – a resignation admitted by [another student], Amine… [who said] 'I've decided to spend the 11th of every month in the countryside'…"[15]

El-Moudjahid: The National Reconciliation is "The Algerians' Most Remarkable Victory Since Independence"

A number of commentators pointed out that the attacks came in the midst of political jockeying aimed at paving the way for a third term for President Bouteflika. Bouteflika's signature policy has been the "National Reconciliation," under the provisions of which terrorists who renounce violence may receive amnesty and enter a program for reintegration into Algerian society.[16]

The lead editorial in the December 13, 2007 edition of El-Moudjahid, the official organ of the FLN party, pronounced continued support for the National Reconciliation, calling it "a deadly weapon against terrorism":

"The abject attacks that plunged Algeria into mourning this December 11 were claimed by the GSPC, a residue of pariahs of humanity whose only reason for dying – and not 'reason for living' – is to kill. The last elements [left] of this group, reduced to a subhuman state, no longer have a guiding line, an ideological referent, logic, or objectives… Rejected by the people, in rupture with and spurned by society, abandoned by their own acolytes who have regained the right path, these zealots of a death cult have been reduced to killing, to having the apocalypse as their only program…

"Thanks to a saving leap – which should be credited to the Algerian people, who refused to accept destruction, the culture of death, and the legacy of hatred as unavoidable – thanks to this leap… Algeria, in slightly less than a decade, achieved the exploit of regaining peace, security, and stability…

"The emotion that was awakened the day after the attacks is legitimate, but it must not serve the murderers' cause. It must be said, more than ever and with the serenity that comes with the force of conviction, that the National Reconciliation was not just a saving choice, but the saving choice – certainly the Algerians' most remarkable victory since independence.

"To doubt this – or, worse, to call it into question – would be to demonstrate blindness… Today, the terms of the equation are no longer a choice between reconciliation among Algerians and the fragmentation of a country or a society. There is only one option, and it is clear and evident…"[17]

Liberte: "There Can Be No… Sickening Debate on the Social Distress that Supposedly Drives These Suicide Bombers to Eliminate Us Like Flies"

In contrast to this view, which represents that of the ruling pro-Bouteflika coalition, three editorialists for the Algerian Liberte daily attacked the National Reconciliation policy. On December 13, 2007, Djilali Benyoub wrote:

"Perhaps the days of the GIA's mass massacres are long gone, but Algerians continue to die, without really knowing why.

"The failure of the reconciliation policies is obvious. Since 1995, the authorities have thrice extended their hand to these bloodthirsty people, from the 'Rahma' ('mercy') to the 'Civil Concord' to the 'National Reconciliation'. Yet they do not seem willing to admit the failure of this approach of 'the outstretched hand'.

"In the worst moments of the 1990s, the GIA [the Armed Islamic Group], which ushered in car bombings, was unable to break through the borders of zones that its successor, the GSPC, easily targets today.

"[Did the government] lower its guard? The Interior Minister admits this. But that is all [that he admits, i.e. he does not acknowledge the implications]. For, in fact, through the Algiers attacks – the bloodiest in a decade – the GSPC has given its response to the authorities' 'hand still-outstretched': a bloodbath.

"Is this response still inaudible? The Algerians live this response, which resounds like an echo on loop…"[18]

On December 12, 2007, Mustapha Hammouche wrote in his column in Liberte: "Once the obligation of disgust – or the sincere nausea – are done with, and the unfortunate victims have been buried, citizens and officials will go back to their various labors and their usual concerns: the price of sheep [for the Feast of the Sacrifice], for most, and [Bouteflika's] 'third term' for many. Food and food provisions, power and the provisions of power. The 'national reconciliator' [force] watches over us; it must persist.

"More precisely, it watches over our consciousness, our capacity for revolt, even in the face of the massacre of our fellow citizens. The sight of pieces of smoking flesh no longer wrings from us anything more than a fleeting retching. Once the hours have passed, the days of malaise, we will return to that comfortable optimism of the defeated that is ours, continuing to reconcile with our 'wayward brothers'. Peace will come on its own.

"In her reaction, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European Commissioner for External Relations, said that she hopes that 'those responsible for these horrible acts will be brought to justice.' If only she knew the number of those responsible for 'horrible acts' who peacefully enjoy their former-terrorist pensions… The same day as the double attack in Algiers, the Sidi Bel-Abbas court judged – for a change – a terrorist who had turned himself in after 12 years of fighting. Several attacks against army units in the west of the country, an attack against a vacation resort in Tipasa, and other 'exploits', no doubt, earned him only five years in prison – the same as the maximum penalty for stealing a mobile phone…"[19]

In Liberte's other December 12 editorial, Mounir Boudjema demanded a change in the government's policies towards the terrorists: "The days of the iron fist in a velvet glove are over… With this double suicide attack in Algiers, it has become untenable to not cede to the emotion of the moment. Too much is too much! Maintaining one's composure has become a luxury that the parents of yesterday's victims have every right to lose. And the same goes for us…

"It is by its international resonance that [this terrorism] produces an end in itself – to have people talk about the GSPC, and to drive it home to the greatest of optimists that Algeria is not going to change; that it is condemned to relive each time the same insufferable images of bodies torn to shreds, disemboweled buildings, and collective fear.

"This message of terrorism's is audible. Clear. Brutal. Have we become [so] deaf as to invent for terrorism some path other than that of crime?

"There can be no forgiveness. No reconciliation. No vacillation. And, more than anything, no sickening debate on the social distress that supposedly drives these suicide bombers to eliminate us like flies."[20]

[1] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1784, "Al-Qaeda in Algeria Takes Responsibility for Algiers Bombings," December 13, 2007, Al-Qaeda in Algeria Takes Responsibility for Algiers Bombings.

[2] El-Shorouq El-Yawmi (Algeria), December 14, 2007.

[3] L'Expression (Algeria), December 13, 2007.

[4] El-Shorouq El-Yawmi (Algeria), December 14, 2007.

[5] El-Watan (Algeria), December 13, 2007, El-Shorouq El-Yawmi (Algeria), December 12, 2007.

[6] El-Shorouq El-Yawmi (Algeria), December 12, 2007.

[7] El-Shorouq El-Yawmi (Algeria), December 14, 2007.

[8] El-Shorouq El-Yawmi (Algeria), December 12, 2007.

[9] El-Shorouq El-Yawmi (Algeria), December 11, 2007.

[10] Le Quotidien d'Oran (Algeria), December 12, 2007.

[11], December 11, 2007.

[12] El-Watan (Algeria), December 13, 2007.

[13] El-Watan (Algeria), December 12, 2007; L'Expression (Algeria), December 12, 2007.

[14] El-Shorouq El-Yawmi (Algeria), December 14, 2007.

[15] Liberte (Algeria), December 13, 2007.

[16] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 392, "Surge of Terrorism in Algeria Intensifies Debate over Government's National Reconciliation Policy," September 25, 2007, Syrian Authors Criticize Syrian Government Over Dam Collapse.

[17] El-Moudjahid (Algeria), December 13, 2007.

[18] Liberte (Algeria), December 13, 2007.

[19] Liberte (Algeria), December 12, 2007.

[20] Liberte (Algeria), December 12, 2007.

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