RABAT, Morocco – A deadly and carefully planned series of bomb attacks in Algeria by an Al Qaeda affiliate may signal a new escalation in violence that could spread across North Africa and enter Europe, experts say.
Tuesday's bombings flew in the face of the Algerian government's bid to turn the page on a bloody Islamic insurgency that tore the nation apart in the 1990s. The attack also has ominous implications for the government of Algeria and its neighbors who are allied with the U.S.-led war on terror.
"It's clearly a serious development," Hugh Roberts, the North Africa project director for the Brussels, Belgium-based International Crisis Group said Wednesday. "We may be heading into a fresh period of serious terrorist activity."
Towns across Algeria's Kabylie region awoke Tuesday morning to a series of seven bombings, some car explosions, that largely targeted police stations. Six people were killed and about 30 injured.
Al Qaeda in Islamic North Africa — the new name for the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, known by its French abbreviation GSPC — claimed responsibility for the bombings via a Web site and a phone call to al-Jazeera.
Although down to a few hundred members, the GSPC carries out scattered bomb attacks in Algeria and raises funds in Europe for Al Qaeda's operations in Iraq.
Many Algerians thought the GSPC had been largely neutralized by tough security measures and government amnesties to coax fighters into surrendering their weapons. While violence by the GSPC has continued, such carefully planned strikes have been rare in today's Algeria.
"Lately we thought things had calmed down. Now this happens," said Yassine, who lives in the town of Boumerdes, near a police station hit by a car-bomb, and asked that his last name not be used as he feared for his safety.
The GSPC rejected the government's Charter for Peace and Reconciliation, a voter-approved effort to come to terms with the insurgency that killed 150,000 people in the 1990s.
The GSPC may never realize its goal of toppling the Algerian government, said Roberts, "but (the group) is demonstrating its capacity to be a serious nuisance. It can damage the political climate."
The Algerian government downplayed the attacks and defended its amnesty policy, saying that the bombers were rapists and perpetrators of massacres — classes of militants ineligible for amnesty, Algeria's Liberte newspaper reported Wednesday.
The attacks may have been partly designed to quash Algerian authorities' recent claims that the GSPC was no longer a force to be reckoned with, said Mohamed Darif, a terrorism expert at Morocco's Mohammedia University.
Analysts say the GSPC is increasingly cooperating with other Islamic militants around North Africa. The group shares Al Qaeda's ideology and has shown signs of adopting its international agenda.
The GSPC enjoys relations with Moroccan terrorists responsible for the 2004 Madrid bombings, Darif said. On Thursday, 29 suspects went on trial in Madrid for the attacks, which killed 191 rush-hour commuters.
In December, Moroccan police rounded up 26 people accused of forming a GSPC-linked cell attempting to recruit fighters for the Iraq insurgency. Most suspects came from Tetouan, a town that supplied two suicide bombers who struck in Baqouba, Iraq, last October.
Last month, normally placid Tunisia was rattled by a deadly shootout between police and Islamist gunmen believed to have trained with the GSPC and apparently planning to attack foreign diplomats.
France's leading anti-terrorism judge warned this week that the GSPC's alliance with Al Qaeda poses a grave threat to Europe. "The GSPC wants to carry out attacks in Europe, especially in France, Italy and Spain, and destabilize North Africa," Jean-Louis Bruguiere told The Associated Press on Tuesday in New York.