Hiding in the caves and woodlands surrounding this hill-country town, Algerian insurgents were all but washed up a few years ago.
Their nationalist battle against the Algerian military was faltering. “We didn't have enough weapons,” recalled a former militant lieutenant, Mourad Khettab, 34. “The people didn't want to join. And money, we didn't have enough money.”
Then the leader of the group, a university mathematics graduate named Abdelmalek Droukdal, sent a secret message to Iraq in the fall of 2004. The recipient was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, and the two men on opposite ends of the Arab World engaged in what one firsthand observer describes as a corporate merger.
Today, as Islamist violence wanes in some parts of the world, the Algerian militants — renamed al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb — have grown into one of the most potent Osama bin Laden affiliates, reinvigorated with fresh recruits and a zeal for Western targets.
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Their gunfights with Algerian government forces have evolved into suicide truck bombings of iconic sites like the U.N. offices in Algiers. They have kidnapped and killed European tourists as their reach expands throughout northern Africa.
Last month, they capped a string of attacks with an operation that evoked the horrors of Iraq: a pair of bombs outside a train station east of Algiers, the second one timed to hit emergency responders. A French engineer and his driver were killed by the first bomb; the second one failed to explode.
The transformation of the group from a nationalist insurgency to a force in the global jihad is a page out of bin Laden's playbook: expanding his reach by bringing local militants under the Qaida brand.
The Algerian group offers al-Qaida hundreds of experienced fighters and a potential connection to militants living in Europe. Over the past 20 months, suspects of North African origin have been arrested in Spain, France, Switzerland and Italy, although their connection to the Algerians is not always clear.
The inside story of the group, pieced together through dozens of interviews with militants and with intelligence, military and diplomatic officials, shows that the Algerians' decision to join al-Qaida was driven by both practical forces and the global fault line of Sept. 11, 2001.
Droukdal cited religious motivations for his group's merger with al-Qaida. Some militants also said that Washington's designation of the Algerians as a terrorist organization after Sept. 11 — despite its categorization by some U.S. government experts as a regional insurgency — had the effect of turning the group against the United States.
“If the U.S. administration sees that its war against the Muslims is legitimate, then what makes us believe that our war on its territories is not legitimate?” Droukdal said in an audiotape in response to a list of questions from The New York Times, apparently his first contact with a journalist. “Everyone must know that we will not hesitate in targeting it whenever we can and wherever it is in this planet.”
Interviews with American, European and Arab officials and a former lieutenant in al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb indicate that more opportunistic factors were at play in the growth of the group.
A long-running government offensive against the Algerian insurgents had nearly crushed the group, officials said. They needed the al-Qaida imprimatur to raise money and to shed their outlaw status in radical Muslim circles as a result of their slaughtering of civilians in the 1990s.
The Iraq war also was drawing many of the group's best fighters, according to Khettab and a militant who trained Algerians in Iraq for Zarqawi. Embracing the global jihad was seen as a way to keep more of these men under the Algerian group's control and recruit new members.
Then, in March 2004, a covert U.S. military operation led to the capture of one of the group's top deputies. A few months later, Droukdal reached out to Zarqawi to get the man released. Zarqawi seized the opportunity to convince him that al-Qaida could revive his operations, a former top leader of the Algerian group says.
Just as the al-Qaida leadership has been able to reconstitute itself in Pakistan's ungoverned tribal areas, al-Qaida's North Africa offshoot is now running small training camps for militants from Morocco, Tunisia and as far away as Nigeria, according to the State Department and Droukdal. The State Department in April categorized the tribal areas and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb as the two top hot spots in its annual report on global terrorism.
The threat is felt most in Europe and especially France, which ruled Algeria for 132 years until 1962 and is a trading partner with the authoritarian government in Algiers.
“A group that had limited its terrorist activities to Algeria is now part of the global jihad movement,” said Bernard Squarcini, chief of France's domestic and police intelligence service, said in an interview.
In Europe, the authorities are eyeing the Algerian group warily, but are not convinced that the group can strike outside Africa.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week that the merger of al-Qaida with the Algeria organization and others like it brought fresh risks.
“These groups, as best we can tell, have a fair amount of independence. They get inspiration, they get sometimes guidance, probably some training, probably some money from the al-Qaida leadership,” he said, adding that “it's not as centralized a movement as it was, say, in 2001. But in some ways, the fact that it has spread in the way that it has, in my view, makes it perhaps more dangerous.”