Algeria intensifies military operations against Islamic State
Tunis - The Algerian military has stepped up efforts against the Islamic State (ISIS), deploying thousands of troops to besiege the group’s hideouts and killing at least 16 suspected members of the militant group in recent clashes.
The military assault is part of Algeria’s strategy to prevent ISIS from gaining ground in areas where Islamist insurgents targeted the country’s military in a civil war in the 1990s.
Known as Jund al-Khilafah (Soldiers of the Caliphate), ISIS in Algeria has pledged allegiance to ISIS in Iraq and Syria and is mostly comprised of converts from al-Qaeda’s North Africa affiliate. The group released a video in 2014 that appeared to show its members beheading a French tourist but then laid low after a fierce backlash from the Algerian military.
In December 2015, Algerian forces killed local ISIS leader Abdelmalek Gouri. His successor, Mouloud Baal, was killed a few months later.
The group resurfaced in February with an attack in the eastern city of Constantine. Police said an ISIS suicide bomber targeted the city’s main police station but failed to reach his destination when officers fired at him outside the facility, setting off his explosives. Two officers were wounded in the attack.
Constantine police had been targeted by ISIS in October when three ISIS members killed an officer inside one of the city’s restaurants, the first such attack in 16 years.
Security analysts in Algeria said the assailants in both attacks could be part of a group of ISIS fighters that infiltrated the city in November after they were forced out of the mountains in north-eastern Algeria by military assaults.
“The failure of the bombing attempt targeting the police station in Constantine is further evidence that the fight against terrorism has been conducted effectively,” said Algerian security analyst Kamel Moulfi, “but the terrorists’ actions also prove that elements left behind from eradicated terror groups have a harmful capacity.
“The goal of the attack was to devastate local public opinion and give credence to the fear that terrorism is returning to Algeria.”
Algerian Chief of Staff General Ahmed Gaid Salah was visiting troops in the city when the attack occurred.
Algeria has been battling jihadist factions, including Takfir wal-Hijra, the Islamic Salvation Army, the Armed Islamic Group, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat — which became al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — and ISIS and its local offshoot Jund al-Khilafah since 1991.
This war against jihadism has turned Algeria into one of Africa’s top military powerhouses. In the past 20 years, Algeria has spent more on its military than all three of its immediate neighbours — Morocco, Libya and Tunisia — combined.
The struggle has come with enormous social and financial costs but has appeared to have contained domestic jihadists to the country’s periphery in Algeria’s rugged mountainous areas in the north and east, and south in the Sahara.
Recently, however, the military shifted to a more aggressive approach towards jihadism and is increasingly taking the fight to the groups’ hideouts in the country’s forests and mountains.
Security analysts said the tactical change is due to pressure from the deteriorating security situation in Libya, Mali and Niger and the need to weed out domestic terrorism in Algeria before jihadists receive help from potential reinforcements in those countries.
Nine suspected jihadists were captured February 28th after 500 troops encircled their hideout in a forest, 70km east of Algiers. Pictures of the captured suspects were broadcast on social media, hammering home the message that Algeria’s military has the upper hand in the fight against terrorism.
Three days earlier, two jihadists were killed in a gun battle with soldiers in the Tizi Ouzou region east of Algiers.
The incidents brought the number of suspected jihadists killed in 2017 to at least 27, including 14 suspected ISIS fighters who were shot dead in al Ajiba area in the province of Bouira on February 17th. Gouri and 23 of his men were killed in the province in 2015.
“More vigilance and caution is necessary,” Algerian media quoted Gaid Salah as saying to soldiers a day after the ISIS suicide bombing attempt in Constantine. “More efforts are needed to free our country from the evil of the remnants of terrorists.”