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Behind the Bombings in Algeria and Lebanon

December 20, 2007 by  


United Nation's Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (L) talks during his meeting with Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika at the presidential palace in Algiers December 18, 2007. Ban on Tuesday inspected the shattered remains of U.N. buildings destroyed in twin car bombing in Algiers that killed at least 37 people including 17 U.N. staff, witnesses said. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra (ALGERIA)

Courtesy New America Media, News Analysis, Jalal Ghazi

Dec 14, 2007

Editor’s Note: Recent bombings in Algiers and Beirut suggest the work of Al-Qaeda. However, Arab media believe that the violence may have been motivated by political forces within the two countries. Jalal Ghazi writes the weekly column Eye on Arab Media for New America Media.

Arab political analysts differ on who might be behind the latest car bombings in Algiers and Beirut, but they agree that these bombings are not independent acts by terrorist groups; they are the result of ongoing political rivalries within the two countries.

Algerian Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni was quoted in the independent Algerian newspaper El Khabar, saying: “[T]he objective [of the double suicide explosions] was to derail the democratization process in the country and prevent it from having real democracy,” especially since the explosions occurred outside the newly constructed Constitutional Council. Zerhouni said the bombing might have been an attempt to stall a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow current president Abdulaziz Bouteflika to run for another term.

Bouteflika has introduced major political reforms since he was first elected in 1999. Before that, French-backed army generals had strengthened their control over Algeria for years after a military coup in 1991. In 1992, they cancelled legislative elections when it became evident that the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) – an Islamist political party – was going to win, and used the civil war that followed to strengthen their control. Bouteflika successfully reasserted presidential authority and curbed the power of the army generals – along with offering several amnesties to the armed Islamic groups fighting against the military.

The relative calm enabled Bouteflika to embark on a demilitarization program that curbed the power of the army generals. First, Muhammad al-Ammari resigned from his post as army chief of staff in August 2004 – after Bouteflika won a second five-year term. Then Algerian daily newspaper El Khabar reported that Bouteflika fired the commander of the Republic guards Lt. Gen. Ali Juma’ and the commander of the naval forces Muhammad al-Taher Yali, both in 2005.

One of Bouteflika’s biggest obstacles, however, is the army’s intelligence, which still works independently from the presidential office. Many Algerians believe that this intelligence has been involved in a “dirty war” by infiltrating extremist Islamist groups during the civil war and instigating acts of violence against civilians as a way to strengthen their grip on the political process in Algeria.

Now, some Algerians are accusing this intelligence of being behind the recent violence with the objective of undermining Bouteflika’s government and preventing him from running for another term – even though the suicide bombing was made to look like that of the FIS or other Islamist groups.

Abbasi Madani, the head of the Islamic Salvation Front, told Al Jazeera: “Their objective is to bring Algeria back to the bloody years of the civil war. As if the crimes that were committed were not enough…. Every time Algeria nears a solution to the political crisis, the enemies of Algeria try to return it to the bloody years. Why aren’t the Algerians left alone so they can build their own state?”

Abbasi’s view reflects that of many Algerians who feel that France is still indirectly occupying their country through its loyal army generals, who still have a great deal of influence over Algeria.

Similarly, Wednesday’s car bomb assassination in Lebanon must also be understood in the context of the domestic political rivalry between the so-called “March 14 Alliance” backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia and the “March 8 Alliance” backed by Iran and Syria.

The two camps have been overwhelmed with a fierce power struggle over who the next president should be and how he should be elected since Nov. 23, when Lebanese President Emile Lahoud stepped down at the end of his term. The two camps came to an agreement on the candidacy of General Michel Suleiman, the chief of the army. But hopes of unity and stability were jeopardized by the sudden assassination of Brigadier General François al-Hajj, who was supposed to succeed Suleiman as the next army chief.

Some suggested that the perpetrators may have carried out the assassination – a parked car exploding when Gen. al-Hajj drove by on his way to work – because the general played a leading role in fighting the Al Qaeda-affiliated group known as Fatah Al Islam in the Nar Al Bared refugee camp, which would mean that the assassination was an act of revenge.

However, the timing, location and sophistication of the operation strongly suggests that the perpetrators had access to sensitive information that members of Fatah Al Islam, or other Al Qaeda-affiliated groups, most likely do not have.

So, who was really behind the Lebanon car bomb?

The fact that the bombing took place in a secured area makes some analysts skeptical that it was indeed carried out by these terrorist groups. Political analyst Masry Sayegh told Al Jazeera, “This operation was a great setback for the Lebanese army because it happened within their own ground. As an independent observer, I wonder how can these powerful explosives reach these secured areas? Can we consider this a security breach or a miracle carried out by the terrorists?”

The former chief of the Lebanese gendarmerie Saeed Eid told Al Jazeera that the perpetrators could be “external forces that want to see Lebanon dragged into a civil war. They assassinated Francois al-Hajj as a way to weaken the army which is the most important line of defense against a war,” he said, referring to Israel.

The London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper raised a very important point: “What is unique about this assassination is the fact that the Lebanese officials refrained from accusing Syria of being behind it, like all other assassinations.” According to the newspaper, this is because the assassinated Lebanese general was a fierce enemy of Israel, and there was no animosity between him and the Syrian regime. The newspaper continues, “Some Lebanese believe that the biggest beneficiary from the ongoing Lebanese crisis is Israel. The assassination aims at dragging the country into a civil war, just like what happened in the mid-1970s.”

The recent explosions in Algeria and Lebanon may have the look and feel of those carried out by Al Qaeda-affiliated groups, but the timing of these explosions strongly suggest that external forces – like Syria, Israel or even French colonial powers – may also have a hidden hand.

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