An unprecedented lull in Islamist militant violence in Algeria suggests al Qaeda’s North African branch is shifting its campaign of ambushes, bombings and kidnappings southward to the vast Sahara desert.
For the first time since the early 1990s when a full-blown conflict broke out between government forces and armed Islamists, Algeria is experiencing a five-month period with only one major attack by insurgents.
But analysts say the insurgents who operate as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have not been finally defeated. Instead they have been displaced to the Sahel desert region, incorporating parts of Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
“There is no longer an organization called Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” said Liess Boukraa, deputy head of the African Centre for Studies and Research on Terrorism, a think tank funded by the African Union. “There is what I call Al Qaeda in the Islamic Sahel.”
A growing al Qaeda presence in the Sahel is an additional worry for Western governments already concerned that the group is finding safe havens in Somalia and Yemen.
The response by governments in the Sahel is hampered by porous borders and a lack of troops and equipment to oversee a vast region containing few people but big reserves of oil, gas, uranium and other minerals coveted by the industrialised world.
Now a growing number of kidnappings of foreign tourists, aid workers and diplomats in 2009 has raised pressure on the region’s governments to make good on promises to cooperate more in fighting Al Qaeda in the Sahara.
“The Americans have started to put their nose in and the Europeans are going to get more involved a lot is riding on what happens in this zone,” she said.
On Algeria’s Mediterranean coast, thousands of kilometres (miles) north of the Sahel and home to the majority of the 35 million population, people are savouring relative peace after years of violence.
About 200 000 people were killed at the peak of the conflict in the 1990s, according to estimates from international non-governmental organisations.
Hundreds of people were killed in a series of suicide bombings in 2008 and as late as the first half of 2009, there were regular bombings and attacks on police or army convoys.
An ambush in October that killed 7 police was the only big attack since July. The coordinator of the United Nations’ al Qaeda and Taliban monitoring team, Richard Barrett, noted the reduction in violence in the second half of 2008.
“Ramadan the last Ramadan in Algeria was the quietest Ramadan they’d had for 15 years,” he said at a seminar, referring to the Muslim holy period in late August and early September which in past years had seen an upsurge of attacks.
Evidence of the change can be found in the Kabylie region, east of the Algeria capital which has for years been known as the “triangle of death”.
The rebels used its inaccessible mountains as their main base and residents rushed home before dark to avoid getting caught up in attacks.
Now, girls kept away from school because their parents did not want to enrage radical Islamists have resumed their studies.
In a hotel in the Kabylie region town of Boumerdes, the lobby has a prominently signposted bar unthinkable a few years ago because the militants forbade alcohol.
The violence has not been stamped out. In isolated areas away from the capital there are sporadic attacks on government targets.
In Algiers itself, several Western embassies last month stepped up their already tight security in the run-up to the Dec. 11 anniversary of a 2007 truck bombing of the United Nations office in the city.
Outside the US embassy on the day of the anniversary, heavy vans and jeeps with diplomatic plates were parked across the entrance to stop any vehicles approaching.
However, most commentators say that the Islamist insurgency has been severely weakened.
“The loss of popular support has been the key factor behind AQIM’s defeat,” said Sheikh Yahya, a former regional commander of Islamist rebels in northern Algeria who surrendered in 2001 under a government amnesty.
“Secondly, several fatwas (religious orders) issued by well known and respected Islamic clerics encouraged fighters to lay down their arms,” he told Reuters at his home in a village in the Bouira region, a former insurgent strong-hold.