JEBLA, Algeria (Reuters) - The mountains of northern Algeria have long sheltered outlaws, but it’s not just rugged terrain that draws al Qaeda to ravines and forests.
The local Berber people’s alienation from the Arab-dominated government of the OPEC member makes the steep slopes of Kabylie a congenial base for the toughest rebel force in north Africa.
That reality means blind eyes are sometimes turned to the guerrilla outsiders’ presence by a population that shares little of their religious fundamentalist ideology.
Diplomats say the resulting denial of intelligence to the state poses a transnational security threat that extends from Kabylie, just 90 minutes’ drive east from Algiers, across the Maghreb and north to Europe’s Mediterranean shores.
With soaring oil prices sparking protests in Europe and worsening a U.S. credit crunch, stability in Algeria has become more important for a Western world thirsty for oil and gas.
European Union anti-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove said al Qaeda’s Maghreb wing has already spread in north Africa.
Normally peaceful Morocco and Mauritania have seen an increase in Islamist guerrilla activity and “this could eventually lead to links with logistical networks in the EU, even to operations,” he said.
Attacks in Algeria last year included al Qaeda suicide bombings in the capital that killed dozens, destroyed U.N. offices and shattered government, judicial and police offices.
Momouh, a handicraft shop owner in the cedar forest of Yakouren, is unapologetic about his encounters with the rebels, most of whom are non-Berbers from other parts of Algeria and who may include nationals of neighboring states.
“They’ve visited me two or three times -- once at 6 a.m. a few months ago. They gave me 2,000 dinars ($31) and took some of my products,” he said.
“As long as they don’t hurt me, I don’t care what they do.”
It’s an attitude familiar to Rachid El Hadj, 58, a retired soldier who lives in the mountaintop farming village of Jebla where women wear traditional Berber orange and red dresses.
He said al Qaeda’s north Africa wing, or the former Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), found it easy to live in the mountains because most local people were “neutral.”
“By neutral, I mean that they won’t make any effort to denounce the Islamic rebels when they see them walking around their villages. The second factor is geography: Look at the mountains. It’s so easy to find a place to hide.”
Founded in 1998 with the aim of establishing an Islamist state, the GSPC has exploited the fierce independence of Berber society ever since its men started taking shelter in remote mountaintop caves and dense brush.
Berbers, the original inhabitants of North Africa before the 7th century Arab invasion, make up a fifth of Algeria’s 33 million people. Most are Muslim but speak their own language and many identify more with Berber rather than Arab culture.
They call themselves “imazighen,” or free men, and their resentment of the Arab-dominated central government means they have long agitated, sometimes violently, for autonomy.
Links to organized crime, and the local family ties of its Berber members, have also helped the GSPC’s goal of continuing a revolt begun by a previous rebel generation back in 1992.
More than 150,000 people have been killed in fighting since the military-backed authorities that year scrapped a parliamentary election that radical Islamists were set to win.
It’s a paradox -- Berbers generally have little time for Islamism, and in a purist Islamic state would be probably be the first to oppose it. Few approve of the GSPC’s goals. But equally, in the current climate, few side with the state.
The de facto complicity -- a case of “If you don’t bother me, I won’t bother you” -- would not be so threatening if the state had not made a fateful switch in security policy in 2002.
The government that year pulled the gendarmerie out of Kabylie after Berbers revolted in 2001 in protest at what they saw as brutality inflicted by the paramilitary force, treatment they felt caused “hogra,” a North African word for injustice.
The move helped calm the immediate revolt, but created a law and order vacuum that allowed crime to thrive and deprived the central government of a flow of intelligence on the rebels.
“What a gift for the GSPC,” said El Hadj.
Berber resentment is everywhere in Kabylie, fed by the state’s failure to rapidly turn oil wealth into jobs.
Algeria supplies a fifth of Europe’s gas imports, exporting globally 62 billion cubic meters a year of gas. It produces 1.4 million barrels of oil a day, most of which is exported.
Soaring energy prices have helped Algeria launch a $140 billion five-year national economic development plan, but the Soviet-style economy has failed to produce many jobs: nearly 75 percent of under 30-year-olds are unemployed.
Al Qaeda also has men in the lightly governed Sahara desert, where it focuses on lucrative smuggling. It has not been able to hit Algeria’s desert-based oil and gas industry.
“Most of the youth here feel excluded,” said Jebla resident Mohand Haji, 35. “I‘m against terrorism, but government incompetence feeds it. Most of the people see the government as an enemy. The GSPC is aware of that, and this is why it is much easier for it to hide in the Kabylie region.”
The gendarmerie has started a very gradual attempt to return to the region in consultation with local people, and says it hopes to be back in 60 percent of the area by early 2009.
The mood at a nearby military checkpoint is confident. “In comparison with 2006, the security situation has improved. It used to be very bad,” a young soldier told Reuters.
“We have all the means to do our job, and we will do it.”
In 2002, the government recognized Tamazight as a national language, meaning the Berber language could be taught officially in schools in Berber-speaking regions for the first time.
But analysts say hearts and minds have yet to be won.
Many still revere Matoub Lounes, a Berber singer assassinated in 1998 and known for caustic songs against the authorities, whom he accused of denying Berber culture.
Government officials blamed the singer’s killing on Islamic rebels. Lounes’ supporters say the real culprits are unknown.
Tewfik, an unemployed 23-year-old man, said: “I heard on the TV that oil is at $120 a barrel, and I know that Algeria is a big exporter. Where is the money? Where are the projects?”
Yousfi Khoudir, 31, said he earned 5,000 dinars ($78) a month from an office job despite his BA in economic science.
“We are the living dead,” he said.
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Writing by William Maclean, editing by Elizabeth Piper