TIZI OUZOU, Algeria (AP) — It's being hailed as a key success in the fight against al-Qaida: a determined Algerian clampdown that has pulled the teeth from one of the terror network's deadliest offshoots and could be a model for elsewhere.
Six years after joining the Osama bin Laden franchise, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb — known by its acronym AQIM — appears to have been neutralized in the nation where it originated and made its name, officials and experts say, corralled into a remote mountain area and reduced to occasional pinprick shootings against soldiers.
Most experts agree there remain just a few hundred combatants holed up in Algeria's Kabylie mountains. The once-feared terror force appears further than ever from its goal of creating an Islamic state in Algeria. Its failure is even more striking compared to the success of AQIM's southern offshoot, which recently allied itself with rebel Tuaregs in northern Mali and appears on the brink of establishing a hardline Islamic state in the little-governed wastelands of the Sahel region.
Without the Algerian military to contend with, the southern offshoot has flourished in an empty lawless region of smugglers in the Sahara desert and nearby Sahel, much the way other al-Qaida franchises took root in the hinterlands of Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan.
The original northern network, however, has been pushed out of nearly all areas of Algeria where it once operated freely. Now, it is confined to a mountainous region about the size of West Virginia, Western officials say. Violence and especially kidnappings remain a persistent problem in the Kabylie region, but the Algerian AQIM hasn't mounted a successful operation against Algiers in the past five years — even though the mountains are less than a two-hour drive from the capital.
AQIM's collapse is particularly notable given its blood-soaked history.
The group jumped to the forefront of the terror scene with a series of high-profile attacks after joining al-Qaida, including suicide bombings on U.N. headquarters in Algeria that killed more than 40 people. It has its roots in a decades-long battle with Algerian security forces that killed a staggering 200,000 and left indelible scars on this oil-rich nation.
The success of Algeria's counter-terror campaign provides insights into how al-Qaida can be beaten if faced with a well-organized and focused foe: With limited U.S. help, Algeria has thrown millions of dollars and the full weight of its security apparatus into eradicating AQIM on its soil.
"Al-Qaida as it stands right now has been knocked down to something that's much more like a criminal threat," Henry Ensher, the U.S. ambassador to Algiers, told The Associated Press, referring to AQIM's original northern group. "Their capabilities are much, much less and that's because the Algerians fought an effective counterinsurgency campaign and essentially destroyed their capabilities as a guerrilla organization."
What is left of the group is hidden in rugged mountain terrain among people who loathe AQIM and the central government in equal measure. The Algerian group's last hideout is ironically in an area where historically it has had the least support.
High above the clear blue waters of the Takhoukht reservoir, along a winding road in the Kabylie mountains, locals park their cars, open their trucks and settle down for sunset beers. The last remnants of Al-Qaida's Algerian branch also lurk around here, and in fact six of them were gunned down by Algerian soldiers last month at this very spot. But judging by the evening leisure of the local Berbers — an indigenous ethnic group separate from the Arabs who dominate Algeria's government — they aren't winning many converts.
The Berbers of the Kabylie have traditionally been fierce opponents of the Islamists and are known for a more secular outlook in general than Algeria's majority Arabs. But their hostility to the government means they do nothing to help authorities root out AQIM.
"No one supports the militants, but no one informs on them because you are confronted by an authority you reject," explained local journalist Samir Leslous, who has close contacts with Algerian security officials and has covered the conflict for years. "There is also the way security forces operate, you get interrogated by them, so people are caught between the hammer and the anvil."
Al-Qaida is also careful not to attack the local civilians, for fear of further antagonizing their reluctant hosts and jeopardizing their last refuge. So people feel free to crack a beer on the roadside.
AQIM's mountain hideout increasingly seems like a cage.
"They are rather isolated without much possibility for action in Algeria," said Jean-Louis Bruguiere, a former French magistrate specializing in counter-terrorism. "The sanctuary of AQIM remains the Kabylie, but it's very reduced because of the actions of the armed forces and intelligence services."
AQIM grew out of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, the last surviving group of Islamicist insurgents that battled the Algerian government for more than a decade after a military coup canceled elections in 1992 that an Islamist party was poised to win.
Vigorous counter-terrorism operations by government forces as well as amnesties extended to former militants had left the Islamist rebels much diminished by the early 2000s. Many fled to the deep south and the unpatrolled lands on the borders with Mali and Mauritania.
The extremists received a shot in the arm in 2006 when al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri recognized it as part of the network and tasked it with bringing the fight to France — opening a new front during the height of the U.S. campaign in Iraq. Together with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, it was part of the aggressive new branches in the terror network aimed at the U.S. and its allies.
The Algerian al-Qaida made its mark with a series of high profile suicide car bombings inside the capital Algiers in 2007, including the December U.N. headquarters bombings and twin attacks in April on the prime minister's office that together killed 74 people, which suggested a major new terror force had entered the fray in North Africa.
The Algerian forces successfully took the attack to al-Qaida, experts say, and drove the new force out of most of the country except for the rugged Kabylie mountains and the far south along the border with Mali.
"The government has put down the Islamist groups over the past few years, and from this perspective the Algerian security forces have done a very good job," said Rachid Tlemcani, a professor of politics and regional security at the University of Algiers. "Every citizen now feels the situation is very secure, while in the past it was very hard to travel around the country. In many places outside the cities, it wasn't at all easy to travel after 5 p.m."
That level of security has not yet come the Kabylie, where public buses between villages stop running after sunset and everyone knows that out there in the forests lurk the remnants of al-Qaida. Yet the group does not touch the locals. A list of its attacks for the past four months — minor operations targeting army trucks or checkpoints that kill a couple soldiers at a time — show no dead civilians.
What has plagued the population, however, is kidnappings. There have been around 70 cases of kidnapping since 2004, always targeting wealthy businessmen for ransom. Locals say it is not clear if it's al-Qaida raising funds or just local criminal networks taking advantage of the lack of security.
The result, however, is a disastrous decline in businesses interested in investing in the area and an unemployment rate estimated at 35 percent. Mahfoud Bellabas, head of the provincial council said that the lack of security is driving out business and preventing any new investment.
"So far 71 businessmen have left this region, mainly due to the lack of security," he said. "They don't just kidnap anyone, they are targeting the businessmen, the people with money and the state does nothing."
Despite soldiers and police losing their lives every week in militant ambushes, local politicians maintain that the central government — which has a history of repressing the Berbers — is satisfied with the situation as it is. In exchange for a few lives lost, some say, the Berbers of the Kabylie are kept off balance and economically poor.
Mohammed Ikarbane, a lawmaker from the opposition Rally for Culture and Democracy, maintains that the government could root out the rest of al-Qaida if it wanted.
"There is a clear will by the government to maintain the Islamic threat in the Kabylie to oppress the people," he said.
For its part, al-Qaida has recently attempted to reach out to the Berbers of the Kabylie, to fight against their common enemy of the government.
In December they issued on jihadist websites their first ever Berber-language video in which a masked militant from the Kabylie region appealed to the people to rise up against the government.
Abu Hazim Moudoud evoked past Berber uprisings and demonstrations against the government and urged them to take up arms, while assuring them that al-Qaida would not harm them.
"If we wanted to kill the people, we would have done so, we possess weapons, bombs and mortars," he said. "For 20 years, the mujahedeen have been in the Kabylie region and they never harmed the people."
But there has been no sign of any sudden surge of support for AQIM in the Kabylie.
"This is a region that has always confronted the Islamists and the state at the same time," said Bellabas. "They are both monsters created together."
Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten contributed from Paris