Mounting Terror in Algeria

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Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

A rescuer clears the site of a suicide bomb attack attack in Issers, east of Algiers.

The deadliest in a recent spate of terror attacks in Algeria killed at least 43 people and injured another 38 Tuesday, when a suicide bomber detonated a car packed with explosives outside a police academy while scores of new recruits lined up to register for training. The strike in the town of Boumerdès, about 22 miles east of Algiers, came just hours after reports that an ambush by Islamist extremists on Sunday killed 12 people in eastern Algeria. That assault followed two earlier attacks in August that left eight dead and over 50 injured. Though the extremist Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has only claimed responsibility for one of those massacres, experts fear they were all part of an escalating campaign of terror activity by the organization, which may be aiming to make the approaching holy month of Ramadan particularly bloody.

Algerian officials warned the early victim count in the strike in Boumerdès was a "preliminary estimate," meaning its record-setting death toll will likely rise in the coming days. But even the current toll from Tuesday's blast surpassed the impact of a double suicide bombing in Algiers last December, which killed 41, including 17 United Nations workers. It also outstripped the 33 mortalities in similar attacks on government and police buildings in central Algiers in April, 2007. Responsibility for both was eventually claimed by AQIM, which vowed upon taking the al Qaeda name in 2006 that it would intensify its jihad against the Algiers regime even as it widened attacks towards foreign enemies, notably France and the U.S.

French counter-terrorism officials take threats of exported violence to European soil seriously, but so far AQIM has waged its jihad largely within Algeria's borders. In July, for example, the group executed an attack targeting employees of a French company, killing one French engineer. A second blast detonated 30 minutes later killed a dozen Algerian medical and rescue workers who had flocked to the site (a technique the plot's authors took from international jihad's playbook).

The December strikes near U.N. offices in Algiers bore a similar Al Qaeda earmark, experts say: while targeting foreigners, it maximized the death toll by claiming as many people from the local Muslim population as possible. By contrast, while the eight people killed and 19 injured in the August 10 suicide car bombing in the coastal town of Zemmouri el Bahri were all Algerian, AQIM claimed responsibility for the attack by describing its victims as "the sons of France and the slaves of America". The message being that anyone not supporting the AQIM cause — foreign or Muslim — represent the same enemy.

Even before this month's crescendo of strikes sounded its loudest note Tuesday, French security officials aired concerns AQIM may be planning to again turn the Ramadan holy month, which starts September 1 this year, into a season of blood-letting as jihadists in Algeria and elsewhere have in the past.

"Radicals feel that because they're waging holy war, there's actually something sanctified in killing foreign infidels and people they consider 'bad Muslims' during Islamic holidays," one French intelligence official told TIME prior to Tuesday's attack. "And since everyone who is not with them is an infidel or 'bad Muslim' to the extremists' mind, they see a perverse religious and terror logic to inflict as much death and injury as possible during Ramadan."

The recent spree of strikes have also been significant by brazenly attacking police and army forces, indicating AQIM fighters may now feel as well-organized and -armed as Algeria's security services. According to unconfirmed Algerian media reports, last Sunday 40 AQIM attacked a convoy of elite army and police units in eastern Algeria, killing 12 of its members — including the region's security chief, Lieutenant Colonel Rahmouni Mohammed. Similarly, a suicide bomber took out a police station in the Kabyle town of Tizi Ouzou August 3; though no one was killed, 25 people were injured, including four officers.

"AQIM seems to have become more sophisticated and flexible in the kinds of terror attacks it conducts, and as a result seems to feel assured enough of success that it can now blend soft, civilian targets with direct assaults on the armed forces," the French intelligence official says. Meanwhile, another French counter-terrorism official reacted to Tuesday's strike by harking back to terrorist violence that spilled out of Algeria and into France in the 1990s by AQIM's predecessor, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). "It was only after the GIA reached the summit of its strengths in Algeria that it exported terrorism to France — meaning if history is repeating itself, we may be at a very dangerous place."