Al Qaeda fighters have allegedly joined forces with Algeria's Islamic rebel Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC) faction and were part of a bloody January 4th ambush. The attention-grabbing mechanics of the attack, (particularly against such a large unit) were reminiscent of international Jihadist operations in Chechnya and the Philippines. This ambush is now believed to be the worst single rebel assault on Algerian troops in the past six years.
The reconnaissance patrol was on an exercise in Biskra province's Iglfen-Taghda region near Theniet el Abed village, when 60 rebels initiated the ambush by detonating a series of acetylene bottles. Despite medevac efforts, the death toll rose to 43 paratroopers (including two officers) and four armed civilian guides killed and 15 more wounded.
The GSPC bushwackers were mostly from "Abderazak the Para's" faction, a group of 150 fighters active in the Aures Mountains border between Biskra and Batna (about 430 km east of the capital Algiers). Their leader, the number two man in the GSPC, is a former Algerian paratrooper. The army sent 1,000 troops to the area from other regions and initiated a large sweep.
A second GSPC ground of 180 rebels are active in the country's center and a third group of 40 equipped with all-terrain four-wheel drive vehicles roams the far south, making frequent incursions into the desert areas of neighboring Niger, Mali, and Mauritania. The primary mission of Mokhtar Belmokhtar's group is to run weapons and supplies to the other two GSPC groups.
The Algerian army had been tracking a Yemeni Al Qaeda member for several days in late December, who had come to Bouira (125 km east of Algiers) to meet with GSPC leader Hassan Hattab. Three more Al Qaeda emissaries, all Saudi nationals, also delivered a message from Osama bin Laden to a Belmokhtar (who was in neighboring Niger).
The first time Algeria admitted that Al Qaeda had a presence in the country was in November 2002, when security forces identified a Yemeni they killed in October as a senior Al Qaeda member. Emad Abdelwahid Ahmed Alwan had been sent to Algeria to assess the GSPC. - Adam Geibel
Maps of Algeria, online at: http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/algeria.html