Algerian security forces killed 22 Islamist militants who were plotting an attack on the capital Algiers, the country's Ministry of Defense said Tuesday. The raid in the Ferkioua area of the northern Bouira province also netted a cache of weapons, including 11 Kalashnikovs, ammo, and grenades, but Algerian daily El Watan reported that around 30 suspected militants were able to escape despite a heavy military presence in the area.
The Algerian military has not yet confirmed the affiliation of the slain jihadists, but El Watan reported that they belonged to Jund Al-Khilafa (Soldiers of the Caliphate), an al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) splinter group that pledged loyalty to the Islamic State (IS) last September.
Jund Al-Khilafa is an armed Salafist militia formerly led by Abdelmalek Gouri, who was killed in December 2014 in an army ambush. Gouri was suspected of masterminding several terror attacks that were carried out in and around Algiers between 2007 and 2011. Gouri also claimed responsibility for the execution of French hiker Hervé Gourdel, who was beheaded in September 2014 just days after he was kidnapped.
Matthieu Guidère, a professor at the Jean-Jaurès University in Toulouse, France, and an expert in radical Islam in Africa's Maghreb region, told VICE News "it's impossible to say for sure which group the terrorists killed Tuesday belonged to" without "proof" from the army. Guidère explained that the military previously discovered a Jund Al-Khilafa camp while combing the mountainous area of northern Algeria following Gourdel's execution.
Guidère estimated that Jund Al-Khilafa only has around 30 members, but AQIM, al Qaeda's regional branch in Algeria, currently has around 300 men in its ranks. "Not that long ago, there were 500 of them, perhaps 1,000," Guidère said, referring to AQIM.
According to the expert, AQIM is divided into six "katibas," or brigades, each stationed in a different "military region." The first brigade — nicknamed the "Command Brigade" — is headed by AQIM chief Abdelmalek Droukdel and based in Kabylie, a region in northern Algeria that covers several provinces, including Tizi Ouzou and most of Bouira.
Tuesday's raid reportedly occurred in a mountainous area believed to be Droukdel's hideout. The Algerian army has not confirmed whether or not Droukdel was among those killed Tuesday.
Guidère said AQIM's brigades, despite their affiliation with al Qaeda, have been tempted to join IS. "The northern brigade crossed over and pledged allegiance to IS not that long ago," he said. "The Okba Ibn Nafaa brigade, which is stationed in the eastern region, has taken part in operations against the Tunisian army, has claimed neutrality vis-à-vis AQIM, and has praised IS operations."
AQIM's western brigade, active along the Moroccan border, is said to act as a go-between between Moroccan and Algerian groups. The southern brigade is active in the region close to Western Sahara, near territory claimed by al Mourabitoun, a militant group led by former AQIM chief Mokhtar Belmokhtar. Though Belmokhtar distanced himself from AQIM in 2012, he has remained loyal to al Qaeda's central leadership.
Belmokhtar confirmed his allegiance to current al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri on May 16, just days after another al Mourabitoun leader pledged allegiance to IS. "There is currently a debate raging within AQIM," Guidère said, explaining that many jihadists "are looking to IS and distancing themselves from their local leaders. IS gives them objectives, and that's why they are defecting."
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