Late last month an Algerian-born terrorist named Ahmed Ressam received a commuted sentence of 22 years (prosecutors had recommended 35 years) in prison for his role in planning to blow up the Los Angeles airport. His sentence infuriated many since his involvement in the plot against LAX was immediately transparent. After all, he was captured in December 1999 after driving off a ferry from British Columbia in a vehicle laden with bomb-making explosives.
Ressam received a commuted sentence after providing investigators with good intelligence about the al-Qaeda network which spawned the plot. (Ressam has since stopped cooperating.) Indeed, Ressam's failed attempt against LAX was part of a series of al-Qaeda-related attacks against targets around the world (in Jordan, Australia, and elsewhere) at the turn of the new millennium. There is still much about these planned attacks we do not know.
Ressam's story, like that of so many other al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists, contains an endless list of murky connections to a host of nefarious people and groups. The most troubling of these ties is to al-Qaeda's Algerian affiliates, the Armed Islamic Group (aka the "GIA") and its descendant, the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (the "GSPC"). The history of the GIA is an especially violent one and Ressam is just one of many terrorists to have operated under its auspices. Indeed, the Algerian tentacle of the vast terror network executed scores of lethal attacks spanning more than a decade.
It is a curious fact, then, that Saddam Hussein provided financial assistance to the GIA when it was in its earliest stages of germination. There is still much we do not know about Saddam's relationship with al-Qaeda's Algerian affiliate. But, Iraq's relationship with the GIA warrants further investigation given its tortuous history.
The roots of Saddam's relationship with the GIA trace back to the 1991 Gulf War. The group's early history is particularly useful in understanding why Saddam would offer the GIA his support.
As the war approached, Saddam sought and received support from a conspicuous group of Islamist radicals. Among them was the Sudanese leader Hassan al-Turabi and an Algerian Islamist named Abbas Madani, both of whom traveled to Baghdad in the months prior to the war and declared their support for Saddam.
Madani was then the leader of Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front (the "FIS"), which was a consortium of four Islamist parties formed to obtain democratically elected political power. Madani was somewhat more tempered in his support for Saddam than his cohort, Ali Benhadj, because he feared (correctly) that support for Saddam would end Saudi financial support for the FIS. Benhadj overcame Madani's reticence, however, and moved the FIS firmly into Saddam's camp. According to Gilles Keppel (Jihad, The Trail of Political Islam), Benhadj -- who was accompanied by "a detachment of Afghan-garbed jihadists fresh from Peshawar" -- took to the streets and "delivered a harangue in front of the [Algerian] Ministry of Defense in which he demanded the formation of a corps of volunteers to join the forces of Saddam Hussein."
Writing in Al Qaeda's Armies, Middle East expert Jonathan Schanzer explains that as the Gulf War neared the "FIS became increasingly pro-Iraq and anti-U.S., as seen through their slogans, protests, and even training camps for volunteers to fight for Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The U.S. conflict with Iraq was a powerful symbol of FIS's soaring popularity."
Indeed, the FIS leadership leveraged popular support for Saddam within Algeria to the point that it was on the verge of taking power in 1992. To avoid a takeover by the Islamists, however, the ruling Algerian government and army cancelled the final round of elections. Martial law was imposed, Madani and Benhadj were thrown in jail, and the more radical elements within the FIS, including many former Arab Afghans, left its ranks to join the burgeoning GIA.
The "Arab Afghans" were among the earliest leaders of the GIA. Bin Laden's patronage of the group proved especially beneficial as hundreds of former veterans from the war in Afghanistan were soon redeployed to Algeria to swell the GIA's ranks. By some accounts, bin Laden is said to have personally arranged for the financing and necessary travel documents to be provided to upwards of 1,000 or more "Arab Afghans" who returned or relocated to Algerian soil. Al-Qaeda's number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is also said to have played a vital role in the group's formation.
Bin Laden did not just finance the building of the GIA with money from his own pockets or his wealthy benefactors, however. He also received help from Saddam Hussein: At least one former CIA official has confirmed that some of the money bin Laden funneled to the GIA came from Saddam's Iraq.
In a USA Today article from December 2001, Stanley Bedlington, a senior analyst in the CIA's counterterrorism center until he retired in 1994, explained, "We were convinced that money from Iraq was going to bin Laden, who was then sending it to places that Iraq wanted it to go." He added, "There certainly is no doubt that Saddam Hussein had pretty strong ties to bin Laden while he was in Sudan, whether it was directly or through (Sudanese) intermediaries. We traced considerable sums of money going from bin Laden to the GIA in Algeria. We believed some of the money came from Iraq." [emphasis added]
Later, in an interview with The Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes, Bedlington elaborated on the relationship. "Osama bin Laden had established contact with the GIA," Bedlington explained, "Saddam was using bin Laden to ship funds to his own contacts through the GIA."
The extent of this financial arrangement is not clear. Declassifying the evidence of Saddam's financial relationship with bin Laden collected by the CIA in the early 1990s, as cited by Bedlington, would be a good start to answering these questions. It is likely, however, that we will never know the true extent of Saddam's support for the GIA. This is particularly troublesome since the GIA went on to become one of al-Qaeda's most prolific affiliates; a brief review of the terrorist dossier compiled by the GIA and its descendant, the GSPC, demonstrates that further investigation of Saddam's support for the group is warranted.
Upon its inception in the early 1990s the GIA declared a "jihad" against the Algerian government and a civil war ensued. That war has ended at least 100,000 lives, including many foreigners operating on Algerian soil. The GIA's efforts in this war and abroad were directly aided by the core of al-Qaeda. In his testimony ("Algeria's Struggle Against Terrorism") before Congress's Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Nonproliferation earlier this year, Lorenzo Vidino explained:
The Islamists were not alone in their violent struggle against the secular government. Throughout the 1990s they received financial and logistical support from al-Qaeda, as hundreds of Algerian militants trained in al-Qaeda training camps in Sudan and Afghanistan. And while battling the secular government at home, the GIA established a strong presence in Europe, where its cells interacted with other Islamist groups and provided the militants fighting in Algeria with money, weapons and false documents.
Indeed, the GIA's strong presence in Western Europe played a vital role in al-Qaeda's planning and execution of a number attacks. One such incident proved to be an eerie forerunner of the events of September 11, 2001. Four GIA terrorists hijacked an Air France flight leaving Algiers in December 1994. Their goal was to force the pilot to fly the plane into the Eiffel Tower. Their plan failed when the plane landed in Marseille and French Special Forces overtook it, killing the hijackers in the process.
In addition to the Air France hijacking in 1994, investigations into a series of bombings on French soil throughout 1995 led to the convictions of several GIA terrorists. Another bombing in France in 1996 turned up leads to the GIA; the GIA left its fingerprints on countless other plots throughout the mid-1990s.
By 1998, however, support for the group within Algeria began to wane after years of brutal attacks on civilians, so one of the GIA's former leaders reconstituted the group as the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (the "GSPC"). The GSPC subsumed much of the GIA's international network and terrorists operating within the GSPC's sphere continued to assault the western world.
Members of the GSPC have been connected to terrorist plots and attacks in Belgium, Britain, France, Italy, Spain, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere, several of which are particularly noteworthy.
The aforementioned plot on LAX at the turn of the new millennium is thought to have been spawned within the GSPC's Canadian presence, which it inherited from the GIA. According to Lorenzo Vidino, "A GSPC cell in Europe is believed to have planned to kill President Bush at the G8 meeting in Genoa in the summer of 2001." According to Schanzer, two members of the GSPC provided passports to the assassins of bin Laden's main nemesis within Afghanistan, Ahmad Shah Massoud, just two days prior to September 11, 2001. "Massoud's assassination," Schanzer notes, "was likely designed to weaken the Northern Alliance with the full expectation that the U.S. would require its help in the post-September 11 invasion of Afghanistan."
The GSPC has also been an especially vocal supporter of the terrorist assault, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in Iraq. It was no surprise, therefore, when Zarqawi's al-Qaeda branch claimed responsibility for taking two Algerian diplomats hostage in Iraq late last month. Zarqawi's group explained, according to a translation provided by globalterroralert.com, that the diplomats were taken hostage as direct retribution against the Algerian government for supporting the "Jews, Christians, and every country that wounds the people" of Zarqawi's group. The GSPC lauded the kidnapping and accused the Algerian government of "aiding the apostate Iraqi government and the crusader alliance their battle against the mujahideen."
Did Saddam continue to financially support al-Qaeda's Algerian affiliate throughout its reign of terror? We do not know. Given the GIA's, and then the GSPC's, long history of terrorism around the world, it deserves further investigation.