Friday, December 14, 2007

Poverty in the streets of Algiers, breeding ground for terrorism

from the International Herald Tribune

By Katrin Bennhold

ALGIERS: Larbi Charef grew up in a tough neighborhood in Algiers, alongside other suicide bombers, with none of the advantages of the university students he blew up on Tuesday. A former convict, he was 30 years old.

His accomplice was weighted down by even graver troubles, according to local reports. Rabah Bechla, who destroyed a United Nations building with the bomb on his pickup truck, was a 64-year-old man dying of cancer who had lost two sons to death in the Islamist cause. By one report, Bechla had only days to live.

To experts, Charef is a textbook example of a militant Islamist in a volatile region.

He was born in poverty in the eastern part of the capital, had made two pilgrimages to Mecca, had spent time in prison and in unemployment and eventually had made his way to an insurgent camp in the eastern mountains of Algeria, according to a portrait pieced together from interviews with his family and security officials.

"The poverty is the soil, the prison the fertilizer," said a Western diplomat, a student of terrorism in North Africa. He called Charef "in many ways, the classic profile" of a terrorist.

Security officials emphasize that there are almost infinite permutations of personal circumstances and societal factors that may lead to militancy. They need only point to the second bomber in the two attacks, which by the official toll killed 34 people, though doctors and rescue workers estimate the deaths at twice that number.

Bechla was not from Algiers but was from the east of Algeria, near the city of Reghaia. He joined the Islamist militant movement in 1996 and both his sons died for the cause, in clashes with security forces, according to the daily newspaper El Chourouk on Thursday.

If Bechla's role as a suicide bomber was individualistic, Charef's fitted a well-known pattern. Charef particularly intrigues specialists who are trying to explain the comeback of the group that claimed responsibility for this week's attacks, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Security experts say that membership in the group, which formerly was called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, once plunged to a few hundred, but could now be back at about 1,000.

Described by his shaken parents as a polite and religious young man, Charef grew up in Oued Ouchayeh, a poor neighborhood that was the home of prominent suicide bombers, including one who targeted the prime minister's office in April.

Four years ago, his family moved to another neighborhood, Hai Megnouch, a sprawling shantytown with rows of half-finished cement houses. Sitting in one of those unfinished houses, a three-story skeleton of brick and metal, Mouloud Charef, the bomber's father, recalled his son's short life with a surface calm that failed to hide the pain in his face.

"He was a good boy, always went to school and was respectful," said Charef, a slight man with a trim gray beard who was wearing a white Muslim cap. "We don't understand. Nobody knows what happened to him."

One of eight siblings, Charef left high school a year early to work for a wholesaler, making deliveries to pharmacies, his father said.

Then in 2004, he was arrested by the police and accused of being part of a logistical support network linked to the Salafist Group, known at the time by the initials GSPC, the father said.

"He admitted that he had given two boxes of paracetamol to the group," he said, referring to a painkiller.

He spent nearly two years in prison, and that time, some of his cousins and neighbors said, changed Charef.

"He was quieter when he came back," recalled his cousin Muhammad. "Who knows who he met in there. There are a lot of FIS people in prison," he said, a reference to members of the Islamic Salvation Front, a banned party.

In March 2006, he was released under a national reconciliation program that gives amnesty to former terrorists and terrorism-related convicts in an attempt to heal the wounds caused by a civil war in 1990s. But despite a high school diploma he obtained while in prison, he failed to get a job. At one point, he tried to set up his own business, selling ice cream in the neighborhood, his cousin said. The business failed.

Last December he told his family he would leave the country to find work elsewhere.

"From that day on, we never heard from him again," his father said. "I thought he was in Spain until the police came on Tuesday night to show me his burned driving license and to tell me what he had done."

Local journalists briefed by the Algerian security services say that Charef had spent the last year of his life in the eastern mountains training with militants.

Security officials say that for militants, jail is a fertile recruiting ground. And the national reconciliation program has been prone to abuse, they say.

On the second floor of Charef's family home - the only floor that has been completed as a neat apartment with colorful carpets on the floor - Charef's mother, Malika, was looking at the stripped bed that her son had slept in until last year. "National reconciliation is very good, very good," she said, "but when you put young men for two years into prison, you need to follow up. They need guidance."

Souad Mekhennet contributed reporting from Frankfurt.

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