By Walid Ramzi
One day after a suicide bomber attacked the National Gendarmerie headquarters in Tamanrasset, Algerian security officers on Sunday (March 4th) caught two surviving suspects.
The Malian and Algerian men were allegedly attempting to flee the area with weapons, a bomb, explosives and 7,000 euros. They were captured after a clash with counter-terror forces, El Khabar reported.
Al-Qaeda splinter group Jamat Tawhid Wal Jihad Fi Garbi Afriqqiya (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO) sent a message to AFP claiming responsibility for the bombing that wounded 15 officers, 5 civilian workers and 3 passers-by.
A Defence Ministry statement reported that most of those injured were discharged from the hospital in good health. Two gendarmes remained under medical observation.
Witnesses to the early-morning attack reported seeing a four-wheel drive vehicle storm the main gate of the gendarmerie facility in Tamanrasset. Seconds later, they heard three blasts and saw the building’s external wall collapse.
Security authorities closed the land border with Mali and Niger for several hours to prevent those involved from escaping. Security forces and gendarmerie installed dozens of checkpoints near the entrances and exits of the cities of Tamanrasset, Bordj Badji Mokhtar and Ein Qazam.
Explosives experts managed to defuse a second bomb planted near the gendarmerie headquarters in Tamanrasset. The bomb, disguised in a plastic bag, appeared to be targeting a senior military commander who visited the headquarters minutes after the attack.
In the first official reaction to the attack, Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia said, “It does not matter to us who is behind it. We condemn this attack, no matter who adopted it – it targeted the people and Algeria.”
He added that he is “aware that a new name for a terrorist group appeared”, referring to the new MUJAO cell. He stressed that the name of the group is unimportant, “because terrorism remains terrorism”.
“These are criminals and we will eliminate them,” Ouyahia said.
Preliminary investigations suggest that the bomber took advantage of a truck entering to bring food to the headquarters every morning, sneaking in behind it to storm the headquarters because of the ease of entry, as the guards usually removed the barricades in front of the truck.
The suicide bombing was the first of its kind targeting the southern wilayas since the attack on the National Gendarmerie in July 2010. There was also a kidnapping of German and Italian foreign nationals at the Rabouni camp near Tindouf in March 2011, for which the MUJAO also claimed responsibility.
Security expert Omar Wali said the operation targeted “the city specifically home to the main headquarters of the Unified Military Command of the Sahel Countries, which co-ordinates information exchange and search operations on the border against ‘al-Qaeda’ in… Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger”.
Wali told Magharebia that the operation might be linked with events in northern Mali, because of the on-going conflict between government forces and Touareg rebels.
“This operation confirms fears expressed by Algeria that events in Mali may strengthen the thorns of the al-Qaeda Maghreb branch,” Wali said. He added that Algerian security forces were already troubled by arms smuggling from Libya.
The operation sparked a wave of denunciations in political circles. The National Liberation Front (FLN) condemned the attack, adding that the attack confirms fears of the growing terrorist threat in the Sahel.
“There is no way to meet these challenges except… with the agreement of all countries in the region through the co-ordination of joint security,” the FLN asserted.