TIZI OUZOU, Algeria (AP) — It's being hailed as a key success in the fight against al-Qaida: a determined Algerian clampdown that has pulled the teeth from one of the terror network's deadliest offshoots and could be a model for elsewhere.
Six years after joining the Osama bin Laden franchise, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb — known by its acronym AQIM — appears to have been neutralized in the nation where it originated and made its name, officials and experts say, corralled into a remote mountain area and reduced to occasional pinprick shootings against soldiers.
Most experts agree there remain just a few hundred combatants holed up in Algeria's Kabylie mountains. The once-feared terror force appears further than ever from its goal of creating an Islamic state in Algeria. Its failure is even more striking compared to the success of AQIM's southern offshoot, which recently allied itself with rebel Tuaregs in northern Mali and appears on the brink of establishing a hardline Islamic state in the little-governed wastelands of the Sahel region.
Without the Algerian military to contend with, the southern offshoot has flourished in an empty lawless region of smugglers in the Sahara desert and nearby Sahel, much the way other al-Qaida franchises took root in the hinterlands of Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan.
The original northern network, however, has been pushed out of nearly all areas of Algeria where it once operated freely. Now, it is confined to a mountainous region about the size of West Virginia, Western officials say. Violence and especially kidnappings remain a persistent problem in the Kabylie region, but the Algerian AQIM hasn't mounted a successful operation against Algiers in the past five years — even though the mountains are less than a two-hour drive from the capital.
AQIM's collapse is particularly notable given its blood-soaked history.
The group jumped to the forefront of the terror scene with a series of high-profile attacks after joining al-Qaida, including suicide bombings on U.N. headquarters in Algeria that killed more than 40 people. It has its roots in a decades-long battle with Algerian security forces that killed a staggering 200,000 and left indelible scars on this oil-rich nation.
The success of Algeria's counter-terror campaign provides insights into how al-Qaida can be beaten if faced with a well-organized and focused foe: With limited U.S. help, Algeria has thrown millions of dollars and the full weight of its security apparatus into eradicating AQIM on its soil.
"Al-Qaida as it stands right now has been knocked down to something that's much more like a criminal threat," Henry Ensher, the U.S. ambassador to Algiers, told The Associated Press, referring to AQIM's original northern group. "Their capabilities are much, much less and that's because the Algerians fought an effective counterinsurgency campaign and essentially destroyed their capabilities as a guerrilla organization."
What is left of the group is hidden in rugged mountain terrain among people who loathe AQIM and the central government in equal measure. The Algerian group's last hideout is ironically in an area where historically it has had the least support.
High above the clear blue waters of the Takhoukht reservoir, along a winding road in the Kabylie mountains, locals park their cars, open their trucks and settle down for sunset beers. The last remnants of Al-Qaida's Algerian branch also lurk around here, and in fact six of them were gunned down by Algerian soldiers last month at this very spot. But judging by the evening leisure of the local Berbers — an indigenous ethnic group separate from the Arabs who dominate Algeria's government — they aren't winning many converts.
The Berbers of the Kabylie have traditionally been fierce opponents of the Islamists and are known for a more secular outlook in general than Algeria's majority Arabs. But their hostility to the government means they do nothing to help authorities root out AQIM.
"No one supports the militants, but no one informs on them because you are confronted by an authority you reject," explained local journalist Samir Leslous, who has close contacts with Algerian security officials and has covered the conflict for years. "There is also the way security forces operate, you get interrogated by them, so people are caught between the hammer and the anvil."
Al-Qaida is also careful not to attack the local civilians, for fear of further antagonizing their reluctant hosts and jeopardizing their last refuge. So people feel free to crack a beer on the roadside.
AQIM's mountain hideout increasingly seems like a cage.
"They are rather isolated without much possibility for action in Algeria," said Jean-Louis Bruguiere, a former French magistrate specializing in counter-terrorism. "The sanctuary of AQIM remains the Kabylie, but it's very reduced because of the actions of the armed forces and intelligence services."