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Algeria: Police foil suicide attack in Constantine

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The North Africa Journal:  February 27, 2917: A suicide attack targeting a police station in Bab el-Kantara, in the Algerian province of Constantine, was foiled on February 26, 2017. A suicide bomber was seeking to enter the police station, but was prevented to do so by an officer who opened fire on him. The bomber’s explosive belt went off when the militant fell down, wounding three policemen. While an investigation is underway, it is believed that the Islamic State was behind the act, an assumption also being made by local authorities.

In a security broadcast to its clients by MEA Risk LLC, the security advisory firm noted that threats against Constantine have been made several times during the course of 2016, with the settling of an IS offshoot in the region.  Indeed, the northeastern province of Constantine has become a hotbed of militant activity threatening the large urban and industrial centers of the northeast, including the city of Constantine, but also the oil treatment sites of Skikda and Annaba, and the industrial zones located in various geographies.  The northeast region appears to have been one of the most active areas of operation for the militants, as the military and the security services push them out of their north central historical hideouts, in particular from the Boumerdes-TiziOuzou-Bouira triangle, located immediately east to the capital Algiers. In April 2016 four army troops were killed during a sweep operation in the mountainous region, which led to the arrest of three Islamic insurgents. They were captured in the region of Djebel el-Ouahch, in Constantine.

MEA Risk says Constantine and its surrounding regions are also a perfect extension of Western Tunisia, creating therefore, a natural corridor linking the two active regions on the militant side. With the militants focusing on Constantine, the military-insurgency conflict in Algeria appears to be taking hold in the northeast, after shifting from the north central.

Threats against Constantine and other northeastern cities have long been acknowledged by authorities and analysts.  On November 2016, the army in Skikda, Jijel and Constantine went on high alert to increase pressure on militant groups that were entrenched in the mountains. A report then already warned that a suicide bombing may take place in the region, which prompted new security reinforcements in the urban areas as well. Intelligence gathering suggested that a militant by the name of Youcef Massahal, aka Zoubeir, was seeking revenge in light of the killing of his two insurgent brothers at the hands of the military, and the arrest of his father, who confirmed Zoubeir’s  intention.

While the older militant groups have been progressively degraded by a sustained military campaign, including the Islamist Armed Group (GIA), the Islamic State offshoot in Algeria,  Katibat al-Ghoroba (KaG), has been aggressively seeking to make its mark. Its presence in Constantine is also enhanced by the fact that its known 40-year old leader, Abu Hammam is a native and his parents live in Ali Mendjeli’s Ziadia neighborhood.    In late October 2016, KaG claimed responsibility for killing a policeman in Constantine a murder KaG said was executed directly by Abu Hammam. The attack took place in downtown Constantine, when the insurgents stormed a restaurant and shot the victims three times.

Outside of the city, the militants in the Constantine area tend to find shelter in the Djebel El Ouahch region.  In April 2016, four army troops were killed in an insurgent ambush in Djebel el-Ouahch, 200km west of the Tunisian border. The army troops were engaged in a sweep operation at the time of the attack, which occurred one day before the Prime Minister’s visit to Constantine.

Militants have been spotted by local populations on several occasions, prompting military interventions as was the case in the town of Ali Mendjeli, Constantine on 30 December.  Abu Hammam was spotted in in Ali Mendjeli region, when he tried to pay a visit to his parents in the Ziadia neighborhood. During the course of the year, the army has been combing the region to find-and-destroy weapons and shelters, and arrest or kill militants. In addition to Djebel El Ouahch, the region of el-Khroub has also been a focal point to the security services, therefore suggesting that militant groups have found shelter there. The armed forces have put a great deal of resources to undermine the militant groups and prevent them from settling.

In August 2016, a large scale military operation took place in the province of Constantine, in an effort to locate a pro-Islamic State brigade comprising insurgents who used to be part of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Katibet al-Ghoroba  (ex-Jund al-Khalifa).

With the accelerate anti-insurgency campaign in summer 2016, a number of militants based in Constantine were among the 65 Islamist insurgents who surrendered as of November 2016. Those were militants who represented the softer part of the insurgent groups.  Authorities already captured 350 individuals they say were active militants and killed 100 by November. Among them were aging insurgents who joined the Islamist Armed Group (GIA) in 1993. The wave of surrenders was due to the heavier crack down on insurgency groups in the border regions and in Kabylie.

For MEA Risk analysis, the latest incident provides several indicators of the state of the militant groups in the region:

  • The incident is not a surprise. The Algerian security services have continuously discovered weapons and ammunition and at some point militants are expected to strike. The number of terror attacks in Algeria has diminished considerably, but given the number of shelters and weapons being discovered on the weekly basis, it is no surprise that an attack takes place. Furthermore, there has been a cat-and-mouse game between militants and the police and tension between the two has reached its peak.
  • However, the use of a suicide mission to attack a police station indicates that militant groups may not have the means to face security services head on, and are looking to inflict losses using the last resort mission of suicide. The fact that the security services managed to spot the attacker shows the lack of preparedness.
  • The target of a police station is indicative of a militant group focused on its fight with security services as opposed to launching an all-out terror campaign against civilians or economic targets. The military and the police have been the focal point of recent attacks in the northeast, and that could indicate that the militants’ focus is concentrating on the police and the army. The fact that one of its top leaders is a native also hints that the militants may be solely targeting the police and that the conflict is turning into a personal affair.
  • Despite the above points, the region’s population centers and industrial facilities remain vulnerable to militancy, in particular as we assume that efforts to organize insurgent groups are underway, with the aim of coordinating militants nationwide, and indeed beyond and well into Tunisia and Libya.

The North Africa Journal is a leading English-language publication focused on North Africa. The Journal covers primarily the Maghreb region and expands its general coverage to the Sahel, Egypt, and beyond, when events in those regions affect the broader North Africa geography. The Journal does not have any affiliation with any institution and has been independent since its founding in 1996. Our position is to always bring our best analysis of events affecting the region, and remain as neutral as humanly possible. Our coverage is not limited to one single topic, but ranges from economic and political affairs, to security, defense, social and environmental issues. We rely on our full staff analysts and editors to bring you best-in-class analysis. We also work with sister company MEA Risk LLC, to leverage the presence on the ground of a solid network of contributors and experts. Information on MEA Risk can be found at