Algerians, as a nationality, do not figure prominently on the British ethnic landscape. As a former colony of France, Algeria's historical links lie on the other side of the Channel. Its citizens form only a small percentage of Britain's 2 million Muslims. But for some reason, Algerian Islamic extremists turn up again and again as British security services widen their investigations into the al-Qaeda terror organization.
So far, more than a dozen Algerians have been arrested in Britain though many have been cleared and released in connection with terrorist activities. They are part of an extensive web of Algerian activity all across Europe. Two weeks ago six Algerians detained in Bosnia, whom Americans suspect of being part of an al-Qaeda sleeper cell, were handed over to U.S. authorities. Elsewhere in Europe, Algerian extremists have taken a leading role in some operational cells and have also developed expertise in support activities. According to Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at Scotland's St. Andrews University, Algerian extremists have specialized in credit-card fraud, forged checks and false documentation. They have, he says, "become masters of support activity, providing safe houses, money and documentation to enable groups to launch terrorist acts."
Two weeks ago, Algerians Baghdad Meziane, 37, and Brahim Benmerzouga, 30, became the first suspects to be charged in Britain with direct links to al-Qaeda. They were arrested in Leicester shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington D.C. Meziane is accused of directing al-Qaeda operations, inciting an act of terrorism overseas and financing terrorism. Benmerzouga is also charged with al-Qaeda membership, helping finance operations and possessing racially inflammatory videos. They were arrested on Sept. 25 with Franco-Algerian terrorist suspect Kamel Daoudi, now in custody in France. All three are suspected of links to Djamel Beghal, another Franco-Algerian detained in France and believed to be a key associate of Osama bin Laden. Beghal lived in London and Leicester in the mid-1990s, frequenting extremist mosques. Even suspected shoe-bomber Richard Reid, the Anglo-Jamaican accused of trying to blow up an American Airlines plane, is alleged to have come into Beghal's orbit.
There are five other Algerians in a British high-security prison fighting extradition two to France on bomb-plot charges, one to Italy accused of document forgery, and two to the U.S. The Americans want Lotfi Raissi, although early accusations that he helped train four of the Sept. 11 suicide pilots seem to have evaporated. They also want Abu Doha, who lived in London in 1999 and has been accused of being behind a planned bomb attack on Los Angeles airport on Dec. 31, 1999.
Leicester, a manufacturing town in the English Midlands with a large Muslim community and exemplary race relations, is emerging as a hub for suspected Algerian terror-related activities. Apart from Beghal, Daoudi, Meziane and Benmerzouga, French brothers David and Jerome Courtellier the latter arrested in the Netherlands on suspicion of terrorism also apparently stayed in Leicester. Raids by antiterrorist police in the town two weeks ago scooped up nine Algerian suspects. Terrorism charges were subsequently dropped against all of them, but five are being investigated for credit-card fraud.
The British Algerian connection comes as no surprise to French intelligence services who have long accused Britain, with its strong civil-rights groups and traditions of free speech, of harboring Algerian terrorist suspects. The French are experienced in Algerian extremism, having contended with the brutal campaigns of organizations like the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the breakaway Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (SGPC) both founded after the cancellation of 1992 elections by the Algerian government when it became clear the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front was poised to win.
Today, a gory SGPC combat video is on sale at some radical British mosques, presumably as a recruiting device. "What people often forget is that without money and above all, without fake documents Islamist terrorists would have a much tougher job preparing their attacks," says a French justice official. Perhaps the recent arrests will make that job even tougher.