THE mountains of northern Algeria have long sheltered outlaws, but itâ€™s not just rugged terrain that draws al Qaeda to ravines and forests.
The local Berber peopleâ€™s alienation from the Arab-dominated government of the Opec member makes the steep slopes of Kabylie a congenial base for the toughest rebel force in North Africa.
That reality means blind eyes are sometimes turned to the guerrilla outsidersâ€™ presence by a population that shares little of their religious fundamentalist ideology.
Diplomats say the resulting denial of intelligence to the state poses a transnational security threat that extends from Kabylie, just 90 minutesâ€™ drive east from Algiers, across the Maghreb and north to Europeâ€™s Mediterranean shores.
With soaring oil prices sparking protests in Europe and worsening a US credit crunch, stability in Algeria has become more important for a Western world thirsty for oil and gas.
European Union anti-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove said al Qaedaâ€™s Maghreb wing has already spread in North Africa.
Normally peaceful Morocco and Mauritania have seen an increase in Islamist guerrilla activity and “this could eventually lead to links with logistical networks in the EU, even to operations”, he said.
Attacks in Algeria last year included al Qaeda suicide bombings in the capital that killed dozens, destroyed U.N. offices and shattered government, judicial and police offices.
Momouh, a handicraft shop owner in the cedar forest of Yakouren, is unapologetic about his encounters with the rebels, most of whom are non-Berbers from other parts of Algeria and who may include nationals of neighbouring states.
“Theyâ€™ve visited me two or three times — once at 6 a.m. a few months ago. They gave me 2,000 dinars (US$31) and took some of my products,” he said.
“As long as they donâ€™t hurt me, I donâ€™t care what they do.”
Itâ€™s an attitude familiar to Rachid El Hadj, 58, a retired soldier who lives in the mountaintop farming village of Jebla where women wear traditional Berber orange and red dresses.
He said al Qaedaâ€™s North Africa wing or the former Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), found it easy to live in the mountains because most local people were “neutral”.
“By neutral, I mean that they wonâ€™t make any effort to denounce the Islamic rebels when they see them walking around their villages. The second factor is geography: Look at the mountains. Itâ€™s so easy to find a place to hide.”
Founded in 1998 with the aim of establishing an Islamist state, the GSPC has exploited the fierce independence of Berber society ever since its men started taking shelter in remote mountaintop caves and dense brush.
Berbers, the original inhabitants of North Africa before the 7th century Arab invasion, make up a fifth of Algeriaâ€™s 33 million people. Most are Muslim but speak their own language and many identify more with Berber rather than Arab culture.
They call themselves “imazighen”, or free men, and their resentment of the Arab-dominated central government means they have long agitated, sometimes violently, for autonomy.
Links to organised crime, and the local family ties of its Berber members, have also helped the GSPCâ€™s goal of continuing a revolt begun by a previous rebel generation back in 1992. â€“â€“Reuters