BAGHLIA, Algeria (Reuters) – A series of murders in the mountains east of Algiers this month is a demonstration of force by al Qaeda’s north Africa arm to ensure danger money from local farmers keeps flowing into its coffers, residents say.
Algeria’s government has said repeatedly the militants, the remnant of a far bigger Islamist insurgency in the 1990s, are on the back foot as security forces step up raids on their strongholds as close as 50 kilometers (31 miles) to the capital.
Residents of the small town of Baghlia say rebels of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb assassinated its mayor on August 6.
A few days later, they killed three soldiers and injured two in a bomb blast. Then on August 22 a former rebel was gunned down in a cafe.
Local farmers say the killings are designed to show the state still cannot protect those who refuse to pay a portion of their income to al Qaeda.
“If we pay, we become accomplices to terrorists. If we don’t pay, we may end up killed,” a farmer who said he stopped paying the danger money told Reuters. He refused to be identified, fearing reprisals from the security services.
Baghlia used to be an insurgent stronghold. At the height of the violence in the 1990s, the militants killed tens of people there every week, often beheading them.
The rebels’ grip on Baghlia, a town of 19,000 people, shows they continue to defy the government in the populous north despite a shift in their operations southward to the lawless Sahara.
The violence has complicated attempts by OPEC member Algeria, a strong U.S. ally that supplies Europe with one fifth of its natural gas, to turn a page after the decade-long civil conflict that left as many as 200,000 people dead.
TEN PERCENT ‘CUT’
Massacres of civilians in the 1990s by Islamic armed groups sapped support for them among ordinary Algerians.
Security analysts estimate the militants’ ranks have dwindled to between 1,000 and 1,500 today from as many as 35,000 at the height of the insurgency. The remaining rebels adopted the al Qaeda name in 2005.
Durable peace will require stifling the rebels of funds, but their ability to instill a climate of fear in Baghlia shows that is no easy task.
Al Qaeda demands 10 percent of the value of the harvest from the 12,000 farmers around Baghlia, where grapes are the preferred crop.
“We usually receive a phone call each summer, the voice demanding 10 percent of our grape harvest,” said one.
Two farmers in the area said the protection money varied from 100,000 to 1.4 million dinars ($1,330-$18,620).
“It depends on the surface of land you have, and the output,” said the farmer, who is planning to leave Baghlia because he was fed up.
Security sources say Baghlia is not an isolated case, adding that other farmers from the wider region of Boumerdes are paying the levy. They say the money allows al Qaeda to hire recruits and pay agents.
“You have no choice but to pay. Otherwise you, or a member of your family, is kidnapped,” said Ahmed Alouane, a security analyst working for newspaper El Khabar.
Alouane, who is based in Boumerdes, added that “20 people have been kidnapped recently. They were freed after paying a ransom.”
“They (the insurgents) are very present in Baghlia. We know them. We see them,” the first farmer told Reuters.
A security source estimated there are over 100 active al Qaeda members in the Boumerdes region.
Following the recent killings, the government has stepped up security on roads leading into the region’s urban areas.
“Mayors of the region no longer sleep at home. They have rented apartments in the safe city of Boumerdes,” Alouane said.