U.S. Eyes Increasingly Active Al-Qaida Network in North Africa As It Gains Strength and Recruits

March 2, 2010 04:57

By Lolita C. Baldor, Associated Press

Al-Qaida’s terror network in North Africa is growing more active and attracting new recruits, threatening to further destabilize the continent’s already vulnerable Sahara region, according to U.S. defense and counterterrorism officials.

The North African faction, which calls itself Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), is still small and largely isolated, numbering a couple hundred militants based mostly in the vast desert of northern Mali. But signs of stepped-up activity and the group’s advancing potential for growth worry analysts familiar with the region.

The rapid recent rise of the al-Qaida group in Yemen — which spawned the Christmas airliner attack — is seen by U.S. officials and counterterrorism analysts as evidence that the North African militants could just as quickly take on a broader jihadi mission and become a serious threat to the U.S. and European allies.

The Mali-based militants have yet to show a capability to launch such foreign attacks, but are widening their involvement in kidnapping and the narcotics trade, reaping profits that could be used to expand terror operations, officials and analysts said.

Several senior U.S. defense and counterterrorism officials spoke about AQIM on condition of anonymity to discuss internal analysis.

Those advances have set off alarms within the counterterrorism community, which watched as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula quickly transformed over the past year from militants preoccupied with internal Yemeni strife to a potent group recruiting and training insurgents for terror missions inside the U.S.

That threat was underscored by the failed Christmas airliner attack, which officials say was planned and directed by Yemeni insurgent leaders.

A key fear is that as AQIM expands, its criminal and insurgent operations will continue to destabilize the fragile governments of heavily Islamic North Africa, much as it has in Mali. The Maghreb includes the North African nations of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania.

As a result, the U.S. has been working to boost poverty-stricken Mali’s defenses. Last year, the U.S. gave $5 million in new trucks and other equipment to its security forces, and Pentagon funds also have been approved to provide training.

Several senior U.S. defense and counterterrorism officials spoke about AQIM on condition of anonymity to discuss internal analysis.

Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution Saban Center and a former CIA officer, said that the North African terror group has a larger area to operate in and a wider Islamic population pool to draw from, but has not launched the kind of large-scale attacks initially feared when it became an al-Qaida affiliate three years ago.

“Now, if it is beginning to reorganize, recruit and develop, because of this international potential, it could become a much more dangerous threat,” Riedel said. “And if there is a role model in al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, that is very disturbing.”

Born as an Algerian insurgency in the early 1990s, the group was largely defeated and driven into a swath of ungoverned desert land — about the size of France — in northern Mali. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the group reached out to al-Qaida in an effort to survive. AQIM was officially recognized as an al-Qaida affiliate by Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. Both the U.S. and the European Union have designated AQIM a terrorist organization.

The group has since absorbed some of al-Qaida’s techniques for roadside bombs and suicide attacks. Occasionally it has issued videos and statements on jihadi Internet forums.

In December 2007, for example, the group attacked the U.N.’s Algerian headquarters, killing 37 people, including 17 U.N. staff members.

At the same time, AQIM has increased its recruiting efforts, drawing insurgents from Mauritania, Nigeria and Chad, officials said. The recruits are trained in small arms and roadside bomb construction, officials said, then return to their home countries to plan and execute attacks.

The spike in recruiting and training, along with the increase in kidnappings and other crimes, has made the region more insecure and unstable in just a year, several officials said.

The militants often partner with local criminals, who kidnap tourists then sell them to AQIM, which then demands ransoms, officials said. Those alliances cement contacts between the criminal groups and AQIM, broadening its reach and membership.

The kidnappings have had mixed results. Last week, the group released French hostage Pierre Camatte after holding him for three months. The move was spurred by a Mali court decision that released four jailed AQIM members.

Some hostages have been killed — including Edwin Dyer, a British tourist who was captured with three others including two U.N. envoys. Britain had refused to pay ransom to the group.

So far, the group has not moved beyond kidnappings to push al-Qaida’s global jihad aims, creating tensions between the offshoot organization and core al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan, said Haim Malka, deputy director for the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Middle East program.

“They have not yet become more globally focused, they’ve stayed in the Sahara region and they’ve failed to make inroads in other parts of North Africa,” he said. Malka cautioned that the group’s broadening efforts to work with local criminal networks on kidnappings may give the appearance that it is expanding more than it actually is.

Despite the group’s limited reach, British and American authorities have issued strong warnings against travel to northern Mali, saying there is a “high threat from terrorism” and from criminal acts and kidnappings.

The concern, according to officials, is that the insurgents will gain strength, expand their scope across the region and destabilize other areas, much as they have done already in northern Mali.

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