Al Qaeda in North Africa Growing in Strength

In al Qaeda on July 10, 2009 at 9:33 am

Experts suspect that the al Qaeda branch in North Africa are former fighters from the Iraq war (but are not Iraqis):

Al Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa has carried out a string of killings, bombings and other lethal attacks against Westerners and African security forces in recent weeks that have raised fears that the terrorist group may be taking a deadlier turn.  American and European security and counterterrorism officials say the attacks may signal the return of foreign fighters from the Iraq war, where they honed their bomb-making skills.

In just the past six weeks, the group has claimed responsibility for killing a British hostage in Mali and an American aid worker in Mauritania, murdering a senior Malian Army officer in his home and ambushing a convoy of nearly two dozen Algerian paramilitary forces.

Assessing the militant threat in North Africa is complicated. Some security and counterterrorism officials say the affiliate, based in Algeria, is more a criminal gang — ransoming kidnapped Westerners to finance its operations — than a group of ideologically committed terrorists.  Other counterterrorism officials point to the attacks as evidence of the group’s intent to expand its longtime insurgency in Algeria to other North African countries and possibly Europe, where the group has financial and logistical supporters.

“AQIM has become much stronger in Algeria and Mauritania, and the killing of the British hostage and the American is a message they are not only concentrating on Maghreb issues, they are now part of the global jihad,” said a senior French counterterrorism official, using an acronym for the group and speaking anonymously because he was discussing intelligence reports.

Last week, the leader of the Qaeda wing, Abdelmalek Droukdal, threatened a “flagrant war” against France in retaliation for an effort by France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, to ban burqas, the head-to-toe women’s garments, which he called a symbol of “enslavement.”

The surge in violence has been less audacious than an attack by the group in December 2007, in which suicide bombers struck the United Nations and court offices in Algiers, killing 41 people and wounding 170 others. But some American intelligence analysts say there are initial signs that small numbers of foreign fighters from North Africa who fought in Iraq are returning home.

“Is there a threat? There sure is a threat,” Gen. William E. Ward, the leader of the United States Africa Command, told reporters last month.

Still other officials say the mayhem may be partly a result of a vicious rivalry between two Qaeda subcommanders in Mali, Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Abdelhamid Abu Zeid, a clash that underscores the kind of autonomous jihad cells that counterterrorism officials say are particularly hard to combat.

Lauren C. Ploch, an Africa specialist with the Congressional Research Service, said the extremist Islamist ideology of Al Qaeda was unlikely to garner much sympathy or traction with the populations in the states of the Sahel belt, the southern boundary of the Sahara.

“Nevertheless,” Ms. Ploch said, “the vast spaces in northern Mali, Mauritania, Niger and southern Algeria are extremely difficult to police, so it’s quite possible that we may see surges in extremist activity in certain countries depending on how well their neighbors are able to control their own territories.”

The group originated in the 1990s to fight Algeria’s secular government. In 2007 it changed its name, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. (Maghreb refers to the western edge of the Arab world.)

It singled out Western targets even before the name change. In December 2006, militants in Algeria bombed a bus carrying workers with an affiliate of Halliburton, the American oil services company. A year later, gunmen killed four French tourists in Mauritania.

The latest spate of violence began in late May, when the Qaeda group killed a Briton, Edwin Dyer, a day after its second deadline for meeting its demands expired. He was kidnapped on Jan. 22 along with a Swiss citizen and two other tourists in Niger and was held in Mali.

General Ward, the American commander, said that in response to the killings, Army Green Berets would redouble training efforts with several regional militaries to improve their ability to fight terrorists.

In Europe, the authorities are eyeing Al Qaeda’s North African wing warily, expressing concern about its threats to attack European countries that have deployed troops to Afghanistan.

“What we see here is indeed a lot of logistic support from people who are active in Maghreb,” one Belgian security official said, speaking anonymously about intelligence reports. “They are collecting money, faking papers and giving safe haven. They are active in indoctrination and radicalization of people and sending them for training.”

But these officials have mixed views on whether the group can strike outside Africa. “We don’t rule out that Al Qaeda will try to attack us, and then AQIM would play probably an important role,” said August Hanning, state secretary of the German Interior Ministry. “But we see an increase of danger for German interests in North Africa and the Sahel.”

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