- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 29, 2006

Algerian terrorist group that U.S. military officials have called the No. 1 threat to security in Africa’s Sahara region is losing ground, but recent arrests in Europe — including a plot foiled by Italian authorities last month intended to outdo the attacks of September 11, 2001— indicate the group has many terrorists ready to strike civilian targets.

U.S. and European intelligence officials have evidence the Algerian terrorists, who call themselves the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC, as it is known by its French acronym), continue to recruit, train and finance North African jihadists to fight U.S.-led forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The GSPC, on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations and estimated to have 300 members in Algeria, was formed in the late 1990s to overthrow the government in Algiers and create an Islamic state.

Algerian authorities cracked down on the group after attacks last summer that reportedly killed 40 soldiers from Algeria and Mauritania.

The latest GSPC attack, a Dec. 24 bombing in Dellys, a northeast Algerian port, caused only one casualty. The unexpected surrender two days later of three ranking GSPC militants supports intelligence reports that the group’s leadership in North Africa is fractured and on the run.

GSPC founders had earlier broken ranks with the Armed Islamic Group over its policy of killing civilians indiscriminately during Algeria’s 1992-99 civil war that left more than 100,000 dead. But their decline at home apparently made the al Qaeda-linked group desperate, and it began targeting civilians in Europe and beyond.

Spanish authorities arrested 20 suspected terrorists Jan. 12 in Barcelona and Madrid, including Moroccan-born Omar Nackhcha, the head of a GSPC cell said to recruit and give logistical support to Iraq-bound militants and suicide bombers.

A spokesman for Spain’s Interior Ministry said one of the group’s recruits was responsible for a suicide attack in November 2003 in Nasiriyah, Iraq, that killed 19 Italians and 9 Iraqis.

Attacks in Europe

Nackhcha is also thought to have led a terrorist cell that helped the escape of three suspects in the 2004 Madrid train bombings that killed 191 persons.

Elsewhere, three Algerian members of a GSPC cell in southern Italy were arrested in a sweep last month and implicated in planning attacks on civilians, according to Italian Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu.

More than $22 million is said to have been found in the vehicle used by the three. The attacks would have targeted ships, stadiums or railway stations in an attempt to outdo the September 11, 2001, attacks by al Qaeda, Mr. Pisanu said.

Phone conversations intercepted by police contained discussions to kill “at least 10,000 people” and blow up a vessel “as big as the Titanic.” The scheme was foreshadowed in a communique issued by the GSPC four days after the September 11 attacks, pledging its support to al Qaeda and threatening to harm “the interests of European countries and the U.S.”

The GSPC has announced that France — Algeria’s former colonial master — is its primary foreign target. Last January, French authorities arrested 11 suspects with ties to the GSPC and charged them with recruiting suicide bombers to send to Iraq. In September, police seized three other Algerians affiliated with the GSPC who were said to be preparing to bomb the Paris Metro.

“The only way to discipline France is jihad and Islamic martyrdom,” GSPC leaders said in a statement in September. “France is our Enemy No. 1, the enemy of our religion, the enemy of our community.”

Western intelligence agencies estimate the group has an exile network of 800 to 900 active operatives and supporters spread throughout Europe.

So far, arrests have been made in Spain, Italy, France, Belgium, Britain and the Netherlands, but authorities fear the GSPC may hold a growing appeal to the thousands of frustrated young Muslims that idle at the fringes of major European cities.

U.S. is not safe

Expansion of GSPC activity beyond Algeria is not limited to Europe.

A Toronto-based cell that included an al Qaeda-trained bomb maker was broken up in November. Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian militant recruited by the GSPC, was arrested by U.S. authorities in Seattle after crossing from Canada. Tried on charges he planned to blow up Los Angeles International Airport on New Year’s Eve 1999, he was sentenced to 22 years in prison.

Fifteen Mauritanian soldiers were killed and 17 were wounded during a GSPC raid on a remote military outpost in Mauritania in June. The GSPC asserted in an Internet posting that this was a “message that implies that our activity is not restricted to fighting the internal enemy, but enemies of the religion wherever they are.”

U.S. military officials say there is evidence that a quarter of suicide bombers in Iraq are from North Africa. They say lawless desert regions there offer safe havens for GSPC drug smuggling and express concern North Africa could become a base for the terrorist camps comparable to those once run by al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

The GSPC attack in Mauritania coincided with the start of a seven-year, $500 million U.S. State Department program to provide military expertise, equipment and development aid to nine Saharan countries considered vulnerable.

But a recent report by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, said the Sahara is “not a terrorist hotbed” and warned that heavy-handed U.S. military and financial support of authoritarian regimes could backfire.

Some Saharan governments are taking advantage of the Bush administration’s “war on terror” to obtain U.S. funding and deny civil freedoms, the International Crisis Group said.

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