- Associated Press - Sunday, October 10, 2010

ALGIERS (AP) — While Europe’s latest terror threat stems from militants in Pakistan, a potentially greater menace lies just across the Mediterranean: well-organized and -financed Islamic terrorists from al Qaeda’s North African offshoot.

Over the past month alone, the group has been accused of seizing five French nationals and two Africans from a mining town in Niger, part of its effort to make millions by kidnapping Europeans and getting ransoms. It is also blamed for a truck bombing last Saturday in Algeria that left five soldiers dead.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb effectively rules a wide, lawless swath of the Sahara and is trying to overthrow Algeria's government. It is active online, is media-savvy and has the globally recognized al Qaeda brand name. It also has sparked arrests in Spain and France.

The question now is how far it has the will and means to turn its anger on Europe.

French and U.S. counterintelligence officials suggest AQIM’s logistics and networks aren’t yet mature enough to stage an attack on a European capital, but they say it’s a broad and constant threat. France’s prime minister said Friday that the group is in touch with fellow fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The U.S. military is worried enough that it trains African armies to resist AQIM.

“For years, I’ve said this — and we’ve known — that AQIM has capabilities to project outwards outside of Africa. … It’s just that no one understands the dynamics from Europe to Africa and back to Afghanistan,” said Rudolph Atallah, retired from his post as Africa counterterrorism director in the office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense and now running the private security firm White Mountain Research.

“Can AQIM carry out an attack in Europe? Yeah, I think so.”

For Europe, home-grown terrorists long have been a central concern. French authorities watch out for dual nationals who fall under AQIM’s spell, via extremist websites or preachers in private prayer meetings in poor suburbs. Algerian militants who blended in with Europe’s large North African immigrant community were linked to the 2004 Madrid bombings and killed dozens of people in the 1990s in attacks in the Paris Metro.

“If, unfortunately, a terrorist operation occurs, it will come from networks within those European nations,” said Mohand Berkouk, political scientist at the University of Algiers who specalizes in Sahara and Sahel geostrategy.

The U.S. government warned Americans this week of new terror risks in Europe. Focus fell on Pakistan, where U.S. drones have struck suspected al Qaeda targets and where Pakistani officials say eight German militants have been killed.

But two French counterintelligence officials said in recent days that terrorists tied to AQIM, not to Pakistan, are France’s No. 1 security threat. One official said at least six AQIM-related cells have been dismantled across Europe in recent years. Both spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.

French National Police Chief Frederic Pechenard said last week that authorities suspect AQIM of plotting a bomb attack on a crowded target.

AQIM’s operational ability to target something as prominent and well-guarded as the Eiffel Tower — evacuated twice in recent weeks because of bomb threats — remains unclear. A senior U.S. counterterrorism official said AQIM is still considered an “underperforming” terror group that is quite dangerous in the region but not yet able to direct attacks much beyond that.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said AQIM has faced internal battles, and as long as it is under pressure from Algerian security forces, it has been harder for them to export terror outside the region.

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