- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 18, 2001

NICOSIA, Cyprus The leaders of the five North African countries feel the war against terrorism in Afghanistan has vindicated their own struggle against Islamic fanatics.
Criticism occasionally voiced about the U.S.-led action against Taliban targets has been low-key throughout the Maghreb, the African Mediterranean coast area east of Egypt.
While espousing Islam as the religion of some 75 million people from Libya in the East to Mauritania on the Atlantic, the Maghreb leadership regards Islamic fundamentalism as the biggest threat to its regimes.
According to some diplomatic reports, the North African countries are using the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States as an opportunity to intensify their own struggle against Islamic terrorism.
All Maghreb countries have had to face the threat of militant fundamentalism. Some, like Tunisia, have defeated it; others, mainly Algeria, are still fighting it.
"Each North African country has its own bin Laden," wrote the French-language Arab weekly Jeune Afrique, referring to Osama bin Laden, accused by Washington of organizing the attacks on New York and Washington.
Algeria, mired for nearly 10 years in a war against fundamentalist terrorists, feels particularly vindicated, diplomats say. One diplomatic assessment quoted Ali Tounsi, a senior Algerian police official, as exclaiming "now the world knows who the real killers are."
At the same time, however, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika used the opportunity to remind the world that members of extreme Islamic groups have found a convenient shelter in such countries as Britain, Belgium and Germany.
Although their governments and objectives differ, the five North African countries Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania have formed the Union of the Arab Maghreb (The term "Maghreb" means "a place where the sun sets").
Last month's attacks have caused an unprecedented flow of messages of sympathy for American victims of terrorism. Even the Belgian Embassy in Tripoli, which represents U.S. interests in Libya, has received several such messages and condolences.
Maghreb sympathy for the U.S. predicament apparently has not been dampened by the intensity of air strikes in Afghanistan.
"North African leaders would prefer any military or punitive action against an Islamic country to be carried out under a United Nations umbrella," one Arab diplomat said. "They don't like television footage of bombed-out houses and Muslim victims."
Tunisia, which not so long ago eliminated the threat by Islamists poised to seize power, feels particularly justified in its ban on Islamic parties and the continuing tight security measures. In recent days, a series of unexpected statements has come from Libya's leader, Moammar Gadhafi, whose country is branded by the State Department as supporting international terrorism.
After describing the New York and Washington attacks as "macabre" and "horrible" and offering his blood for the victims, the mercurial Libyan leader had this to say:
"What is Afghanistan? It is a lunar landscape, without infrastructure, without factories, farms or roads. Who is bin Laden? He looks like the millions of Afghans, no one can recognize him or find him. He once had a country but lost it. He is sick. He rides on a donkey. Yes, the United States has the right to vengeance."

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