- 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.

AQIM was born in 2006 when al Qaeda adopted a violent group of Islamic insurgents in Algeria called the GSPC. The nucleus of devoted radicals proved ready to recruit and train fighters for Afghanistan and Iraq, and gave Osama Bin Laden’s network a potential forward base to attack Europe.

Today, AQIM is believed to have about 400 fighters active from Niger to Mali and Mauritania, conducts dozens of bombings or ambushes each month in Algeria, holds hostages and increasingly has bonded with drug traffickers, intelligence officials say.

AQIM’s long-term goal is to create an Islamic state stretching beyond North Africa, and it repeatedly has threatened both France and Spain. France has troops in Afghanistan, a colonial history in North Africa and a new law forbidding Islamic face veils. Al Qaeda also says the reconquest of al-Andalus is a priority, referring to the period of Muslim rule of much of Spain in medieval times.

Analysts say AQIM is really a shadowy network of Algerian-based cells, with three particularly eye-catching figures:

Abdelmalek Droukdel, its overall boss in northern Algeria, rose up during the insurgency against Algeria’s government.

• Mokhtar bel Mokhtar, known as “the one-eyed sheik” because he fought in Afghanistan and lost an eye in combat, boosted AQIM’s expansion by building a bridge with the criminal underworld, bringing in outlaws and enrolling local youth.

• Abou Zeid, also known as Mosab Abdelouadoud and the “Emir of the South,” appears to have carved out a role for himself as key kidnapper. He held a Frenchman who was released in February, and another who was executed in July. He also has been linked to the execution of a British hostage in 2009.

Other AQIM hostages have hailed from Spain, Austria and Switzerland. No country has ever acknowledged paying a ransom, though such payouts are widely reported.

Spanish media said the government, via intermediaries, arranged payment of as much as $9.7 million for the release of three Spanish aid workers who were abducted in November in Mauritania. On Thursday, the Spanish Foreign Ministry denied — again — that the government paid money to kidnappers or middlemen.

Algeria’s African affairs minister, Abdelkader Messahel, decries ransom payments, calling for the United Nations to intervene to fight them.

“It’s not enough to say that we are against the payment of ransoms to terrorists. European institutions must take measures to criminalize this act,” he said on Algerian radio.

For Algeria, AQIM is a nightmare that authorities had hoped ended after the insurgency in the 1990s that left some 200,000 dead.

Today’s attacks are scattered but regular. On Saturday, a remote-controlled bomb killed five troops on a truck in a convoy in the town of Zekri in the Kabylie region. On Monday, Algerian authorities dismantled a cell of 13 people supporting Islamic militants in the Tlemcen region. Algeria, the regional powerhouse, has created with its neighbors a joint military command headquarters in Tamanrasset in the southern desert.

A greater concern for U.S. and French officials is weaker governments to the south, particularly Mali. A counterterrorism action group created at France’s urging will meet in Mali next week to boost the region’s efforts to fight terrorism.

AQIM is using the same smuggling routes across the Sahara once used for contraband coming from and headed to Europe, said Africa expert Peter Pham, senior vice president at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy.

Last week, a U.S. citizen of Algerian origin was arrested in Spain on suspicion of financing the al Qaeda affiliate by sending money to an associate in Algeria. He was released for lack of evidence but ordered to check in with police daily pending further investigation.

AQIM suspects have turned up in unexpected places, such as at the world’s largest atom smasher in Switzerland. A French nuclear physicist of Algerian origin who worked there was arrested last year. Prosecutors said Adlene Hicheur had discussed possible terrorist attacks targeting France’s army — with AQIM.

Angela Charlton reported from Paris. Associated Press writers Rukmini Callimachi in Dakar, Senegal; Lolita Baldor in Washington; Daniel Woolls in Madrid; and Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.

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