- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The U.S. made two key terrorism designations Wednesday, casting a spotlight on the al Qaeda affiliate organizations in the Middle East and North Africa that increasingly have replaced the Afghanistan and Pakistan-based network built by Osama bin Laden as the focus of global security concerns.

In a move that seemed designed to refocus attention on the expansionist aspirations of al Qaeda-linked groups operating in Syria — specifically the al-Nusrah Front — the State Department added the name of a key leader of a Lebanon-based faction to the Specially Designated Global Terrorist list.

Usamah Amin al-Shihabi was recently appointed the head of Syria-based al-Nusrah Front’s Palestinian wing in Lebanon, the State Department said, noting that “al-Nusrah Front was formed by al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in late 2011 as a proxy for AQI’s activities in Syria.”

Separately, the department said another group, which recently split from the North Africa-based al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), would be added to the official U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations. The al-Mulathamun Battalion, the department said, “became a separate organization in late 2012” and soon thereafter claimed responsibility for January’s deadly attack on an Algerian natural gas plant.

Three U.S. citizens were among at least 38 civilians killed when heavily armed gunmen attacked the facility, which is owned by BP and Norwegian and Algerian interests.

U.S. officials said that in splitting from AQIM, al-Mulathamun’s leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, issued a public statement in which he threatened to fight Western interests and announced the creation of a sub-battalion, whose name translates in English as “Those Who Sign in Blood.”

Further, according to Wednesday’s announcement by the State Department, the al-Mulathamun Battallion cooperated with a previously designated terrorist group — the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa — to carry out twin suicide bombings in Niger that left at least 20 dead.

The two groups have merged under the name al-Murabitoun, the department said in a statement, which added, “The newly formed al-Murabitoun extremist group constitutes the greatest near-term threat to U.S. and Western interests in the Sahel.”

Such developments highlight what several lawmakers, analysts and intelligence community sources have told The Washington Times during recent months is a major new chapter in al Qaeda’s evolving story — one in which a host of the original terrorist network’s offshoots are gaining money, lethal knowledge and a mounting determination to strike the U.S. and Western interests.

In September, sources told The Times that intelligence dating back to the summer and fall of 2012 pointed to a reality that al Qaeda in the post-bin Laden world was “metastasizing” from its core to much smaller but strong offshoots such as AQIM, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, the al-Nusrah Front in Syria, al-Shabab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, as well as less-defined groups with growing operational capabilities in Africa and the Middle East.

Sources in the congressional oversight world that oversees the intelligence community cited classified briefings that stressed how many of the offshoots were driven by local agendas — such as AQAP’s desire to overthrow the pro-U.S. government in Yemen — but at times remained in contact with the al Qaeda core’s new central leader, Ayman al-Zawahri. The Egyptian doctor who succeeded bin Laden is thought to be hiding in the semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.

Former CIA Director Porter J. Goss described to Fox News in October how al Qaeda affiliates were “spreading out.”

“It’s sort of running across the map of northern Africa,” Mr. Goss said. “There are franchise activities springing up with different names. They basically are part of this loosely affiliated network. There’s a lot of money in it. There is a lot of dedication and commitment in it.”

The civil war raging in Syria has added to the complexity. In one sense, developments in the war suggest that an emerging cadre of Sunni Muslim extremists are eager to use Syria as a base from which to launch attacks elsewhere in the region, similar to the way al Qaeda in Iraq showed signs of doing in the mid-2000s.

In another sense, there is evidence that Syria’s war simply may be pitting smaller al Qaeda-linked groups like the al-Nusrah Front, which is intensely Sunni Muslim, against Shiite Muslim extremist groups in the region — specifically Hezbollah in Lebanon.

In designating al-Shihabi as a global terrorist, the State Department noted that he has been an associate, and at times key leader, of Fatah al-Islam, a Lebanon-based “militant group formed in 2006.”

The State Department said Fatah al-Islam’s “ultimate goal is the institution of Islamist Shariah law in the Palestinian refugee camps and the destruction of Israel,” but various reports over the years have highlighted friction between the group and Hezbollah, which U.S. officials say has long received backing from Iran.

The fact that Fatah al-Islam has close ties to the al-Nusrah Front in Syria should come as no surprise, said Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow focusing on al Qaeda and North Africa at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“Members of Fatah al-Islam, which is linked to al Qaeda and al Qaeda in Iraq, have been killed while fighting in Iraq and Syria,” Mr. Joscelyn wrote Tuesday in The Long War Journal, a project promoted by the foundation. “Some of Fatah al-Islam’s earliest leaders are known to have been close to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the deceased head of al Qaeda in Iraq.”

Mr. Joscelyn also pointed to “leaked State Department cables” suggesting that Jordanian authorities accused al-Shihabi in 2006 of “training a group of men who plotted to attack American citizens, nightclubs, liquor shops, and hotels in Amman and Aqaba.”

The plot was foiled, Mr. Joscelyn wrote, after four members of the cell were arrested in September 2005.

But such context seems no less disturbing in light of remarks from key lawmakers in Washington about the potential long-term threat to U.S. national security and wider Western interests in the Middle East now posed by al Qaeda-linked groups in Syria.

Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, has warned that such groups have established safe havens in eastern Syria, where they are considering launching attacks throughout the Middle East.

“The only thing we think is stopping it now is the fact that there is this struggle between al Qaeda core leadership saying, ‘Hold off. Don’t do it yet,’” Mr. Rogers said in an October speech at the Foreign Policy Initiative forum in Washington.

He also said that more than 10,000 “committed” al Qaeda members are operating along Syria’s border — more than the number of jihadists operating inside Iraq during the U.S.-led occupation, or in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion of the 1980s.

Jihadists in Syria are “talking about conducting external operations, which is exactly what happened in Afghanistan, which led to 9/11,” Mr. Rogers said.

Others have given similar assessments.

Andrew J. Tabler, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Times in October that Syria’s al Qaeda-linked extremists could be compared to those who fought under the AQI banner during the early years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq a decade ago.

While AQI was known to focus most of its operations locally, its leader, al-Zarqawi, did claim responsibility for suicide bombings that killed dozens of civilians at three hotels in Amman, Jordan, in November 2005.

In making its two terrorism designations Wednesday, the State Department effectively barred any U.S. citizens from engaging in transactions with the individuals and organizations named. It also froze any property and other assets that they may have in the United States.

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