- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 31, 2013

The latest terrorist warning of “earth-shattering” attacks on the West shows Islamic extremists are still focused on the United States and Europe, but many analysts doubt that they have the capacity to follow through on their threats.

Threats posted over the weekend on the Ansar al-Mujahedeen Network website called for attacks on the United States and other countries helping France put down a terrorist uprising in the North African nation of Mali. The site began as a bulletin board for jihadists, said Andrew Lebovich, a Senegal-based U.S. analyst who focuses on extremist groups in the Sahel and Maghreb regions of North Africa.

The weekend warning predicted “strong, serious, alarming, earth-shattering, shocking and terrifying” attacks on the West.

Mr. Lebovich said the site is mostly a clearinghouse for extremist materials of all kinds — including translations of official statements by al Qaeda and independent postings such as the latest threats.

“It’s a kind of jihadist crowd-sourcing,” he said.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the terrorist network’s North African affiliate, and other extremist groups have vowed to avenge the French-led intervention in Mali, which is aiding the government in recapturing the vast desert north of the country from Islamic extremists.

“AQIM, like most al Qaeda affiliates, at some level aspires to attack the West,” said a U.S. intelligence official who was authorized to speak only on the condition of anonymity. “This doesn’t mean it necessarily has ready plots, but, at a minimum, the aspiration makes it a threat.”

Analysts generally seem skeptical about the terrorists’ ability to attack Western countries on their own soil.

“I have not seen any evidence that AQIM has a capability to strike outside the region,” Mr. Lebovich said. “It is in my view much more likely that we will see attacks [against Western interests] in the Sahel or the Maghreb, rather than in Europe or the United States,” he added.

In January, extremist fighters loyal to the one-eyed desert bandit, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, seized dozens of Western workers — including Britons, Americans, Japanese, French and Danes — at a natural gas plant in Eastern Algeria, near to the border with lawless post-revolutionary Libya.

Belmokhtar split from AQIM last year to form his own militia, called “Those Who Sign in Blood,” and claims to have independent links to al Qaeda on the Afghan-Pakistani border.

The question remains whether AQIM or allied groups like Belmokhtar’s have networks of supporters in Europe or North America capable of doing the kind of advance surveillance necessary to a major terrorist attack.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — long regarded as the most dangerous of the al Qaeda affiliates in terms of the threats it poses to the West — lacks such networks. As a result, the group has been restricted largely to plots against global aviation and shipping networks, and their plots have been foiled.

Survivors of the Algerian hostage crisis said one of the terrorists had blond hair and spoke fluent English with a North American accent. Other reports said two of the extremists were Canadians, and the government in Ottawa said it is investigating suspected connections to Canada.

“There are still a lot of unanswered questions about [AQIM’s] ability to strike outside of the region,” said Aaron Y. Zelin, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “So far, they’ve only conducted attacks in the region.”

He noted that the Algerian extremist groups, out of which AQIM grew, had networks of supporters in Algerian immigrant communities across Europe and North America during the 1990s and the early part of the past decade.

The Armed Islamic Group and its successor, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, fought a bloody and bitter insurgency in Algeria through most of the 1990s.

It also launched terrorist operations in Europe, including a notorious bombing of the Paris subway.

Analysts say those European networks were largely rolled up after the Paris bombing and their successors — who were involved in fundraising, propaganda and recruitment for an Iraqi insurgency a decade later — were stopped in the mid-2000s.

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