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How did Al Qaeda emerge in North Africa?

A briefing on the violent rise of a new-old jihadist group in Algeria.

(Page 2 of 2)

Mr. Abdel Wadoud praised the insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan and railed against the US, France, Israel, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). He also called Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika "an ally to this nation's enemies" that has "trampled over" and "desecrated" Islamic sharia law, according to a translation of the communiqué on the website of Evan Kohlmann, a New York-based international terrorist expert.

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Mr. Kohlmann says the group is "seeking headlines. They are clearly targeting foreigners."

For Abdel Wadoud – believed to have been radicalized while attending university – the alliance with Al Qaeda gives his group world recognition and credibility. "Al Qaeda remains the most important brand name among the jihadists," says Katz.

In southern Algeria, there is another grouping of GSPC that has not joined Al Qaeda. Its leaders have been killed or imprisoned in recent years. The relationship between Abdul Wadoud's group and the southern faction is unclear, Katz says.

How is the Algerian government handling this new threat?

Algerian security forces have a reputation of being tough, and their experience with infiltrating and breaking up the GIA insurgency in the '90s could be useful.

Since the recent spate of bombings and attacks claimed by AQIM, Algerian security services have been fighting militants in the mountains and forests outside Algiers. Exact details of the battles have been kept secret by the government.

Many media reports say about a dozen soldiers and a dozen militants have been killed in the sporadic battles. Reuters reported on Monday, for example, that at least 28 Islamist militants were killed in April.

Just last week Algerian security services said they killed the second in command of the group, Samir Saioud, who also went by Samir Moussaab. AQIM disputed in a statement that he was a high-ranking member but confirmed he was killed.

Algerian security forces claimed last year to have killed or imprisoned 750 to 800 militants, Katz says. But, she notes, such numbers are difficult to verify and, regardless, the "strength of the group has not diminished."

"However, much action is taken against these groups. Because they have staying power the battle waged against these groups must be a very long [war]," says Rohan Gunaratna, author of a book on Al Qaeda and associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

What are the implications for security in North Africa and Europe?

There have been links between various North African militant groups for years. AQIM seeks to unite them.

Bringing radical Islamists under a common umbrella with the intent to strike at Western targets spells trouble for the regional regimes who have long tried to keep Islamist parties at bay.

"Traditionally the North African [militant] groups have been important, but now they have increased importance because they have an alliance [that facilitates] an exchange of personnel, technology, and financing," says Mr. Gunaratna.

North Africans have risen in the ranks of Al Qaeda around the world, analysts say. The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group also helped broker the alliance between the GSPC and Al Qaeda, says Gunaratna.

The GSPC has been active in Europe, particularly against its old colonial ruler, France. In September 2005, French police uncovered a group of militants linked to the GSPC that were planning to attack various sites in Paris.

Several suicide bombings in Morocco as well as a rare shootout between Tunisian police and militants recently raised concerns about the groups crossing the porous desert borders in the region and exchanging expertise and resources. But Moroccan authorities insist recent suicide bombings and the cells of militants that produced them are not linked to outside groups.

The evolution of Algeria's Islamic militancy

1992: The Armed Islamic Group (known by its French initials, GIA) begins attacking the Algerian government after it cancels elections to keep an Islamic coalition from power. Some 150,000 die in a decade-long civil war.

1998: The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) separates itself from GIA and its brutal tactics. Over time it surpasses GIA in popular support and membership – 28,000 at its peak.

2006: Though ties with Al Qaeda go back many years, GSPC – now with just hundreds of members – officially merges with Osama bin Laden's global network in September. Some analysts see GSPC’s calling on outside support as a sign of weakness.

2007: GSPC renames itself "Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb" (AQIM) and steps up bomb attacks on foreigners and state targets; the government in turn launches operations in cities and hard-to-reach mountain hideouts to quash AQIM.