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Terrorism & Security

How much of a threat is Al Qaeda in North Africa?

Despite Algerian insurgents' stated intentions to strike in Europe, some officials remain skeptical that an attack outside Africa is possible.

By Jonathan Adams / July 2, 2008



A report published in The New York Times on Tuesday is likely to fuel concerns that North Africa is emerging as a major new front in the US-led global war on terror.

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In the report, an elusive Algerian insurgent leader confirmed that his group had forged contacts with Al Qaeda in 2004, and that it now regards attacks on US territory as legitimate.

In a recorded response to questions from The New York Times, insurgent leader Abdelmalek Droukdal said:

"If the U.S. administration sees that its war against the Muslims is legitimate, then what makes us believe that our war on its territories is not legitimate?"...
"Everyone must know that we will not hesitate in targeting it whenever we can and wherever it is on this planet," he said.

Mr. Droukdal's group, based in the hills east of Algiers, is a terror franchise that terms itself Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The group is responsible for numerous attacks in North Africa, including several deadly bombings in Algiers. The goals of Algerian insurgents at the time of their resurgence under the banner of AQIM were outlined by The Christian Science Monitor.

AQIM's followers kidnapped 32 European tourists in the Algerian desert in 2003, gunned down five European tourists last year in Mauritania (killing four of them), and kidnapped two Austrian tourists on vacation in Tunisia this February.

But European officials quoted by the paper disagreed on the small group's ability to strike outside Africa. One expert was skeptical that the group could pull off an attack in the US or Europe. The group numbers only 300 to 400 fighters, with another 200 supporters scattered throughout Algeria, according to The New York Times.

So far, despite its stated intentions to strike Europe and the rest of the West, investigators say they see little evidence that the North Africa branch of Al Qaeda is exporting fighters and equipment for an attack in Europe.
"Their ambition is to attack in Europe, but I wouldn't hard-sell it," said Gilles de Kerchove, the head of counterterrorism for the European Union. "I wouldn't say AQIM is poised to attack in Europe."

Indeed, while a suicide bombing last December by two formerly convicted Algerian Islamic militants in Algiers attracted attention, it also exposed the limits of AQIM, reported The Christian Science Monitor.

[While] the bombing has shown that AQIM, formerly known as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, still poses a serious threat, analysts say this new Al Qaeda affiliate in North Africa is far from reaching its goal of building a potent force across the entire region or even striking Europe, as it says is part of its overall goal.
"Despite its pretensions to be a Maghreb-wide organization, it is mounting attacks only in Algeria," says Hugh Roberts, an independent analyst who specializes in North African politics. "The notional threat to Europe is exaggerated."
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