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.

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.

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."

Reuters reported that the group has rarely attacked US interests in Algeria, with the exception of a December 2006 bombing of a bus carrying foreign oil workers, including one American.

An explosives expert, Droukdel was appointed leader of an Islamist rebel group called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat in 2004, six years after it was founded with the aim of toppling the government and establishing purist Islamic state.
In October 2003, the group offered its support to the al Qaeda network and in January 2007 the group changed its name to Al Qaeda Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb.
Since then it has set off a string of deadly car bombings in and around Algiers, including bombings of United Nations and government buildings in Algiers that killed at least 41 people.

Meanwhile, Agence France-Presse reported two weeks ago that the Austrian government said there was "progress" in negotiations to secure the release of the two Austrian tourists kidnapped by the group in February.

The kidnappers initially demanded the release of a number of Islamic extremists imprisoned in Algeria and Tunisia. They have since demanded a five million euro ransom (7.9 million dollars) according to unconfirmed press reports.

On June 23, Algeria's president named a "pragmatist known for his tough stance against Islamic extremists" to a third term as prime minister, according to the Associated Press, amid what it called a recent "resurgence" of violence.

Most of the recent bombings have been claimed by al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa, formerly known as the GSPC — a Salafist group that grew out of an insurgency that raged in the country in the 1990s.

Algeria's government canceled 1992 elections that looked set to put an Islamist party in power and then outlawed that party. An estimated 100,000 people died in the armed rebellion that followed, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG).

In its latest report on Algeria in 2004, the group called the persistence of armed movements in Algeria "a factor facilitating expansion of al-Qaeda's jihad."

But the ICG added that such armed groups had been dramatically marginalized, as most of Algeria's Islamists moderated their political platforms in the 1990s.

It warned that the Algerian military could use the global war on terror as a pretext for its continued domination of Algerian politics, and urged the US to be "more sophisticated in its handling of an over-played al-Qaeda factor."

... there is a danger U.S. military engagement in the region in the context of the "war on terrorism", instead of eliminating an al-Qaeda presence, may actually aggravate it by underlining the strategic weakness, dependent nature and possible legitimacy deficits of the states of the Sahel region and, especially, by providing in the U.S. military presence itself significant motives and targets for jihadi activity that were previously absent.
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