In N. Africa, Al Qaeda offshoot claims six Western hostages

The claim by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb that it holds hostages kidnapped more than a month ago fuels fears that the group is expanding its reach.

Kidnapped: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed that it seized six Westerners in Niger, including this British man, shown in an undated photograph. The other kidnapped hostages include a Canadian UN envoy, two Swiss nationals, and one German.

Al Qaeda's North African franchise has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of two Canadian diplomats and four European tourists in Niger. The claims have not been verified, press reports say. But if true, the news is likely to fuel concerns that the Algeria-based Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is expanding its reach in Africa and increasingly targeting Westerners.

Two Canadian diplomats, including the United Nations envoy to Niger, Robert Fowler, were abducted in mid-December. The four tourists – a Swiss couple, German woman, and British man – were abducted Jan. 22 in Niger after visiting a Tuareg cultural festival in neighboring Mali. (Click here to see a map of the region from the CIA World Factbook.)

Initial suspicion for the kidnapping of the Canadian diplomats centered on the Tuareg, a nomadic group that is fighting the Niger and Mali governments to win autonomy for their homeland. But the Tuareg had denied involvement, reported the BBC.

The BBC reported Wednesday that the Al Qaeda claim came in an audio recording.

The audio recording of the man, who identified himself as Salah Abu Mohammed, was broadcast by Arabic satellite station al-Jazeera. ...
The authenticity of the tape, in which the group said it would soon issue conditions for the hostages' release, has not been verified.

The news service quoted Maghreb analyst Mohamed Ben-Madani as saying the move fits AQIM's "usual tactics."

"It is their normal practice not to speak until they are sure that they have got good people for good money and they are in a safe place before any negotiations," he told the BBC's Focus on Africa programme....
Mr Ben-Madani said the group's influence is spreading and it now has small branches in places like Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Nigeria and Morocco.
"It is spreading and growing in numbers," he said.

Ennahar Online, the website of an Algerian newspaper, quoted from the audio tape.

"We are pleased to transmit to the Islamic nation the good news of the success of the Mujahidines in achieving of two operations in Niger," says on this soundtrack the spokesman of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, Salah Abou Mohammed....
Mujahidines "reserve the right to manage the case of six hostages by Islamic law (Sharia)," adds the spokesman, without further detail.

Reuters reported today that the group had published photos of four of the six hostages on the Web.

A posting on Islamist websites on Thursday showed three separate images of what it said were a Swiss couple, a German woman and a British man, surrounded by men bearing rifles.
In the photographs the women's faces have been blurred.

Meanwhile, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported that a security summit of states in Africa's northern Sahel region – which includes Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Algeria, Libya, and Chadhad been postponed again due to scheduling problems.

Notes AFP: "The Sahel region with vast stretches of inhospitable desert, is notoriously difficult to control. Rebels and several armed groups roam largely unhindered across the region and borders between the countries."

[Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] intends to unify armed Islamist groups in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia as well as emerging groups in countries bordering the Sahara including Burkina Faso, Chad, Eritrea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan.

The Daily Telegraph had more on the group's background:

Al-Qa'eda in the Islamic Maghreb grew out of an earlier Islamist organisation based in Algeria known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat [known by its French initials, GSPC].
Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's deputy in the core al-Qaeda leadership, praised the organization's efforts to gather disparate north African militant groups together in attacks against France and the US as a "blessed union".
But there are doubts that [al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] takes direct orders from bin Laden's organization. Some analysts suspect that the African group has simply adopted the name al-Qaeda.

In a briefing on AQIM in 2007, The Christian Science Monitor reported that AQIM membership was hard to pin down but that "the Algerian government said 800 jihadists were active in GSPC [in 2006]. But the group disputed that, saying far more were involved, according to Rita Katz, director of the Search for International Terrorist Entities (SITE) Institute in Washington."

"What we can say for certain is that [among] the jihadists online, the support for AQIM is growing. Adopting the name Al Qaeda brought the GSPC the instant support of tens of thousands of online jihadists, many now who perceive the group as fighting on behalf of Al Qaeda," says Ms. Katz in an e-mailed response to questions.

AQIM has been blamed for a spate of attacks in Algeria – including a massive bombing at a military college that killed 43 – and a few beyond its borders.

Mauritanian officials blamed the group for an attack that killed four French nationals in that country in December 2007, and a separate attack that month on UN offices in Algiers, according to a Europol report on terrorism.

The group made threats against the Mauritanian government for hosting the off-road vehicle race the Dakar Rally – which the group called "collaboration with the Crusaders" – leading to the cancellation of that event last year, the report said.

A background report by the Council on Foreign Relations said that the group had also "funneled" North African insurgents to Iraq to become suicide bombers.

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