Al-Qaeda Seeks To Expand Its Operations
Al-Qaeda is reaching out from its base in Pakistan to turn militant Islamist groups in the Middle East and Africa into franchises charged with intensifying attacks on western targets, according to European officials and terrorism specialists. The development could see radical groups use al-Qaeda expertise to switch their attention from local targets to western interests in their countries and abroad. “For al-Qaeda, this is a force multiplier,” said a British official who follows terrorism. One of the first signs of the development was an announcement on September 11 last year by Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s number two, of a “merger” between al-Qaeda in the Maghreb and Algeria’s Salafist Group for Call and Combat, known by its French initials, GSPC. Western officials expect to see a similar merger between al-Qaeda and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a mainly exiled organisation devoted until now to the overthrow of Muammer Gadaffi, the Libyan leader. They say there are signs that similar moves are under way in Lebanon, Syria and East Africa and that there is an effort to unite militant groups across north Africa.The Algerian “merger” was followed by a series of attacks, culminating in two suicide bombings last week that killed 33 and wounded 220. It is too early to say whether last week’s attacks were influenced by al-Qaeda central, officials said. The targeting – including of the prime minister’s residence – was ambitious but traditional for the GSPC, analysts said. However, before these latest attacks, Algeria had suffered only one suicide bomb. The effort by al-Qaeda to reach out to radical Islamist groups, which is still at an early stage, follows the rebuilding of al-Qaeda’s core in the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan, near the Afghan border. Al-Qaeda was severely disrupted by US-led military action after its 2001 attacks on the US. But the central organisation appears to have reconstituted around about 20 senior figures in farms and compounds that also act as training camps, western officials say. “AQ Central” has sophisticated target planners and expertise in poisons and explosives probably unavailable to local groups, officials say. The Algerian group operates small training camps in northern Mali, attracting fighters from Algeria, Mauritania, Niger, Mali and Nigeria. UK officials say there is concern about the prospect of trained Nigerian jihadis entering the country among thousands of Nigerians who travel weekly to and from the UK. According to Andrew Black, of the US Jamestown Institute, the training would equip jihadis for Iraq, from which they would return to the Maghreb with operational experience.