Fear of al-Qaida influence deepens
The first hostile incursion by al-Qaida into the uranium-rich sub-Saharan African country of Niger to kidnap two Canadian diplomats is deepening worries over radical Islam’s influence and reach at Europe’s southern gate.
The Algeria-based al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, has claimed it abducted United Nations’ special envoy Robert Fowler and assistant Louis Guay near Niger’s capital, Niamey, on Dec. 14. The Sunni group said it also holds four European tourists who disappeared in January along the Mali-Niger border.
The claims remain unconfirmed, but an informed Mali source said Friday the group is demanding the release of two Mauritanian members as one of the conditions for freeing two Canadians and four Europeans.
"One of the conditions set by al-Qaida to free the hostages is the release of two Mauritanian members of the group," the source said on condition of anonymity.
The source said the two Mauritanians were being held in one of the countries of the Sahel region that includes Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Algeria, Libya and Chad.
An AQIM spokesman on Thursday said they "reserved the right to deal with the six captives under Islamic sharia (law)" — an apparent threat they might be killed if demands are not met — and would issue conditions soon for the release of the hostages.
If AQIM is indeed responsible, the danger facing Fowler and Guay can be traced to the Afghan-Soviet war in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the young mujahedeen commander Osama bin Laden befriended Algerian Islamists also fighting the Soviets.
Almost 3,000 Algerians returned home when the U.S.S.R. retreated in 1991.
One year later, civil war erupted between Algeria’s secular military government and the battle-hardened Muslim fundamentalists filling the ranks of Islamist resistance groups. Several coalesced into the hardline Armed Islamic Group, or GIA, the dominant force against the government in a decade-long war that claimed more than 100,000 lives, many of them civilian, in horrific fighting.
In 1998, a GIA commander founded the Salifist Group for Preaching Combat, known by its French acronym, GSPC. While maintaining attacks on the Algerian government, GSPC embraced global jihad and al-Qaida’s ideology of targeting western interests, locally and internationally.
Today, Algerian Islamists represent the largest national grouping in al-Qaida, according to author Jim Carroll in How Did Al-Qaeda Emerge in North Africa?
One product of GSPC was Ahmed Ressam, the Algerian refugee claimant in Montreal who plotted to bomb the Los Angeles International Airport in 2000.
GSPC maintained an informal alliance and ideological bond with al-Qaida until 2007, when al-Qaida formally adopted it as the North African wing of its global operation under the new name, the al-Qaida Organization in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb — AQLIM or AQIM. (Maghreb is the Arabic word for a section of North Africa stretching from Mauritania to Libya.)
The rebranding reflects its "intention to expand beyond Algeria and function as a regional outfit for global jihad spearheaded by al-Qaeda," Ottawa terrorism analyst Tom Quiggin writes in a just-completed threat brief for the U.S. State Department.
The al-Qaida brand will likely mean more AQIM recruits, improved training and al-Qaida arms and money flowing into Algeria.
Algerian terrorists are a persistent threat to Europe, involved in successful and foiled attacks in France — AQIM’s No. 1 target — Germany and Italy. The Council on Foreign Relations reports the new AQIM has revitalized many Europe-based cells of Algerian Islamists for fundraising and recruiting.