An Algerian jihad group is reportedly getting closer to Al-Qaeda. From AP, :
An extremist group known for deadly bombings and a brutal campaign to create an Islamic state in Algeria is moving to establish stronger ties to al-Qaida, raising fears the militants may launch terrorist attacks beyond their North African territory.
The new leader of the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, an armed organization whose decade-long aim has been to overthrow the Algerian government, declared allegiance to Osama bin Laden’s network in the fall.
At the time, it received little attention, but now authorities worry the Salafists could become a dangerous affiliate of al-Qaida, which has shown an ability to work through local groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah in Southeast Asia, U.S. officials in Washington told The Associated Press.
Previously, the Salafists maintained only low-level contacts with al-Qaida and the group wasn’t thought capable of projecting power far beyond Algeria’s border.
Authorities also worry that Algeria _ with vast stretches of Sahara desert in the remote south and long borders that are hard to monitor _ could become a haven for al-Qaida members, U.S. officials told AP.
Signs of the Salafists’ expansionist designs have emerged in the past year with dozens of alleged operatives arrested in Spain, Britain, the Netherlands, Italy and France _ where the group is considered the top terrorist threat, French intelligence officials told AP.
The Algerian government blames the group for the kidnappings of 32 European tourists in 2003. The Algeria military said last month that it had killed several Salafists trying to sneak arms into the country with ransom money received in exchange for the freedom of 17 of the hostages.
Nabil Sahraoui, after becoming the Salafist leader last year, declared the group’s allegiance with al-Qaida in September. Sahraoui ousted longtime leader Hassan Hattab, who reportedly was viewed within Salafist ranks as too moderate. Under Hattab, the Salafists distrusted outsiders and kept al-Qaida at arms length, focusing instead on a domestic agenda.
Sahraoui’s declaration confirms authorities’ thinking that some regional terrorist groups are going international, joining the broader conflict of Islam versus the West, a French intelligence official told AP.
Another analyst with high-level contacts in French intelligence, also speaking on condition of anonymity, sees the declaration as mostly posturing _ a way to raise the Salafists’ profile and stir fear.
Despite Sahraoui’s ambitions, it remains unclear whether the limited resources of the Salafist group would be at al-Qaida’s disposal, said Richard Evans, editor at Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre.
The group _ known by its French acronym GSPC _ is fragmented with autonomous brigades in Algeria. Still, there’s reason for concern.
“There was no indication until now that this group was pursuing a wider jihadi agenda,” said Evans, an expert on the Salafist group.
The Salafists’ actual strength is unknown, although experts believe the group is small, with several hundred fighters. The State Department added the GSPC to its list of foreign terrorist groups in 2002.
Only a couple dozen hard-core GSCP operatives are in France, where some 800,000 Algerians live among 5 million Muslims _ only a small minority of them with extremist views, authorities told AP.
Evans said al-Qaida could call on the wider Algerian diaspora in Europe or militants with Salafist links “who might be prepared to attack Western targets.”
Al-Qaida is known to have made inroads into Algeria. Interpol chief Ronald Nobel, who has noted the Salafist-al-Qaida ties, visited Algeria a year ago to announce the international police agency would give Algeria a global communications system to track terrorists.
As evidence of al-Qaida’s presence in Algeria, authorities point to the killing of Emad Abdelwahid Ahmed Alwan, a Yemeni al-Qaida lieutenant, on Sept. 12, 2002, in a gunbattle about 270 miles east of the capital, Algiers. Authorities said he had been meeting with the Salafists in Algeria and was managing operations for al-Qaida in North Africa.
Sahraoui, in his mid-to-late 30s, has a reputation for ruthlessness, stemming partly from a murder campaign he ran against a now-defunct insurgent group, the Islamic Salvation Army, after it called a cease-fire with the Algerian government in 1997.
The Salafist group is one of two movements fighting to install an Islamic state in Algeria. It was created in a 1998 split with the radical Armed Islamic Group.
Together, the two groups are blamed in the deaths of more than 120,000 Algerians since 1992. That year, the military government canceled legislative elections to keep an Islamic party from coming to power, sparking the insurgency.
Both groups have conducted bombings, rapes and massacres, but the GSPC has gained some public forgiveness by renouncing violence against civilians and limiting its attacks to soldiers.