WASHINGTON — Al-Qaida’s terror network in North Africa is growing more active and attracting new recruits, threatening to further destabilize the continent’s already vulnerable Sahara region, according to U.S. defense and counterterrorism officials.
The North African faction, which calls itself Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), is still small and largely isolated, numbering a couple hundred militants based mostly in the vast desert of northern Mali. But signs of stepped-up activity and the group’s advancing potential for growth worry analysts familiar with the region.
The rapid recent rise of the al-Qaida group in Yemen — which spawned the Christmas airliner attack — is seen by U.S. officials and counterterrorism analysts as evidence that the North African militants could just as quickly take on a broader jihadi mission and become a serious threat to the U.S. and European allies.
The Mali-based militants have yet to show a capability to launch such foreign attacks, but are widening their involvement in kidnapping and the narcotics trade, reaping profits that could be used to expand terror operations, officials and analysts said.
Several senior U.S. defense and counterterrorism officials spoke about AQIM on condition of anonymity to discuss internal analysis.
Those advances have set off alarms within the counterterrorism community, which watched as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula quickly transformed over the past year from militants preoccupied with internal Yemeni strife to a potent group recruiting and training insurgents for terror missions inside the U.S.
That threat was underscored by the failed Christmas airliner attack, which officials say was planned and directed by Yemeni insurgent leaders.
A key fear is that as AQIM expands, its criminal and insurgent operations will continue to destabilize the fragile governments of heavily Islamic North Africa, much as it has in Mali. The Maghreb includes the North African nations of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania….