Groups Associated with Al-Qaida Grow

Osama bin Laden

This screen grab from the Saudi-owned television network MBC (Middle East Broadcasting Center) shows alleged terror mastermind Osama bin Laden in a videotaped broadcast by the Dubai-based MBC in April 2002. MBC/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption MBC/AFP/Getty Images

Since Sept. 11, 2001, dozens of radical groups have sprung up across North Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere that claim links to al-Qaida.

Some of these groups are new. Others are long-standing networks that have recently tacked the al-Qaida name onto their own.

Intelligence officials say some of these groups really are part of al-Qaida, while others are simply local bands of religious militants. Either way, they present worrying evidence of an expanding, revitalized al-Qaida.

For a local terrorist group, joining al-Qaida makes it harder for members to move around — and harder to raise funds openly. But, on the plus side, publicity will increase, which is good for recruitment. A link to al-Qaida may bring other monetary investment. And, seen through the eyes of would-be jihadi, al-Qaida means prestige.

"Al-Qaida, because of its perceived success — especially in Iraq — is the team you want to be on," said Daniel Benjamin, of the Brookings Institution, who was formerly a director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council.

The appearance of new offshoot groups across the Middle East and North Africa is good news for al-Qaida's core leadership, believed to be holed up in Pakistan, Benjamin said.

"Remember, what al-Qaida wants most is to mobilize the Muslim world. And so every time a new group signs on, particularly takes the name, then it's — it's a coup for them," Benjamin said.

One of the most significant recent developments along these lines is the appearance, in Algeria, of "Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb." This is not a new group. Under its previous guise, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, it worked for years to overthrow the Algerian government. But this past September brought a formal announcement that the group's ambitions were about to widen.

Since Ayman Al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida's No. 2 official, announced that the Algerian group had joined forces with Osama bin Laden, the group has stepped up attacks, including an April suicide bombing in Algiers that killed some 30 people.

This is worrying enough. But the real fear among intelligence officials and analysts is that the new partnership with al-Qaida brings new obligations to attack what's known as the "Far Enemy" — the West. This month, police in Milan arrested several members of the group, who were allegedly planning attacks in Italy.

Rob Richer, a former deputy director of the CIA's clandestine service, says the advantage for would-be terrorists is that once you're inside Europe, you can move around anywhere freely and with little notice.

"You disappear into these great North African basins of populations, of second- and third-generation North Africans who are living in those countries," Richer said. "And you can't be tracked. French security services will tell you, there are certain population areas of France they don't go into! They can't operate there. Well, I would say to you — if you're gonna have a significant threat (to) an American embassy, an American business — it's gonna come from that venue."

Along with developments in Algeria, this spring also saw a pair of explosions in neighboring Morocco. Richer says this area of the world — North Africa — is his single greatest concern right now in the war on terrorism. But he cautions against concluding that al-Qaida has launched a coordinated effort to destabilize North Africa.

"I don't believe there's a North Africa front leader who actually has day-to-day command and control — and is saying, 'OK, tomorrow it's Morocco. 0h, let's do Algiers next.' What I do believe is, there's probably someone who's got the portfolio. And he's is in contact with cells, or cells are in contact with him. His agenda is to further al-Qaida's efforts in North Africa and probably into Europe," Richer said.

One more place to watch: Libya. U.S. intelligence officials say the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group has been on the cusp of joining al-Qaida for some time. It hasn't — yet — but Roger Cressey, a former White House counterterrorism official, says more Libyans have been showing up in senior positions in the al-Qaida hierarchy.

"We've seen North Africans become significant operational players within the remnants of al-Qaida's leadership," Cressey said. "So, years ago, it was Egyptians and Saudis that ran the show. Now we're seeing the North Africans taking a more prominent role."

And, he said, this marks a real shift in patterns of global terrorism.

"For many years, we had worried about the east-west axis — the threat coming from the east, be it Afghanistan, Pakistan or, even now, Iraq and the Gulf — moving to the west," Cressey said. "Now, what we've seen is a north-south axis — and that from North Africa, we've seen groups and individuals moving into Europe. So, in some respects, it's the worst of both worlds."

Indeed, the most talked about al-Qaida-inspired group in recent weeks operates not from North Africa, but from a Palestinian refugee camp inside Lebanon. The group, Fatah al-Islam, emerged late last year. For more than a month now, it has been battling Lebanese security forces near Tripoli.

Fatah al-Islam's leader has said he supports al-Qaida's ideas. But there's no evidence of direct contact with Osama bin Laden's network.

A senior U.S. counterterrorism official, who asked not to be named while speaking on intelligence matters, told NPR, "Al-Qaida's been eager to merge with groups far and wide. But you have to prove you'll bring something to the relationship. Fatah al-Islam is too small and too unpredictable. And Lebanon is a quagmire even for al-Qaida, which is saying something."

Meanwhile, there's growing concern about a Palestinian al-Qaida cell forming inside Gaza.

"If Gaza descends into chaos, I would argue it would become much easier for al-Qaida-like-minded groups to establish networks in Gaza," said Fawaz Gerges, chair of international affairs and Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence College. Gerges has spent the past year traveling across the Middle East, collecting material for a new book on radical Islam. He argues that the fighting among rival Palestinian groups sets the stage for al-Qaida to move in.

"Remember, al-Qaida breeds on chaos and war," Gerges said. "And if the Palestinians descend into all-war, in the next few weeks we'll likely witness the emergence of new networks, who tend to subscribe to al-Qaida ideology."

The senior U.S. counterterrorism official agreed, calling the situation "worrisome." He said, "There are early signs that Palestinians are more interested in al-Qaida's message than we've ever seen before."

If so, the situation in Gaza would fit a pattern.

Benjamin said, al-Qaida's appeal worldwide appears to be growing and that the core network has been revitalized.

"The jihadist movement, essentially, has been growing and strengthening since the invasion of Iraq," Benjamin said. "That, I think is clear. It's also that their ambitions are intact, and their willingness to try big, dangerous conspiracies is there."

The good news in all this, Benjamin said, is that none of the new offshoot groups appear capable of directly threatening the United States. But al-Qaida-linked groups are "ever more active in more parts of the world," he said. "And that is not the outcome we wanted."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.