National Security


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

The deadly hostage crisis at an Algerian gas plant last week could be an early indication of big changes in Al-Qaida. America's chief concern used to be the core of al-Qaida, led by Osama bin Laden. Then, the country's focus shifted to the group's affiliates like its arm in Yemen when they began targeting the United States.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports, officials now say the Algerian hostage crisis may be the next stage in the terrorist group's evolution.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: The man who says he masterminded last week's attack on a BP gas facility in Algeria claimed responsibility in a video.

MOKHTAR BELMOKHTAR: (Foreign language spoken)

TEMPLE-RASTON: We are behind the blessed daring operation in Algeria, says Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a former member of Al-Qaida's arm in North Africa. Forty men from Muslim and Western countries took part in the operation, he says in the video.

Then he pauses and says into the camera...

BELMOKHTAR: (Foreign language spoken)

TEMPLE-RASTON: We did it for Al-Qaida.

The video is dated January 17th, a day after the hostage siege began. But it was only posted yesterday on a website that often carries jihadi messages. There are all the familiar signals in the video. Belmokhtar is standing in front of an Islamist black banner associated with Al-Qaida. He talks about the crusaders and exacting revenge against France and the United States.

But analysts say he's a different kind of terrorist because he appears to be as motivated by criminality as he is ideology.

RUDY ATTALLAH: Belmokhtar's number one goal has always been making money, he's an opportunist.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Rudy Attallah is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and used to advise the secretary of defense on counter-terrorism efforts in Africa.

ATTALLAH: He's gone off on his own. He still has his own katiba, his own battalion, with his own men. He's just making sure that everyone knows that he is still a viable threat out there.

TEMPLE-RASTON: A viable threat, even though last month, U.S. intelligence officials say he left Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb to start his own group. That's added to confusion. If he left Al-Qaida's affiliate, why is he saying he launched the attack for Al-Qaida in the video? Experts think they have an answer.

JUAN ZARATE: What you will have are ideologically aligned splinter groups that have the Al-Qaida DNA embedded in them but may be operating quite independently.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Juan Zarate is a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and he used to track transnational crime at the Treasury Department.

ZARATE: Well, I think what you will see and continue to see is a splintering and factionalization of the Al-Qaida movement around the world. And its going to grow more and more difficult to be able to put a pin on the map to determine which group is actually Al-Qaida or not.

TEMPLE-RASTON: It appears that Belmokhtar is testing that new model. U.S. officials say since his split with AQIM, he's made clear that he wants to go around Al-Qaida's local affiliates and report only to the group's founding leaders, like Ayman al-Zawahiri. It provides a new tool because Al-Qaida central now has people like Belmokhtar and its traditional affiliates. That's why there's been some confusion about whether Al-Qaida was directly involved in the Algeria attack.

But analysts say the labels don't really matter. Whether it was Belmokhtar acting on his own or on behalf of al-Qaida, the end result is just the same.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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