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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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