U.S. officials and terrorism analysts are pointing to last week’s hostage drama in eastern Algeria as a turning point for the al-Qaeda offshoot, boosting its credibility while marking its transition from a predominantly Algeria-focused organization to a true multinational threat able to draw manpower, weapons and resources from across the region.
As American troops prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan in the next two years, ending a conflict that started as an effort to crush al-Qaeda after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Washington and other Western capitals face the grim threat of a virulent new al-Qaeda wing capable of a broad reach.
“They are growing more dangerous. They are growing in numbers,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” show Sunday.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Rogers described the attack on an energy complex in Algeria as a strategic victory for the al-Qaeda branch — commonly known as AQIM — with echoes of a militant assault on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, in September that killed the ambassador and three other Americans.
“This is on the heels of Benghazi . . . this becomes a recruiting dream for them and a nightmare for us,” Rogers told The Post. “It shows that they can strike Western targets and gives them a confidence level.”
The attack in Algeria revealed AQIM’s broad pool of recruits and its well-organized and -equipped force. Algerian officials sorting through the dead and captured say the militants who attacked the natural gas facility on Jan. 16 included not only Algerians but also Libyans, Egyptians, Mauritanians and Persian Gulf Arabs. The assailants were well-trained and armed with what appear to have been weapons from the late Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi’s arsenal. They held off hundreds of Algerian troops for four days before being crushed in an assault that left dozens dead among the militants and their captives.
Rallying call for Islamists
Since the start of the Algerian hostage drama, Islamists from across North Africa and the Middle East have pledged support for AQIM and other organizations thought to be behind both the attack and the ongoing civil war in Mali, where militant groups are battling government forces backed by French troops.
A message posted on Facebook by an Egyptian organization called the Mali conflict a “religious war against the Muslims.”
“We call upon all Muslims in Egypt and the world to stand on the side of their mujahideen brothers in northern Mali and support them with all they can,” the Tawhid and Jihad Youth Movement in Egypt said in the posting, a translation of which was provided by the SITE Intelligence Group.