They are a “highly effective opposition force,” a senior U.S. intelligence official said of the group, which seeks to impose Islamic rule. “If they don’t have a role to play [in a future Syrian government], where does that capability disperse?”
Syria and North Africa have drawn militants from dozens of countries, as well as fighters who have fled regions where al-Qaeda has suffered setbacks, including Pakistan and Yemen, U.S. officials said.
The flow of militants and weapons has strengthened and transformed AQIM, which officials had long regarded as little more than a regional kidnapping and criminal enterprise.
In its broader incarnation, the group is one of the most diverse affiliates, drawing militants from Mali, Mauritania, Libya, Egypt and Sudan. The organization’s amorphous membership also illustrates what U.S. officials described as an increasingly fluid militant network.
The attack last month on the natural gas plant in Algeria was orchestrated by a longtime AQIM commander, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who broke away from the network to form a splinter group but continues to collaborate with other offshoots. The attack led to the deaths of 37 workers at the plant, including three Americans.
“We call him a former al-Qaeda leader,” the senior U.S. intelligence official said. But many of the fighters who followed him have not formally broken with AQIM, the official said.
AQIM was also linked loosely to the attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, in September, which killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Despite the group’s Internet bragging, however, U.S. officials said there is no evidence so far that the terrorist affiliate directed the strike.
Still, AQIM is at the center of a hub of militant groups in North Africa with varying levels of allegiance to the al-Qaeda ideology. Among them are Ansar al-Din, which seized control of cities in northern Mali last year before a recent intervention by the French military, and Boko Haram, a Nigerian organization that officials said has contemplated attacks on U.S. interests but has focused on targets with weaker defenses.
The blurring organizational boundaries fit into a broader breakdown of the hierarchical structure that enabled al-Qaeda to spend years plotting the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
U.S. officials said al-Qaeda’s core leadership group in Pakistan, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, continues to communicate with affiliates and other followers. But those messages are sporadic and rarely translate into any direct support.
Regional affiliates are “not getting a flow of funds, personnel and resources from al-Qaeda’s core by any means,” one senior U.S. intelligence official said. Nevertheless, the official said, the affiliates still look to al-Qaeda “for affirmation, for validation and, to varying degrees, for guidance.”
Unable to rely on al-Qaeda for help, regional affiliates such as AQIM have been forced to raise their own funds, mostly through criminal enterprises, said David Cohen, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.
“Their money is self-generated, predominantly through kidnapping ventures and other criminal enterprises,” Cohen said.
For example, U.S. officials said last month’s attack on the Algerian gas facility was almost certainly financed by ransom payments, which have netted the group millions of dollars in the past five years.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.