By JOHN LEICESTER and OMAR SINAN
The Associated Press
Friday, September 15, 2006; 3:00 AM
PARIS -- Al-Qaida has for the first time announced a union with an Algerian insurgent group that has designated France as an enemy, saying they will act together against French and American interests.
Current and former French officials specializing in terrorism said Thursday that an al-Qaida alliance with the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, known by its French initials GSPC, was cause for concern.
"We take these threats very seriously," Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said, adding in an interview on France-2 television that the threat to France was "high" and "permanent," and that "absolute vigilance" was required.
Al-Qaida's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri, announced the "blessed union" in a video posted this week on the Internet to mark the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.
France's leader have repeatedly warned that the decision not to join the U.S.-led war in Iraq would not shield the country from Islamic terrorism. French participation in the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Lebanon could give extremists another reason to strike.
The national police had no immediate comment on the announced alliance, but officials have long regarded the GSPC as one of the main terror threats facing France.
French experts agreed, but also noted the group has been severely weakened by internal divisions, security crackdowns and defections in Algeria, a former French territory still working to put down an Islamic insurgency that reached its most murderous heights in the 1990s.
"The GSPC is losing speed and has suffered very significant losses in recent months," said Louis Caprioli, former assistant director of France's DST counterterrorism and counterintelligence agency.
Some GSPC fighters took advantage of a recent Algerian amnesty for Islamic insurgents and others have been killed, said Caprioli, who works for Geos, a risk management firm.
Of the 800 combatants that GSPC was estimated to have had last year, probably no more than 500 remain, and the group has had no operational cells in France since the late 1990s, he said.
But Caprioli and others also said an alliance of GSPC and al-Qaida could increase the terror risk for France _ not least because al-Zawahri's designation of the country as a worthy target could inspire extremists to take action.
In his video, Al-Zawahri hailed "the joining up" of the GSPC with al-Qaida as "good news."
"All the praise is due to Allah for the blessed union which we ask Allah to be as a bone in the throats of the Americans and French Crusaders and their allies, and inspire distress, concern and dejection in the hearts of the traitorous, apostate sons of France," he said.
"We ask him (Allah) to guide our brothers in the Salafist Group for Call and Combat to crush the pillars of the Crusader alliance, especially their elderly immoral leader, America."
Although GSPC leaders had previously sworn allegiance to al-Qaida, al-Zawahri's video marked the first al-Qaida recognition of a union between the two, French terror experts said.
"From now on, the links are official, legitimate, and they are taking part in the same combat," said Anne Giudicelli, a former French diplomat specializing in the Middle East who runs the Paris-based consultancy Terrorisc.
Sarkozy said it was "not by chance" that al-Qaida used the emblematic Sept. 11 date to announce the insurgency movement's alliance with al-Qaida.
"But there is nothing new," he added, noting that the GSPC had done the same three years ago.
The GSPC, in its own statement on a Web site used by militants, confirmed the alliance and urged other militant groups to also join al-Qaida.
Giudicelli said the alliance could act as a green light for al-Qaida and GSPC militants to operate together and thus raises the risk for France.
"The Americans have become harder to target domestically, so they are trying to widen the field of action and strike their allies," she said.
Omar Sinan is based in Cairo, Egypt. Associated Press writer Verena von Derschau in Paris also contributed to this report.