From Iraq to Algeria, Al-Qaeda's Long Reach

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 30, 2007

ALGIERS -- Al-Qaeda has rapidly extended its influence across North Africa by aiding and organizing local groups that are demonstrating a renewed ability to launch terrorist attacks in the region, such as the triple suicide bombings that killed 33 people here last month, according to counterterrorism officials and analysts.

The bombers who struck the Government Palace and a police station in Algiers, the capital, are believed to have been local residents. But Algerian authorities are examining evidence that the bombers were siphoned from recruiting pipelines that have sent hundreds of North African fighters to Iraq and perhaps were trained by veterans of the Iraqi insurgency, U.S. and European intelligence officials said.

The April 11 attacks were the first suicide bombings in this war-torn country in more than a decade and the worst strike in Algiers in several years. In terms of tactics and targets, however, they mirrored scores of recent bombings in Iraq, right down to the photos of the three "martyrs" posted on the Internet hours later by a group claiming to act on behalf of al-Qaeda.

The bombings in Algiers have coincided with a renewed crackdown against the Iraqi recruiting networks across North Africa. Last month, Algerian police broke up a long-standing ring based in the Saharan desert city of El Oued that had sent an estimated 60 men to Iraq to fight. In neighboring Morocco, authorities said they have disrupted three similar networks since late last year.

According to intelligence officials in Europe, more than 100 Algerians are in prison here after being detained on their way to Iraq or upon their return, adding to worries that the far-off conflict is breeding battle-hardened fighters who could come back to haunt North Africa or nearby Europe.

"Al-Qaeda's presence in North Africa is a reality," Baltasar Garzon, a senior Spanish magistrate, said in an interview Saturday at a conference in Italy organized by the Center on Law and Security at the New York University School of Law. "It's an ideal base from which to engage in actions against Europe. . . . Moving their next phase of action to Europe, I think, is just a matter of time."

Hamida Ayachi, editor of the Algiers-based daily Djazair News, said organizational links between insurgents in Iraq and armed groups in North Africa have strengthened noticeably in the past year.

"Iraq became a big laboratory to train kamikazes and warriors," Ayachi, the author of a forthcoming book on extremist networks, said in an interview in Algiers. "They are trying to take young people from here to Iraq for training so they can use them later in North Africa. Likewise, they are training people here in the mountains and the desert. Algeria has already become a small Iraq for training these people."

The April 11 bombings in Algiers, along with other recent attacks in the country, are evidence that al-Qaeda's network in North Africa has developed into a more serious threat and is benefiting from lessons learned in Iraq, said a senior military official at the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany, which oversees operations in Africa.

"Their tactics have definitely increased in sophistication," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing intelligence matters. "Are they getting the technical expertise from the outside? We can't prove it, can't disprove it. But I would strongly suspect they are."

Earlier attacks had also reflected a change in tactics. On Oct. 30, Islamic radicals carried out simultaneous truck bomb attacks on two police stations outside Algiers. The coordination of the twin attacks was unusual. Also strange was the fact that the attacks occurred at midnight, timing that contributed to the low casualty count: three people killed.

Early Feb. 13, the network struck again, this time bombing seven police stations simultaneously. Once again, casualties were few, with six dead.

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