'Emir of the south' Abu Zeid poised to take over al-Qaeda in NW Africa

Abdelhamid Abu Zeid was identified in a video released two weeks ago to show the French government that the hostages were alive
Abdelhamid Abu Zeid was identified in a video released two weeks ago to show the French government that the hostages were alive (Al-Andalus via AFP-Getty Images)
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By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 20, 2010; 10:42 PM

PARIS -- For many Europeans, Islamic terrorism has a new face: Abdelhamid Abu Zeid, the "emir of the south."

Abu Zeid, also known as Abid Hammadou, is a wiry Algerian with a black beard, going on 50, who commands one of two squads of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb active outside Algeria. The turbaned combatants, Algerians and other North Africans allied with Osama bin Laden, have been marauding for nearly a decade in desolate Sahelian wastelands along the borders of Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Algeria.

Because of their small numbers - a few hundred - and their remoteness in sparsely inhabited fringes of the Sahara, the far-flung combatants were long regarded as a less potent threat than the main al-Qaeda units inside Algeria, and far less worrisome than Pakistan- and Afghanistan-based militants more directly tied to bin Laden. Europe's current terrorism alert, for instance, arose from intelligence on jihadis in Pakistan.

But with the capture of a number of European hostages over the past several years - and now a calculated effort to impose Abu Zeid's brand name on terrorist activities in the Sahel - he has emerged in the public eye as a substantial threat in mineral-rich northwestern Africa and, in the assessment of some experts, as the possible next chief of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

"This guy is on the rise," said Mathieu Guidere, a North African terrorism specialist at the University of Geneva and author of several books on Islamic radicalism.

Abu Zeid's activities may have caught the attention of U.S. counterterrorism authorities as well. In recent declarations, his group said U.S. personnel have been spotted on an Algerian military base at Tamanrasset, near the Malian border hills where Abu Zeid is headquartered, with the apparent assignment of helping local governments monitor al-Qaeda movements across the region.

Guidere, who systematically monitors al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb Internet traffic, said the United States has supplied electronic intelligence on Abu Zeid to France to help track French hostages, with U.S. personnel either stationed at or passing through Tamanrasset apparently part of the operation. In response, he added, Abu Zeid recently ordered his combatants to halt satellite telephone communications, which are vulnerable to monitoring by U.S. satellites or drones.

U.S. military and National Security Agency officials declined to comment on the reports. Commenting more generally, Lt. Col. Tamara Parker, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said, "The countries in North and West Africa have demonstrated important leadership in addressing terrorism in the region and the United States supports the region's efforts to increase its long-term counterterrorism capacity."

Although anti-terrorism specialists have long followed his career, Abu Zeid caught the attention of most Europeans only about two weeks ago. He was the unsmiling figure, wearing a camouflage military vest, a white jelabiyah and a beige turban, who was squatting on his heels just to the left of five French hostages captured Sept. 15 at a French-run uranium mine in northern Niger and displayed in a video to prove to the French government that they are still alive.

The other combatants in Abu Zeid's squad posed for the camera by carefully wrapping their turbans to conceal their faces, leaving only slits for their eyes to look out. But Abu Zeid left his entire face exposed and stared straight into the lens in what was interpreted as a declaration of leadership and a gesture of defiance.

Moreover, Guidere noted, an al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb communique announcing the French hostages' capture departed from tradition by naming Abu Zeid as leader of the operation, hailing him as a "sheik" and his 100-man unit "lions of Islam."

Such gestures have separated Abu Zeid from his principal colleague, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who commands al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's other main unit south of Algeria. Belmokhtar, an Algerian who lost an eye fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, has been played down by European anti-terrorism specialists because, they say, he is often focused less on jihad than on raising cash by protecting cigarette and cocaine smuggling that has traditionally flourished in the area.

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