New intelligence on al-Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa indicates that the militant group is seeking to carry out attacks on other Western targets in the region after its deadly assault on a natural gas complex in Algeria, senior U.S. intelligence officials said Thursday.
The push to mount follow-on strikes is seen as evidence that al-Qaeda was emboldened by the Jan. 16 raid and subsequent battle with Algerian security services that killed dozens of hostages and militants.
A senior U.S. intelligence official said that new streams of information have surfaced in the weeks since the assault and that “what we have seen is intelligence suggesting a desire to carry out more attacks.”
The official and others stressed that U.S. spy agencies have not seen evidence that a specific plot has been set in motion, instead describing the al-Qaeda planning as broad and “aspirational.”
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide an overview of the emerging intelligence on al-Qaeda-inspired organizations in North Africa.
The recent intelligence has raised concern among American counterterrorism officials about the danger posed by a roiling mix of militant groups in North Africa, particularly the group known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) — an affiliate previously considered one of the terrorist network’s weakest nodes.
U.S. officials said that despite their focus on Western targets, the North Africa networks remain mainly a regional menace. They may be prodded by al-Qaeda to seek ways to carry out attacks in the United States, but “most of these groups have no capacity to do that,” the senior U.S. intelligence official said.
The assessments by the U.S. intelligence officials were the most detailed provided to date on the attack in Algeria at a facility operated in part by BP. Three American workers were among those taken hostage there and subsequently killed.
Analysts at the CIA and other agencies are piecing together information on the attack, which occurred in a remote stretch of Algeria near the border with Libya. U.S. officials said they are concerned by reports that one or more Canadian nationals took part in the raid but declined to say whether the United States has gathered intelligence confirming the involvement of operatives from North America.
Officials also acknowledged that their understanding of the attack, as well as the composition of militant networks in the region, has been impaired by a lack of U.S. intelligence assets in North Africa and limited cooperation from other governments, including Algeria.
“We simply do not have the resources, the footprint, the capabilities we have in other theaters,” the senior U.S. intelligence official said, alluding to countries, including Pakistan and Yemen, where the CIA has stationed dozens of case officers and carried out hundreds of drone strikes.
The U.S. campaign against al-Qaeda in those strongholds has driven militants, including dozens of Western Europeans, to new battlefronts such as Syria and North Africa. As a result, AQIM has drawn recruits from a dozen or more countries, including Mali, Mauritania, Libya, Sudan and Egypt.
The CIA has sought to expand its presence in North and Western Africa, including in Mali, where AQIM fighters took control of major cities in the north before being driven back by French forces over the past week.
The Pentagon is also planning a new drone base in Niger, which borders Algeria and Mali and could serve as a platform for surveillance flights to assist the French effort to oust AQIM.
Although French forces swiftly regained control of major cities in northern Mali, including Timbuktu, U.S. officials cautioned that AQIM may be difficult to uproot. “You could imagine the French having trouble defining terms of success” for their push into Mali if militants retreat and later regroup, the senior U.S. intelligence official.
The attack on the Algerian gas compound appears to have been planned weeks in advance, officials said, and aimed at least initially at taking hostages with a plan to seek ransom or make other demands.
The operation was largely orchestrated by a veteran al-Qaeda acolyte, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who leads a group that recently splintered from AQIM. A second U.S. intelligence official described him as “very focused on attacking Western interests,” although he has mainly been associated with smuggling and kidnapping operations.