By Joby Warrick The Washington Post
Craig Whitlock and Greg Miller contributed to this report.
A week of violence in Algeria and Mali has transformed al-Qaeda’s North Africa branch into a cause celebre for militant Islamists around the globe, boosting recruitment and fundraising for the jihadists and spurring fears of further terrorist attacks in the region and beyond.
Even after suffering tactical defeats in both countries in recent days, the movement known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is being lionized in Internet chat rooms and in official statements by extremist groups, some of which are urging reprisal campaigns against Western interests.
A U.S. and France-backed African force will try to prevent northern Mali from becoming another haven for jihadists.
U.S. officials and terrorism analysts are pointing to last week’s hostage drama in eastern Algeria as a turning point for the al-Qaeda offshoot, boosting its credibility while marking its transition from a predominantly Algeria-focused organization to a true multinational threat able to draw manpower, weapons and resources from across the region.
As American troops prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan in the next two years, ending a conflict that started as an effort to crush al-Qaeda after the September 11, 2001, attacks, Washington and other Western capitals face the grim threat of a virulent new al-Qaeda wing capable of a broad reach.
“They are growing more dangerous. They are growing in numbers,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” show Sunday.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Rogers described the attack on an energy complex in Algeria as a strategic victory for the al-Qaeda branch — commonly known as AQIM — with echoes of a militant assault on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, in September that killed the ambassador and three other Americans.
“This is on the heels of Benghazi . . . this becomes a recruiting dream for them and a nightmare for us,” Rogers told The Post. “It shows that they can strike Western targets and gives them a confidence level.”
The attack in Algeria revealed AQIM’s broad pool of recruits and its well-organized and -equipped force. Algerian officials sorting through the dead and captured say the militants who attacked the natural gas facility on Jan. 16 included not only Algerians but also Libyans, Egyptians, Mauritanians and Persian Gulf Arabs. The assailants were well-trained and armed with what appear to have been weapons from the late Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi’s arsenal. They held off hundreds of Algerian troops for four days before being crushed in an assault that left dozens dead among the militants and their captives.
Rallying call for Islamists
Since the start of the Algerian hostage drama, Islamists from across North Africa and the Middle East have pledged support for AQIM and other organizations thought to be behind both the attack and the ongoing civil war in Mali, where militant groups are battling government forces backed by French troops.
A message posted on Facebook by an Egyptian organization called the Mali conflict a “religious war against the Muslims.”
“We call upon all Muslims in Egypt and the world to stand on the side of their mujahideen brothers in northern Mali and support them with all they can,” the Tawhid and Jihad Youth Movement in Egypt said in the posting, a translation of which was provided by the SITE Intelligence Group.
Numerous postings on popular jihadist Web sites are calling for attacks against France, including the targeting of landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower.
“Carry out lone-wolf actions, capture and kill and slaughter, even if it is one Frenchman,”
The postings suggest that the violence in Mali and Algeria has galvanized key figures in the Islamist community, which sees Mali as a primary battlefield, with AQIM leading the charge, said Jarret Brachman, a government consultant on counterterrorism and director of a security-studies program at North Dakota State University.
“Internet jihadists are demanding blood, urging one another to attack French embassies and companies, kidnap and kill French soldiers, and launch a wave of lone-wolf terror attacks inside of France,” Brachman said. Prominent militant commentators also are urging attacks against Algeria, which many view as “nothing more than a lackey for French interests,” he said.
Jihadist forums have been closely following the news of the French military intervention in Mali since it began this month, according to SITE analyst Josh Devon, and some are calling on jihadists to support the Islamist rebels in Mali in whatever way they can, including launching media and propaganda campaigns and offering financial and material support.
Even the Taliban has weighed in, offering moral support to the insurgents in Mali and urging them to “repel foreign intervention as they have done in Afghanistan,” Devon said.
Evolution of AQIM
Intelligence officials and counterterrorism experts say a re-branding of AQIM has been underway for more than a year, with roots in the Libyan uprising that overthrew Gaddafi in 2011.
AQIM’s origins can be traced to the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching or Combat, known by its French initials GSPC. Spawned by the Algerian civil war in the 1990s, the group harbored local aims as it fought the Algerian government, ran smuggling networks and kidnapped foreigners for ransom. Other jihadist groups in the Islamic world tended to regard the GSPC as criminal opportunists and as overly brutal for killing Muslim civilians. When al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden sent an emissary to Algeria in the 1990s to try to negotiate an alliance, local jihadists threatened to execute him.
As its number of followers dwindled, however, the outlook of the Algerian network gradually shifted. In 2007, the GSPC formally swore allegiance to bin Laden and renamed itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
The Mali conflict, coming in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings and the Libyan civil war, further offered AQIM an opportunity to evolve and adapt its operations, said Andrew Lebovich, a Senegal-based analyst focused on security and politics in North Africa and the Sahel region.
“It gave AQIM the possibility of becoming part of something different,” Lebovich said in a telephone interview. “I do not think AQIM’s fundamental nature changed. I think they had the opportunity to get back to more ‘traditional’ jihadist activities after years of being relatively constrained.”
Although experts still regard AQIM as primarily a threat in North Africa, the attack in Algeria and suspected links to the assault on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi showed that the risk may be larger.
Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking about the hostage crisis in Algeria, called for an extended and international response to terrorism. Although he did not specify any new British commitments, he said Sunday that he would use his country’s chairmanship of the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations this year to push the issue toward the top of the global agenda.
“This is a global threat, and it will require a global response. It will require a response that is about years, even decades, rather than months,” he said.