Khaled Abu Abbas, aka Mukhtar bin Mukhtar is the military commander of the most ferocious al Qaeda arm, the Algerian Salafist Group for Call and Combat Insurgency. He has just wound up preparations for an ambitious offensive against a wide range of targets: the Nigerian contingencies serving in the African and United Nations Peace Forces, and US bases in Algeria, Niger and Mauritania.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s North African counter-terror sources list the American bases in his sights as Qawa, Niger; Nema, eastern Mauritania near the Mali border; and Tamanrasset, in southern Algeria near the border with Niger. Specially-trained assault troops are on the move from Algeria across the Sahel and Sahara.
The Salafist Group had the foresight to stage a theatrical jailbreak at the central prison of Nouakchott, Mauritania. Three of its members, held on charges of belonging to an al Qaeda-linked Algerian terrorist group, made an assisted escape on April 27 from the Mauritanian prison. They had been held since last June, after taking part in the raid of a remote army post in northern Mauritania that left 15 soldiers and nine attackers dead.
Muhtar bin Mukhtar’s point in breaking his men out of jail at this time was to demonstrate ahead of the new offensive that he does abandon his men in the field, whether wounded or as prisoners; that they can count on him to pull them out across great distances and bring them back safely to base.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources have also discovered that al Qaeda’s Iraq commander Abu Musab al Zarqawi sent over some of his top-notch terror experts to advise Khaled Abu Abbas on tactics for striking at US bases. They reached the Sahara by secret routes escorted by local smuggling rings.
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 242 of February 17: Al Qaeda’s Sahara “Zone 9” Is Reinforced from Iraq)
The Algerian terrorist chieftain and Zarqawi have been in close contact since the latter sent the former a letter praising the Salafist Group’s performance in an attack last year in Mauritania. Relations between them have grown stronger in the past year, despite their dissimilarity.
Whereas Zarqawi is willing to strike any target he judges as falling below his criterion of truly Muslim – including Shiites whom he regards as apostates, Khaled Abu Abbas and his zealots stand aside from total war on all unbelievers and limit themselves to fighting “un-Islamic regimes” such as the Bouteflika government of Algeria.
Abbas replied to Zarqawi’s congratulatory missive a month later with a commendation for al Qaeda’s Iraq chief for capturing two Algerian diplomats in Baghdad and executing them.
The very fact that Zarqawi is fully abreast of a fellow-al Qaeda wing’s operations as far away from Iraq as the Sahara betokens the efficacy of the fundamentalist organization’s information networks and Zarqawi’s remote intelligence control of the most far-flung al Qaeda networks.
Egypt: Al Qaeda Exodus from Sinai to… Gaza
At long last, on Tuesday, May 9, the Egyptians had some good news: Nasser Malakhi, a 41-year old El Arish lawyer believed to be chief of al Qaeda cells in Sinai, had been shot dead in an olive grove not far from this northern Sinai town.
He was the suspected ringleader of the April 24 Dahab bombing attack and the shoot-out next day at Bilbith near the Suez town of Ismailiya. An accomplice was picked up bringing the terrorist chief food and water to his hideout.
The news did not exactly please Egyptian intelligence minister Gen. Omar Suleiman, whom President Hosni Mubarak had just put in charge of flushing out al Qaeda’s proliferating cells in Sinai and the Suez region, (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 252 of May 5: Al Qaeda on the Banks of the Suez), because Malakhi’s death put the lid on an important store of data on the network.
However, it was quickly discovered, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s terror sources, that the entire network had been rolled up and many of its members moved to a safe haven outside the reach of Egyptian security in… the Gaza Strip. For their exodus, they did not bother with the long way round across the Red Sea biblical route, but cut straight into the Gaza Strip assisted by drug smugglers and gun-runners. They were taken across the routes well-trodden by Palestinian terror groups smuggling their illegal weapons purchases from Egyptian Sinai to Gaza.
Our sources estimate that some 100 al Qaeda operatives made their escape to Gaza in the past week, roughly half of its estimated strength in the Peninsula.
This large influx of Islamist terrorists is already affecting the internal balance of strength – such as it is – among the rival Palestinian terrorist organizations operating in the Gaza Strip. The terrorist threat hanging constantly over the Gaza-Israeli border and its crossings is further heightened..
The new arrivals lost no time in making it clear that a low profile is not part of their agenda, any more than abstinence from the Palestinian scene. Using a Hamas web site, they quickly launched a new al Qaeda group called The Muslim Army of al Quds (Jerusalem in Arabic), dedicated to attacks on Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Iraq: Baathists Vs Zarqawi
The disclosure by DEBKA-Net-Weekly 252 of truce talks between heads of the Baathist guerrilla Army of Mohammed with Kurdish and American officials has had a violent sequel.
Our counter-terror sources report that al Qaeda’s Iraqi chief, Abu Musab al Zarqawi decided he could not let this “defection” from the Iraqi Sunni insurgent camp go unpunished without losing face in the movement. He therefore turned his men loose on the ex-officers and men who served under Saddam Hussein who make up the Army of Mohammed.
Its underground commander Sufyan Hattam Shalila was liquidated by an al Qaeda unit on May 4. A second killer squad gunned down Hikmet Mumtaz al Baz, sheikh of the Iraqi Albu Baz tribe, many of whose members serve in the Army of Muhammad. He was killed in the insurgent group’s main haunt, Samarra, Tuesday, May 9,
They were felled in bloody battles covering a large area between the Army of Muhammad bases in Samarra, north of Baghdad, and Ar Ruthba to the west, in Anbar province. Dozens of tribesmen lost their lives in the fighting and at least 10 al Qaeda fighters.
As we write this, the clashes continue, prompting an announcement from Hamid Samidai, head of one of the foremost Sunni underground groups, the Islamic Army.
While adopting a neutral position in the controversy between al Qaeda and the Army of Muhammed – his group confines itself to “killing Americans” – he emphasized that Iraqi deaths at the hands of Zarqawi or any other element will not be tolerated.
This declaration put Zarqawi’s followers in the Samarra district on the defensive against reprisals. They decided it would be prudent for them to pull out.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Iraq experts note that this was the first armed clash to take place between Zarqawi’s adherents and Sunni insurgents in Iraq.
Syria: First Christian recruits to Al Qaeda
Monday, May 8, Syrian special operations forces stormed two Syrian villages. Shooting in all directions, they purged the sites of al Qaeda cells. Both sides suffered an unknown number of casualties.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources reveal the reason for the raids.
The two villages are 250 miles apart. Dar ash Shughur is situated south of Idlib, in northwest Syria, not far from the Mediterranean coast; Tal Sakara at the northeastern extremity of Syria near the town of Al Hasakah, not far from the Iraqi border.
From May 1, Syrian security forces had kept the two villages under their eye in the wake of a string of shooting attacks directed against government buildings and vehicles carrying government officials in the second half of April. There were also exploding roadside devices on the roads leading to army and police installations which left casualties.
Local highway robber gangs were first blamed for these attacks, but then lab tests found that ammo and explosive materials used by the assailants from the two villages were identical and had the same provenance: Iraq.
Even then, Syrian intelligence was stumped. The villagers of Tal Sakara near Al Hasakah are Assyrian Orthodox Christians by faith. To this day, the 700,000-strong community of Syria clings to its rites and ancestral language, archaic Aramaic. Syrian investigators refused to believe that these pious Christians had hitched their wagon to the fundamentalist Islamist al Qaeda, which no Middle East Christian sects had so far done.
But after subduing the two villages, they discovered that groups of youngsters had indeed signed up with al Qaeda and accepted terrorist missions on its behalf.
That is not Damascus’s only worry. The incident taught them that al Qaeda is capable of overpowering whole Syrian villages and putting them to use as launch pads for terrorizing an entire district.