The Gathering Terror Momentum in North Africa
Monday, April 7, the European Union’s anti-terrorism coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, said that al Qaeda was strengthening its presence in North Africa. He pointed to heightened jihadist attacks in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria.
As he spoke, nine Islamist terrorists jailed for deadly bombings in Casablanca five years ago tunneled their way to freedom from a high-security prison at Kenitra, northwest of Rabat. They had been convicted of planning the most deadly terrorist attacks Morocco had seen which, in 2003, killed 45 people, including a dozen suicide bombers. They targeted a Spanish restaurant, a hotel and Jewish sites in the city, and would have done more had not two of the terrorists been arrested before they could detonate their explosives.
De Kerchove warned that, while al Qaeda will continue to dominate international terrorism and Osama bin Laden remain very active as long as he has sanctuary in Afghanistan and Pakistan, an Islamist terror franchise is developing in parallel. It is rallying to al Qaeda groups like the Salifist Group for preaching and Combat (GSPC) – which recently renamed itself Al Qaeda in the Maghreb – and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terror experts describe the terrorists’ jailbreak as the most adeptly organized that Morocco has ever seen. The inquiry, still at its outset, must determine whether the tunnel was dug from inside the prison, or as some of our North African intelligence sources suspect, from the outside.
Inside the prison, the terrorists covered their escape by inciting 1,400 Muslim prisoners to stage a hunger strike in all Moroccan jails.
Algeria reorganizes for a fresh wave of terror
Intelligence experts agree that an escape on this scale must have had the support of sympathetic confederates within the national security and prison services, whether they were al Qaeda adherents or open to bribes – or both. At the very least, they must have turned a blind eye to the hatching of an escape plot inside the prison.
The escaped men left behind a letter read out on their behalf by Abderahim Mohtad to the French News Agency, denouncing “the injustice” of which they claimed to be victims. They explained that the nine men “after resorting in vain to all legal measures, were left with no other option.” They added: “There should be no search for accomplices among detainees or in the prison.”
Our North African counter-terror sources report that the situation in Algeria is no better than in Morocco.
On April 3, al Qaeda’s No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahari said on his latest videotape: “We haven’t killed the innocents – not in Baghdad, nor in Morocco, Algeria, or anywhere else. If there is any innocent killed in mujaheddin operations, it was unintentional or out of necessity.”
He sounded as though he was kicking off a fresh wave of suicide attacks to further tax Algerian president Abdul Aziz Bouteflika‘s overburdened security services, like the last wave exactly a year ago. Then, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed a series of suicide bombing attacks on a government building in Algiers, killing 35 people and wounding hundreds.
In neighboring Tunisia, two Austrian tourists, Andrew Kloiber, 43, and Wolfgang Ebner, 51, were kidnapped in February and not seen since.
French and Austrian intelligence investigators believe they are being held in southern Algeria by the Al Qaeda Wing of the Sahara. A ransom of 5 million euros has been demanded, one of the ways for the organization to raise cash.
This episode indicated coordination between al Qaeda’s North African branches in Tunisia and Algeria.
Bouteflika and his security services, in view of the failure of all their efforts thus far to prevent al Qaeda carrying out lethal attacks on government institutions, are in the process of re-organizing their counter-terror machinery.
Mauritania shoots terrorists, Libya “re-educates” them
Having dissolved the central judicial police department, which formerly carried the main anti-terror burden, the Homeland DGSN is preparing to launch a new unit manned by elite elements of the judicial police with practical experience of fighting terrorism.
Some of these specialists have taken courses at American and French installations in terror combat techniques.
But French intelligence experts told DEBKA-Net-Weekly that in Algeria, as in Morocco, the solution does not lie in creating new frameworks for fighting terror, because the trouble stems from al Qaeda’s penetration of national intelligence and security bodies. New organizations, they say, may promise relative quiet for a while, but in time they too will suffer hostile invasion.
In another North African country, Mauritania, the al Qaeda menace exploded April 7 into a violent gunfight in the capital, Nouakchott.
Mauritanian forces wielding assault rifles blasted a building where wanted terrorists were holed up, killing an unknown number.
One of those who died in the clash, Sidi Ould Sidna, was one of four suspected of the murders last December of four French tourists in the south. His escape last week from the court where he was standing trial sparked the shootout in the capital. Another one of the four, Marouf Ould Haiba, was arrested Thursday, April 10, trying to evade capture disguised as a woman.
Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya, in contrast, has adopted the counter-terror method practiced in Egypt and Saudi Arabia of re-education and dialogue.
Wednesday, April 9, he ordered the release of 90 members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which al Qaeda last November initiated as its newest affiliate. A foundation headed by Qaddafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, reported that the leaders of the group were set free from Abu Salim prison in the capital, Tripoli, following fruitful dialogue.
He may have been ahead of himself.
In his latest taped message, Zawahiri reported: “The esteemed leaders of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group have announced their allegiance to the al Qaeda network.”
Our terror experts note that in Saudi Arabia, where the regime is quite different from that of Libya, the re-education program has been partially successful. Both Saudi and Egyptian Jihad Islami terrorists are still in harness for jihad and it is hard to imagine the Libyan experiment managing any better.