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Issue 497/ 06th - 12th August 2011
North Africa Al-Qaeda Can't Attack Europe
France's top judge in the fight against Islamic terrorism has said Al-Qaeda's North African wing has no ability to strike Europe
Cairo, Egypt, August 6, 2011 – Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), born of a former insurgent group in Algeria, remains motivated to attack former colonial power France. It currently holds four French hostages, and French officials have named the group the biggest terror threat to France and its interests. But according to experts, the group has limited operational capacity.
In interview with AP in Paris, with two bodyguards in tow, anti-terrorism judge Marc Trevidic suggested AQIM is being forced to work hard to control parts of its traditional territory in the Sahel region along the southern Sahara. "It's been shown that AQIM is only able to strike in its own zone, killing tourists ... We have seen [no] significant foreign operation in Europe ... organised by AQIM," he said.
Still, AQIM is active in offering statements of support to would-be terrorists in Europe, Trevidic said, citing recent case files.
"It's incitation, but without a structure behind it," he said. The group is "holed up, and already has troubles controlling its zone ... Only when a terror group is very strong in its own territory will it begin exporting."
Many European officials are more concerned, however. In June, Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba called AQIM a growing menace that could spread beyond its base unless Western nations step up efforts to counter it. It has already rendered large parts of Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Algeria off-limits to foreigners. French counterterrorism and intelligence officials say its main source of income comes from ransom payments from hostage-takings, sometimes in the millions of dollars.
Trevidic, member of a special unit of the French judiciary devoted to fighting terrorism, spoke at length about changes in the global fight against Islamic radicals following the death of Osama Bin Laden, 10 years after the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States.
Over the last decade, the Iraq war "shuffled the cards", he said, by luring dozens of youths from France — home to western Europe's largest Muslim population — to fight US forces.
The global crackdown against terrorism in Europe and elsewhere has largely driven Islamic militants underground: the recruiting of young fighters in mosques and open-air training camps is largely a thing of the past, Trevidic said. The newer phenomenon is "self-radicalisation" online, with Internet-savvy Islamist youths watching videos and reading inflammatory texts that are a virtual-world call to arms.
"Today, there is not a single case where group members weren't recruited on the Internet," Trevidic said.
American officials, too, he said are "starting to discover this danger from within". "They've always reasoned in the United States that 'you just have to monitor movements, airplane passengers ... and everything will be fine. Well, no," Trevidic said.
With NATO forces conducting air raids, bombing strikes and surveillance missions over Afghanistan and Pakistan, that region is no longer the training ground it once was for Al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies, he said. Instead, the potential Al-Qaeda operational bases to watch today are the Somalia-Yemen area around the Gulf of Aden, where Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has operated, along with AQIM's zone.
"There's always the possibility of a bombing ... but something really organised, like on the scale of 11 September, is a bit exaggerated," Trevidic said. "The [task is] making sure that no group becomes powerful enough, because afterward, they in fact can do what they want." "That's the lesson of 11 September. Let's be clear: to have allowed training camps in broad daylight, to have let this Taliban-Al-Qaeda alliance do what it wanted, gave them the possibility to organise a massive attack."
Trevidic reserved judgment about what the "Arab Spring" — with autocratic regimes toppled in Tunisia and Egypt and those of Libya, Syria and elsewhere under tremendous pressure — would mean for the future of counterterrorism.
Trevidic also said it's too early to judge the long-term impact of France's ban on face-covering Islamic veils, enacted in the spring and that has drawn fury in some militant Islamic circles.
According to the SITE Intelligence Group, amateur video posted online that showed the arrest of a woman who refused to remove her niqab drew chatter among jihadists, with one Internet forum user calling on AQIM to "take action". The regional government office confirmed Friday that the woman was stopped by police Sunday in Aulnay-Sous-Bois, north of Paris. The video showed her yelling at officers about her rights, and then being driven away in a police vehicle.
She has been fined and charged with resisting arrest, and the case is now in the hands of a judge, the government office said.