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Al-Qaida-Linked Group In Mali Expands Quickly

Friday, January 25, 2013

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The suspected leader of last week's deadly attack on a natural gas plant in Algeria was until recently the head of an al-Qaida affiliate. Director of the Brookings Intelligence Project Bruce Riedel tells Renee Montagne the group is the fastest-growing al-Qaida franchise in the world.



Now, let's look further inland in the North African desert. That's where militants seized a natural gas plant before Algeria's security forces stormed it, leaving militants and hostages dead. The suspected mastermind was Mokhtar Belmokhtar. He's a founder of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which is also fighting the government of Mali.

One person tracking the group is Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Intelligence Project. Good morning.

BRUCE RIEDEL: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So this group known as AQIM, give us a thumbnail history.

RIEDEL: Al-Qaida and the Islamic Maghreb, like all of al-Qaida, has its roots back in the Afghanistan war in the 1980s against the Soviet Union. Algeria went through a long civil war in the 1990s as the military government tried to repress Islamist movements.

At the end of that, a new very dangerous terrorist group emerged and was accepted into al-Qaida as al-Qaida's representative in North Africa, or as Muslims refer to it, in the Maghreb, in the Islamic Maghreb. Today, what we're seeing, actually, though, is the third generation of al-Qaida that has emerged since the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011.

What I call al-Qaida 3.0. It has its origins in these earlier al-Qaida movements, but it's taken advantage of the chaos that came in the wake of the Arab revolutions of 2011 and 2012 to create sanctuaries and safe havens. And the largest one is in northern Mali, an area larger than the size of Texas, where al-Qaida and the Islamic Maghreb has been able to set up shop, training terrorists who are literally arriving from across the world; from Pakistan, from Nigeria, and even North America.

MONTAGNE: How closely is it now linked to the central al-Qaida organization?

RIEDEL: Well, the central al-Qaida organization, with its new emir - Ayman al-Zawahiri, who replaced bin Laden - provides overall strategic direction to al-Qaida around the world. Ayman al-Zawahiri puts out audio messages every few weeks in which he urges terrorists and jihadists to go to places like Syria or to Mali. He gives them the broad direction but he doesn't make judgments about which target to attack, which hostage to kill. Those decisions are all devolved to the local Islamic al-Qaida franchise.

MONTAGNE: Which is funded how? Because I gather they have plenty of money to work with.

RIEDEL: Well, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, before it took over this sanctuary in Northern Mali, was best known for kidnapping. And over the course of the last five years, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb was able to accumulate a war chest of over $200 million in the ransoms paid for the return of kidnapped foreigners.

MONTAGNE: And who obviously quietly pay ransoms 'cause we don't hardly hear about that, but what of smuggling?

RIEDEL: They also engage in a lot of smuggling. Mokhtar Belmokhtar is known by one nickname, Mr. Marlboro, because he's smuggled so many cigarettes across the Sahara into North Africa and then into Europe. But he also smuggled a lot of other things like blood diamonds, narcotics, you name it. He was involved in smuggling things because he knows the territory. He is a resident of this part of the Sahara and he knows it like the back of his hand and so do many of his confederates.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, you mentioned the Arab Spring and this being, in some sense, an unintended consequence of those revolutions - in particular, Libya.

RIEDEL: Absolutely. Gadhafi had accumulated enormous quantities of weapons. And one of the things al-Qaida did as the revolution took place in Libya was sweep in and grab as many of those weapons as you can have. So al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is not only one of the best financed al-Qaida franchises in the world, it's probably the best armed al-Qaida franchise in the world.

MONTAGNE: Are these groups looking to attack the West or are they looking to control their world?

RIEDEL: Well, they're looking to do both. The al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb feels a particular animus towards France because France was the former colonial power in most of North Africa. And it has always said that its ultimate target will be to attack in France.

MONTAGNE: And, of course, France now has added to that by putting troops into Mali.

RIEDEL: All of these groups have different capabilities and we shouldn't consider them all an equal threat. But at the same time, they all share the same common desire to be part of the global jihad. And being part of the global jihad means striking at what they call the crusaders and the Zionists, and that's above all, America.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

RIEDEL: My pleasure. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Bruce Riegel is director of the Brookings Intelligence Project. His latest book is "Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, American and the Future of the Global Jihad." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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