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Tunisia is feared to be a new base for Islamists

ICC NOTE: The strategy of Islamic extremists is to target young men who are marginalized and disgruntled with their lives and give them a person or a group to blame for their troubles. Usually This hatred is propagated against other non-Muslim groups, like the Christian Church, which will suffer the repercussion of extremists divisive tactics.

By Craig S. Smith

February 20, 2007 International Herald Tribune TUNIS : The plan, hatched for months in the arid mountains of North Africa , was to attack the American and British embassies here. It ended in a series of gun battles in January that killed a dozen militants and left two Tunisian security officers dead.

But the most disturbing aspect of the violence in this normally placid, tourist-friendly country is that it came from across the border in Algeria , where an Islamic terrorist organization has vowed to unite radical Islamic groups across North Africa .

Counterterrorism officials on three continents say the trouble in Tunisia is the latest evidence that a brutal Algerian group with a long history of violence is acting on its promise to organize extremists across North Africa and join the remnants of Al Qaeda to become a new international force for jihad. [This week, the group claimed responsibility for seven nearly simultaneous bombings that destroyed police stations in towns east of the Algerian capital, Algiers , and killed six people.]

This article was prepared from interviews with U.S. government and military officials, French counterterrorism officials, Italian counterterrorism prosecutors, Algerian terrorism experts, Tunisian government officials and a Tunisian lawyer working with Islamists charged with terrorist activities.

They say North Africa, with its vast, thinly governed stretches of mountain and desert, could become an Afghanistan-like terrorist hinterland within easy striking distance of Europe . That is all the more alarming because of the deep roots that North African populations have in Europe and the ease of travel between the two regions. For the United States , the threat is also real because of visa-free travel for most European passport holders to American cities.

The group, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, known by its French initials, GSPC, has for several years been under American watch.

“The GSPC has become a regional terrorist organization, recruiting and operating in all of your countries and beyond,” Henry Crumpton said last year as the U.S. ambassador at large for counterterrorism. “It is forging links with terrorist groups in Morocco , Nigeria , Mauritania , Tunisia and elsewhere,” he said at a counterterrorism conference in Algiers .

Officials say the GSPC is funneling North African fighters to Iraq but is also turning militants back toward their home countries.

The GSPC’s ambitions are particularly troubling to counterterrorism officials on the watch for re-emerging networks that were largely interrupted after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, against the United States . While most estimates put the group’s current membership in the hundreds, it has survived more than a decade of Algerian government attempts to eradicate it. It is now the most organized, best financed terrorist group in the region.

On Sept., 11, 2006, Al Qaeda anointed the GSPC as its representative in North Africa . In January, the group reciprocated by changing its name to Al Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb, claiming that Al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, had ordered the change.

“Al Qaeda’s aim is for the GSPC to become a regional force, not solely an Algerian one,” said a French counterterrorism magistrate, Jean-Louis Bruguière.

Bruguière calls the Algerian group the greatest terrorist threat facing France today.

“We know from cases that were working on that the GSPC’s mission is now to recruit people in Morocco and Tunisia , train them and send them back to their countries of origin or Europe to mount attacks,” he said.

The GSPC was created in 1998 as an offshoot from the Armed Islamic Group, or GIA, which fought a decade-long civil war after the Algerian military canceled elections in early 1992 because an Islamist party was poised to win.

In 2003, a GSPC leader in southern Algeria kidnapped European tourists, some of whom were released for a ransom of €5 million, or about $6.5 million, paid by Germany .

Officials say the leader, Amari Saifi, bought weapons and recruited fighters before the U.S. military helped corner and catch him in 2004. He is now serving a life sentence in Algeria .

Since then, an even more radical leader, Abdelmalek Droukdel, has taken over the group. The Algerian military says he trained in the 1990s as a member of the GIA’s Ahoual, or Horror, company, blamed for some of the most gruesome massacres of Algeria ‘s civil war. He announced his arrival with a truck bomb at the country’s most important electrical production facility in June 2004 and focused on associating the group with Al Qaeda.

Links to the GSPC soon began appearing in terrorism cases elsewhere in North Africa and in Europe . In 2005, Morocco arrested a man named Anour Majrar, and told Italy and France that he and two other militants visited GSPC leaders in Algeria that year.

His interrogation led to arrests in Algeria , Italy and France , where Majrar’s associates were quickly linked to an attempted robbery of €5 million at an armored car depot in Beauvais , north of Paris . A hole had been blown in a wall at the depot with military grade C4 plastic explosives, but the hole was not big enough for the men to get through.

A subsequent investigation turned up Kalashnikovs; Famas, French military assault rifles; rocket-propelled grenades; TNT and more C4.

French counterterrorism officials say the group was planning attacks on the Paris Métro, Orly Airport , and the headquarters of the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire, the French domestic intelligence agency.

Italian prosecutors say a related cell in Milan was planning attacks on the city’s police headquarters and Bologna ‘s Basilica of San Petronio, whose 15th-century fresco of the Last Judgment depicts the Prophet Muhammad in hell, chained to a rock and clawed by a demon.

The GSPC or its members in Algeria appear to have become a touchstone for cells across the region in much the way that representatives of Al Qaeda in London did a decade ago.

Wiretaps, interrogation of terrorist suspects and recovered documents suggest that the network has associates in France , Italy , Turkey and even Greece , which is favored as an entry point to Europe because of its relatively lax immigration controls, according to counterterrorism officials.

There had been hints that the North African groups were planning more formal cooperation as far back as 2005 when Moroccan intelligence found messages sent by Islamic militants to bin Laden, European counterintelligence officials said.

Indications that a cross-border alliance was under way came in June 2005, when the GSPC attacked a military outpost in Mauritania , killing 15 soldiers. The attackers fled into Mali , according to the U.S. military.

The Moroccan police, in raiding suspected Islamic militant cells last summer, also found documents discussing a union between the GSPC and the Islamic Combatant Group in Morocco , the Islamic Fighting Group in Libya and several smaller Tunisian groups, intelligence officials say.

In September, Al Qaeda’s second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released a videotape in which he said his global terrorist network had joined forces with the GSPC. The video was followed by an unsettling increase in terrorist attacks across the region, including a deadly one against Halliburton employees in Algeria in December.

But the strongest evidence yet of the GSPC’s North African cross-border cooperation came in January when Tunisia announced that it had killed 12 and captured 15 Islamic extremists, 6 of whom had arrived from Algeria. Their leader, Lassad Sassi, 36, was a former Tunisian gendarme who ran a terrorist cell in Milan until May 2001 before fleeing to Algeria , according to an Italian prosecutor, Armando Spataro.

Sassi is named as a defendant in a terrorism trial in Milan that charges him with providing military clothing and money to the GSPC while financing and planning suicide bomb attacks in Italy .

Tunisian officials say Sassi and five other men — four Tunisians and one Mauritanian — crossed the rugged border from Algeria months ago to organize a terrorist cell in Tunisia . They established a training camp in a mountainous area that once served as a redoubt for Tunisian resistance fighters hiding from French colonial forces.

The decision to move against the group began when the police in the Tunis suburb of Hammam Lif detained a young veiled woman in December who led them to a house where a gun battle left two suspected terrorists dead, two officers wounded and two other men in custody, a police officer involved said. His account of the events could not be independently verified.

Another arrest led the police into the hills near the training camp. Three of the militants and a Tunisian Army captain were killed during the subsequent chase through the mountains. Tunisian security forces mounted a manhunt in which 13 more were arrested and Sassi was killed. The remnants of the group fled but a subsequent gun battle and siege led to the deaths of the others.