Al Qaida poised to exploit spreading unrest in North Africa

Thursday, February 17, 2011   E-Mail this story   Free Headline Alerts

WASHINGTON Al Qaida could exploit the unrest that has been sweeping North Africa, a report said.

The Potomac Institute for Policy Studies asserted that Al Qaida Organization in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) could be bolstered by the anti-government riots throughout such countries as Egypt and Tunisia. In a report, author Yonah Alexander warned that AQIM is already operating in several North African states, including Tunisia.

"The sudden and explosive recent popular street protests in Tunisia that ousted the authoritarian president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled the country for 23 years, open up the possibility that Al Qaida will attempt to take advantage of the unfolding drama in its effort to destabilize the region," the report, titled "Addressing the Rising Threat from Al Qaida and Other Terrorists in North and West/Central Africa," said.

[On Feb. 16, Libya became the latest Arab state threatened by massive unrest. At least 14 people were injured when demonstrators clashed with police in the Libyan port city of Benghazi.]

Alexander, a consultant to NATO and Western governments, said AQIM has succeeded in expanding to such countries as Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia as well as adjacent states Chad, Mali and Niger. He said AQIM, in cooperation with the Algerian-backed Polisario, was believed to have been forming links with Latin American organized criminal groups for trafficking drugs and humans via transit networks into Europe.

"Clearly in the failed and fragile states bordering the Sahara, Al Qaida has established a safe haven and breeding ground for its activities," the report said.

The report said AQIM was also being bolstered by its emerging presence in the disputed Western Sahara. AQIM was said to have established cells in Western Sahara in an effort to prepare for attacks in Morocco, which controls 80 percent of the region.

"The lingering 35-year Western Sahara conflict, which is creating an opening for AQIM's expansion and also recruitment of hard-core Polisario members among the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria, further complicating the viability of a diplomatic resolution for the Western Sahara issue," the report, issued in February 2011, said.

The report called on the U.S. intelligence community to enhance cooperation with North African governments. The report said the cooperation should include training for military, police and security forces as well as improved intelligence exchange and coordination. The report also urged Washington to crack down on Iran, believed to be working with Islamic extremists in the region.

"Raise the diplomatic, economic, political, and military costs to Iran high enough to outweigh the benefits of supporting terrorism and exporting jihadist terrorism elsewhere," the report said.

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