The Mutating Threat
Why U.S. officials worry about a group you've never heard of
These days, there are few clear victories in the battle against terrorism. Instead, the effort is increasingly coming down to a series of arrests like the ones in Spain in early December. Police captured seven Algerians accused of stealing luxury goods from vacation homes along Spain's southern coast. Authorities say that the gang had infiltrated the high-end real-estate market to pick up tips on which homes to target. The real significance, however, is that the suspects were allegedly funneling the proceeds to other Algerian militants for attacks in Afghanistan and perhaps in Europe. But investigators do not know who would have carried out the attacks.
The bust of this alleged logistics cell follows a spate of recent arrests of Algerian militants in Spain, Italy, France, and even Canada. Authorities fear that they have unearthed only the tip of a larger network of North African militants in Europe, many of them tied to the Algeria-based Salafist Group for Call and Combat (known by its initials in French as GSPC). U.S. officials fear that these groups are becoming the new frontline troops in the al Qaeda movement.
For those in the U.S. government who track terrorism, it is getting harder and harder to figure out who, exactly, the enemy is. Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, suggested last week that Osama bin Laden no longer has operational control of al Qaeda. In fact, it's not clear that anybody does at this point. "Al Qaeda's central leadership has not directly orchestrated or even had foreknowledge of most of the antiwestern attacks since 9/11," a U.S. counterterrorism official tells U.S. News. The most prominent successor is Abu Musab Zarqawi and his network of foreign suicide bombers in Iraq, but attacks like the Madrid train bombings in March 2004 are of growing concern. Those blasts, which killed 191 people, have been tied to the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, a shadowy, loose-knit outfit even more mysterious than the GSPC.
Intelligence officials fear that these North African groups could be the future, more anonymous face of the terrorist threat. The GSPC, which grew out of Algeria's violent civil war in the 1990s, was once seen mostly as a local threat. But the group, which had developed an extensive European exile support network, now has much broader ambitions. "The concern is that they could link up with other extremists to launch attacks beyond Algeria, particularly on soft targets frequented by westerners," says one U.S. counterterrorism official.
U.S. News has learned that some U.S. officials now believe that the GSPC, after years of contacts with al Qaeda leaders, has formally allied itself with bin Laden. That conclusion is still under debate in the intelligence community, but the GSPC's public statements praise al Qaeda increasingly often. In addition, European officials believe that the GSPC has approached al Qaeda leaders with a proposal that it be assigned a mission in North Africa that mirrors Zarqawi's role in Iraq.
Moving parts. Not everyone is convinced the GSPC is that dangerous. A successful offensive by Algerian authorities has killed many militants and left GSPC's leadership in turmoil. Experts also suggest the group's interest is predominantly criminal--mostly smuggling cigarettes and drugs. It does not have a track record of using tactics like car bombs and has not been credited for many successful attacks.