The Mutating Threat
Why U.S. officials worry about a group you've never heard of
But GSPC operatives have been implicated in several serious plots, including Ahmed Ressam's alleged attempt to blow up the Los Angeles airport in 1999 and one against the Christmas market in Strasbourg, France, in 2000. "The power of the GSPC is not what's in Algeria," says Evan Kohlmann, an international terrorism consultant who has tracked the group. "It's what's in Europe." European estimates suggest the group retains 800 to 900 operatives.
In Europe, officials are worried about the increasing contacts between militants from different groups, including the GSPC and the Moroccan network behind the Madrid bombings. In fact, formal groupings probably have less relevance. "The way to look at it is a collection of autonomous moving parts that sometimes mesh with each other and sometimes are completely independent," says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the Rand think tank. "The terrorist groups may be the equivalent of holding companies, where the links are tenuous and changing." The GSPC has declared that its top external target is France, Algeria's former colonial ruler and home to millions of Muslims of North African descent. In September, French police arrested a group of GSPC-linked Algerians who allegedly were exploring attacks against the Paris subway.
U.S. military and intelligence officials are also monitoring the growing influence of a particularly violent GSPC cell in the Sahara desert south of Algeria. GSPC operatives have been retreating into the lawless rural areas of Algeria's neighbors like Mali and Mauritania. "They have set up shop there in what we're afraid will become the new Afghanistan," says a senior U.S. military specialist on the region. "We don't want them to become the training center of excellence for all the jihadists in the world."
Recruitment. Even more alarming, intelligence officials picked up signals this past summer that the GSPC was reaching out to other militants in a broad recruiting effort. There could be many opportunities for new recruits to gain real-world experience. In one of its boldest efforts, the GSPC kidnapped 32 European tourists in the Algerian desert in 2003. More recently, the group claimed responsibility for an attack on a remote Mauritanian Army post that killed 15 soldiers. "The quality of training videos on how to build bombs is just staggering," says the military official. "You combine that with a free-fire zone in the wild west of Mali, and you have a problem that is just overwhelming." This concern prompted the U.S. government to launch a trans-Sahara initiative that includes development aid as well as training for local security forces. This year the budget is only $20 million, but it could reach $100 million eventually.
Some experts have accused the U.S. military of exaggerating the threat. The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, put out a report last spring concluding that the area is "not a hotbed of terrorist activity" but that U.S. military aid programs risk inflaming anti-American sentiment.
U.S. officials stand by their assessment, saying that they have also picked up signs that the GSPC and other North Africans are working with Zarqawi to direct foreign fighters to Iraq. U.S. intelligence has picked up actual routes and names of North Africans attempting to infiltrate. And there is a new theory creating even more concern. Some U.S. officials believe that there might be times when Zarqawi is receiving more foreign fighters than his group can safely absorb and that some could get diverted to North Africa to reinforce the GSPC.