The many men who fought against German and Italian fascists in north Africa during the second world war (my father and uncles among them) might well be dismayed to see how things have turned out since their victory.
These days a new totalitarian ideology is trying to attack Europe from north Africa. This time the supremacists say that all non-muslims are inferior. That all women are inferior to muslim men. That they have the right to kill anyone who disagrees with their beliefs. That their belief must dominate the world.
While many analyses of the terrorist threat to Europe focus on Pakistani terrorist groups, the deluded network Islamicists in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), allied to al-Qaida and sharing its beliefs, is operating just across the Mediterranean sea in north Africa.
Maghreb is an Arabic word meaning ‘land of the sunset’. It refers to the Western end of the muslim/Arab world – Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania and the remote land between the Sahara desert and the north African savannah, the Sahel. The Sahel is forbidding territory, used by smugglers, insurgents and rebels with numerous causes.
AQIM emerged from the fragments of Algerian islamist groups that fought the Algerian security services during the 1990s. It announced its affiliation to al-Qaida in 2006, giving the terrorist network a strategic north African base.
Since linking with al-Qaida, AQIM has carried out bombings and claimed responsibility for the kidnappings of several Western diplomats and European tourists in the Maghreb. In December 2007, AQIM attacked the UN’s Algerian headquarters killing thirty-seven people. Last year they kidnapped and murdered Britsh tourist Edwin Dyer and French aid worker Michel Germaneau and there have been further kidnappings and killings since.
France’s prime minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, said in mid-October 2010 that AQIM is in close contact with islamicist terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The US military, meanwhile, is sufficiently worried that it is training some African armies to combat AQIM.
Rudolph Atallah is a former Africa Counterterrorism Director at the office of the US Secretary of Defense. He says this of the north African terrorist group:
“For years we’ve known that AQIM has capabilities to project outwards outside of Africa. … It’s just that no one understands the dynamics from Europe to Africa and back to Afghanistan. Can AQIM carry out an attack in Europe? Yeah, I think so.”
In France and Spain, just across the water from the maghreb and with daily ferries to and from the north African shores, security services keep an eye on suspects with dual nationality in particular. AQIM is reaching out to possible recruits there through extremist websites and militant preachers who whip up anger in prayer meetings. Both the French and Spanish authorities are very mindful of the risks given that Algerian militants, unnoticed in southern Europe’s big north African immigrant community, were involved in the 2004 Madrid bombings and killed dozens in the 1990s when they attacked the Paris Metro.
Mohand Berkouk is a political scientist at the University of Algiers working on geostrategy in the Sahara and Sahel regions. “If unfortunately a terrorist operation occurs” he says “it will come from networks within those European nations.”
Al this means that the tentacles of al-Qaida, having already spread from Pakistan and neighbouring countries into north Africa, could now be set to strengthen their operations inside Europe.
In October 2010, the US government began warning American travellers that they faced possible terrorist attacks in Europe. “Mumbai-style” attacks were feared, with terrorists hitting busy airports or big hotels. The Eiffel Tower in Paris was evacuated and closed for a time as a precaution. Arrests of AQIM suspects were made in French cities as French counterintelligence officials announced that terrorists allied to the north African group, and not directly to Pakistan, had become France’s main security risk.
With “homegrown” terrorists and AQIM just across the water, the map of security risks in Europe is changing.