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Deadly Algeria bombings could be harbinger of rise of terrorism in North Africa
Rescue personel work to clear the rubble from the site of a U.N building in Algiers, Wednesday Dec. 12, 2007, after twin truck bombings on Tuesday by an affiliate of al-Qaida targeted U.N. offices and a government building in Algiers, killing at least 31 people. Some estimates of the final death toll from Tuesday's attacks climbed well above the official Algerian government figures. - photo by Associated Press
    MADRID, Spain — Algeria has seen more than its fair share of Islamist attacks, but Tuesday’s carnage was different. Never before has such a prominent Western site — U.N. offices — been struck with such deadly ferocity in the North African nation.
    Experts say the powerful twin bombings of U.N. offices and an Algerian government building in Algiers reflect the growing allegiance of local Islamic militants to Osama bin Laden, and their adoption of al-Qaida’s war against the West as their own.
    They could also be a harbinger of far more bloodshed if the Algerian terror network behind the attacks — the group changed its name this year to al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa — makes good on its threat to spread its tentacles into Morocco, Tunisia and beyond.
    Terrorism analysts say that would create a true pan-North African terror group on Europe’s southern doorstep, and be one of the greatest threats to the continent in coming years.
    ‘‘Without a doubt this is going to be one of Europe’s biggest worries in the years ahead, because this is a veteran group with well-trained people,’’ said Javier Jordan, the director of Athena Intelligence, a Spain-based think tank specializing in terrorism issues. ‘‘The kind of attacks they attempt are very complicated, and they have the know-how to carry them out.’’
    The group has been trying new tactics since a top leader returned in 2004 from fighting in Afghanistan, choosing soft targets rather than confronting the military head on, said Rolf Tophoven, director of the Institute for Terrorism Research and Security Policy based in Germany.
    ‘‘This new development is quite serious because Algeria ... could be a springboard to Europe, especially to France and then further on to countries like Italy and Germany,’’ he said. At the moment, however, he said the group is not known to have any developed network in Europe.
    Adopting the al-Qaida name perversely benefited both the group and Algerian authorities. It gave the militants greater star power than when they were the lesser-known Salafist Group for Call and Combat. But it also enabled Algerian authorities to argue that their terror problem is not specific to the country but part of the wider international battle against Islamic extremism.
    The risk is that the more attention the group draws with its al-Qaida methods, publicity and supposed links to bin Laden, the greater success it might have in attracting recruits and building a pan-North African Islamic movement.
    And experts say the al-Qaida name brings with it the responsibility of delivering spectacular al-Qaida-style results.
    A U.S. Defense Department official who is an expert on the region told The Associated Press the Algerian group will be under pressure to carry out high-profile attacks because failure to do so may endanger its al-Qaida affiliation. He spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
    Infighting in the Algerian government also plays into the militants’ hands, experts say. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is 70 and has had health problems, has no clear successor, and his government is divided and weak.
    The Algerian interior minister acknowledged after Tuesday’s bombings killed at least 31 people — five of them foreigners — that security services lowered their guard following recent local elections. He said they also had known that al-Qaida’s self-styled North Africa branch had long wanted to strike the U.N. offices and the Constitutional Council, the two buildings attacked this week.
    The attack is believed to be the deadliest against foreigners in Algeria since 12 Bosnian and Croatian construction workers were killed, their throats slit, south of Algiers in 1993.
    But al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa still has a long way to go before it can be a real North Africa movement.
    Efforts to launch attacks outside Algeria since the group declared allegiance to bin Laden in 2006 have mostly failed — most notably in a botched January 2007 attack on police posts in Tunisia in which a dozen militants and two security officials were killed. Fifteen militants were arrested.
    A series of amateurish attacks in March and April on a cyber cafe and the American cultural center in Casablanca, Morocco, also are believed to be linked to the group, according to Jordan. Nobody, other than the attackers, died in any of the incidents.
    ‘‘Al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa presents itself as a pan-North African force, but it is not managing to carry out operations outside Algeria,’’ said Fernando Reinares, a terrorism analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute in Madrid who was until recently chief counterterrorism adviser at Spain’s Interior Ministry. ‘‘I think this a major handicap when it comes to ... the goal of bringing together all the jihadist cells and groups in North Africa.’’
    Reinares said Al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa has had trouble convincing outsiders that it is truly committed to moving past a strictly Algerian agenda and has been saddled by internal divisions and hurt by the arrests of would-be supporters in Morocco and Tunisia. The group has also been heavily criticized for staging attacks that kill mainly Muslims.
    Still, he cautioned that the threat the group poses is great.
    ‘‘The fact that it has not managed to extend its area of operations does not mean it cannot achieve this,’’ he said. ‘‘The threat is there and permanent.’’
    Associated Press writers John Leicester in Paris, David Rising in Berlin and Daniel Woolls in Madrid contributed to this report. Paul Haven has covered terrorism issues for the AP since 2001.

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