Since the Christmas Day plot in Detroit, there has been a strong focus on Al Qaeda activities in Yemen. Reports of safe havens and training camps have led many to believe that Al Qaeda members, hounded out of Afghanistan and much of Pakistan, have sought refuge in an ungoverned area of the Middle Eastern nation, using the name Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Essential though this focus may be, the global nature of the fight means that concentrating efforts in one place means neglecting enemy forces gathered in another. This is exactly the case with another branch of Al Qaeda in North Africa – one which has gone largely unnoticed and whose increased capacity to attack presents a real threat to security in Europe and the U.S.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb emerged in the early nineties, and was originally called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). The group was formed as an angry response to the Algerian government’s cancellation of the 1992 elections that would have handed victory to a coalition of Islamic moderates and militants. GSPC operated in a largely ungoverned area of the Sahara desert, along Algeria’s southern and Mali’s northern border, and launched attacks on Algerian government employees and institutions. The group then began to receive funding and training from Al Qaeda towards the end of the decade, and the alliance was made official in 2006 when Al Qaeda’s no. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri, announced the “blessed union” in a video published on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. Since then, the group has been known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and has claimed responsibility for its actions under its new name.

AQIM’s attacks thus far have been devastating. In 2005, it attacked a military base in Mauritania killing fifteen soldiers. In December 2007, the group was behind a double suicide bombing in Algiers that killed forty-one people, including seventeen UN staff members. On Christmas Eve of the same year, a French family vacationing in Mauritania was attacked by AQIM resulting in the death of four of the five family members. Kidnapping is also a central part of their repertoire of terror, and is a handy way of generating funds. In 2003, militants kidnapped thirty-two European tourists traveling in the Algerian Sahara and earned an estimated ransom of $10 million.

The debate within European and U.S. intelligence services has centered on whether AQIM can expand its reach and launch attacks on targets outside of North Africa. The group has called for jihadis to target Jews, Christians and apostates in their own regions. It is also believed that AQIM operates many terrorist cells in Europe, and has infiltrated the large North African diaspora communities that reside there. Many counterterrorism officials believe that AQIM is readying itself for attacks in Western Europe and the U.S. So far, European plots have been detected and deflected. In 2007, French police uncovered an AQIM cell in Paris and in 2008 Spanish authorities arrested eight men with AQIM links. There have also been similar arrests in other European countries that hint at AQIM’s intention to strike outside of Africa. In 2008, a U.S. Homeland Security official sent a report to his superiors on what he deemed was “the most significant development in the criminal exploitation of aircraft since 9/11.” It stated that AQIM controls an air route used to transport drugs and weapons between Latin America and Western Africa, and has its own fleet of twin-engine turboprops, executive jets and retired Boeing 727s. In an interview last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton singled out AQIM as a major national security threat.

As the U.S. and Europe concentrate the bulk of their anti-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and lend support to government troops in Yemen, there is a risk that the evolution of AQIM will stay under the radar. Given the furor over the intelligence failings that led to the Christmas Day plot, officials must be aware that an inability to heed early warnings on terrorists can have devastating consequences.

Michael Collins, February 2010