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World: Antiterrorism Expert Discusses Al-Qaeda In North Africa

Victims run from the scene of an April 11 car bombing in Algiers (epa) April 12, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- In the wake of the deadly April 11 bombings in Algiers, RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten spoke to Magnus Ranstorp, an expert on terrorism at Sweden's National Defense College, about whether Al-Qaeda is expanding in North Africa.

RFE/RL: Many commentators say the power and sophistication of the attacks in the Algerian capital mean Al-Qaeda has significantly increased its presence in the region. But the link between the group formerly known as the Salafist Group of Combat and Preaching -- which claimed responsibility for the attacks -- and Al-Qaeda is not new, is it?

Magnus Ranstorp: This goes back some time. I think the fact that you had the creation of the Salafist Group of Combat and Preaching, which came out of the old GIA [or Armed Islamic Group, the main Algerian rebel group in the 1990s] network, was exactly a function of the influence of [Al-Qaeda leader Osama] bin Laden and [Ayman] al-Zawahri that they should not target civilians indiscriminately but rather focus in on targeting military personnel, police, the structures of the regime. I think this is just a continuation of the 'rebranding' of the Salafist Group of Combat and Preaching turning into Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb.

RFE/RL: To the best of our knowledge, when did Al-Qaeda and Algerian militants start to coordinate their activities?

Ranstorp: It has not been any secret that following 2002-03 onward, there were Al-Qaeda representatives dispatched from what was left of the classic Al-Qaeda to Algeria to try to solidify the links a little bit [and make them] more sophisticated technologically but also tactically, from that experience.

RFE/RL: There is also a link with Al-Qaeda's current operations in Iraq -- can you elaborate?

Ranstorp: In law enforcement and intelligence circles, one hears the specific mentioning of that group and its links as a conduit, as a pipeline toward the Iraqi conflict. We shouldn't overestimate that, but certainly it not only is a pipeline but also provides specific tactical repertoires that we may see being replicated in Algeria -- that take their cue from Iraq in terms of technology, in terms of how they learn from their different experiences. And of course some Algerian members have been in that conflict.

RFE/RL: Is this the so-called "blowback effect" of militants from North Africa gaining experience in terrorism tactics in Iraq and then coming home to apply those tactics?

Ranstorp: We've seen that sort of effect, particularly from Iraq, pushing eastward toward Afghanistan, where you have the tactic of suicide bombings but also the IED [improvised explosive device] construction has come from Iraq to Afghanistan. And I'm sure that you will also see the multiple attack modes as well as some of the technologies are now coming back from the Iraqi conflict into Algeria, making them extremely sophisticated technologically but also tactically, from that experience.

RFE/RL: Can we expect more violence from Algerian militants -- either in the region or outside it -- in coordination with Al-Qaeda?

Ranstorp: From whatever is left of the classic Al-Qaeda, going back, there is a very active North African core that is outside of the Maghreb, maybe perhaps in Pakistan, Iran, and other areas, that are becoming much more influential within the remnants of Al-Qaeda.

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