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Local Al-Qaeda Affiliates In Western Sahara Shift To Global Jihad Agenda

Onlookers walk past a fire at Ngolonina market in the Malian capital of Bamako on January 12.
Onlookers walk past a fire at Ngolonina market in the Malian capital of Bamako on January 12.
Experts say it is too early to judge whether a French-led offensive against Islamic militants in the west African country of Mali will be successful or will result in a long-lasting Afghan-style quagmire.

But what has become clear during the past week is that the nature of Islamic militancy in the western Sahara has changed. Militant groups that once were primarily concerned with domestic revolt in their own country are now joining together in global jihad. Their push for strict Islamic law, known as Shari'a law, now transcends national borders.

That has some French commentators already talking about Mali as a potential quagmire for foreign intervention.

During the past week France has sent hundreds of troops to Mali and launched heavy air strikes to stop an offensive by Islamic militants in the north of the country from advancing into the south. Paris plans to increase its deployments, which were requested by Mali's government, to about 2,000 troops backed by armored vehicles, heavy weapons, and air power.

France also is pressuring the 15 countries in West Africa's regional grouping ECOWAS to start sending soldiers for a UN-backed security force in Mali ahead of the originally scheduled September deployment date. Nigeria this week dispatched the first of an expected 1,200 soldiers to Mali.

In Brussels, EU diplomats say European Union governments on January 17 agreed to go ahead with a plan to send hundreds of troops to train Mali government forces to fight the militants.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Algeria, militant commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar and fighters in his "Signatories For Blood" group internationalized their push for strict Islamic law by taking dozens of foreign workers hostage at a natural-gas plant in eastern Algeria.

Belmokhtar, an Islamist who is known as "The One-Eyed" and "The Uncatchable," has said the hostage-taking raid was retaliation for France's deployment of troops, which he demanded must be withdrawn from Mali, and Algeria's agreement to allow French warplanes to overfly its territory en route to Mali.

The raid underlines the fact that Mali's civil war has spilled across its borders.

Internationalizing Jihad

Until 2012, Algerian Al-Qaeda affiliates in AQIM -- Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb -- were struggling to break from their Algerian roots. Now they are actively engaged in support of Islamic militant factions in Mali, including Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity (MUJWA) and Jihad in West Africa.

Dominique Thomas, a specialist on Jihadist movements, told France Info radio that the hostage-taking raid in Algeria is part of a pattern by the region's militants to push to internationalize their jihad.

"Today, the jihadists, particularly AQMI, MUJWA, and groups that are linked to them -- with the exception, maybe, of Ansar Dine -- don't only have a local agenda; they have an international agenda," Thomas said. "And the objective is to try to internationalize the crisis, create a kind of international front for jihad in this region. This is done through a brazen operation that inevitably affects neighboring countries."

Michel Douti, a political governance expert at the Open Society Initiative for West Africa, said the membership of militant factions in the region also reflected the push for Islamic law that transcends national borders.

"The difference between AQIM and MUJWA is the difference between Coca-Cola and Pepsi, because it's the same coin, with two sides," Douti said. "Who can find the difference between AQIM and MUJWA when they all agree that it is Islamic law and Shari'a that must be imposed? Is it a question of skin? Because one can see now that the elements of MUJWA are made of up of a majority from West African countries, especially Nigeria, Benin, and Togo."

In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta suggested on January 16 that the hostage episode in Algeria could be the beginning of a wave of attacks against foreigners in the region.

"With regards to AQIM, with regards to Al-Qaeda in general, I guess -- I say this from my own background in having dealt with Al-Qaeda -- they are a threat. They are a threat to our country, they are a threat to the world," Panetta said. "And wherever they locate and try to establish a base for operations, I think that constitutes a threat, that all of us have to be concerned about."

Mounting Threat?

AQIM evolved out of the Algerian militant organization called Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC).

When it was founded in 1998, the GSPC's political agenda was focused on overthrowing the Algerian government and installing an Islamic regime. It quickly became Algeria's largest and most dangerous terrorist group.

Belmokhtar was a central figure in the GSPC as well as a commander of GSPC militants in southern Algeria.

A 40-year-old former Algerian soldier, Belmokhtar reportedly lost his right eye in 1991 in Afghanistan, where he claims he received jihad training and combat experience.

During the past decade, as the GSPC evolved gradually from its domestic focus into an organization with a global Jihadist ideology, Belmokhtar's strength and clout also grew.

Stephen Ellis, an expert on organized crime and a professor of African studies in the Netherlands, says Belmokhtar was able to recruit more militants and fund his operations with money received from smuggling cigarettes on the black market -- a source of income that earned him the nickname "Marlboro Man."

The GSPC declared France as its "No. 1 enemy" in 2005. A year later, the group pledged its allegiance to Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda.

After the AQIM emerged from the GSPC, Belmokhtar split away to form his Signatories For Blood faction. But he has maintained his ties with Al-Qaeda's central leadership, from whom he now reportedly takes commands.

Belmokhtar reportedly said in a November 2011 interview that his forces were bolstered in 2011 by the arrival officers and troops from Muammar Gaddafi's regime who fled Libya. Those Libyan forces also reportedly brought heavy weapons and vehicles to Belmokhtar's faction.

With additional reporting by Antoine Blua and material from Reuters, AP, ANI, France Info

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