Al-Qaeda in North Africa

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Security and counterterrorism officials are concerned that a group affiliated with Al Qaeda is gaining strength in North Africa. The group is called ?Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb? or ACRIM. New York Times reporter Eric Schmitt speaks with Anchor Jeb Sharp.

JEB SHARP: Ghana is in West Africa, its neighbor to the north is Burkina Faso, keep going north on the map, and you'll find Mali, Mauritania and Algeria. Officials say those three countries have all reported an increase in activity by a terrorist group affiliated with al Qaeda. The group is known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. It recently claimed responsibility for the killing of a British hostage in Mali and an American aid worker in Mauritania. Reporter Eric Schmitt has written about the group for the New York Times. Eric, this group's been around for a while but it sounds as if they're really stepping up a tax. How do counter terrorism officials characterize the group?

ERIC SCHMITT: Well, this was a group that originated in Algeria in the early 90's fighting against the government in Algiers. But in the last couple of years, it has branched out and formed an alliance in North Africa with al Qaeda, and they're taking advantage of a couple things. One is, the Algerian security forces have driven them out of and put a lot of pressure on them in Algeria. So they're looking for new places to set up a station areas, and we help pay for their operations. And also, prove to kind of the terrorist community, not only in the region, but to the world, that they're a serious player.

JEB SHARP: Can you give any sense of the growth or strength over time? I think some people will remember the 2007 attack in Algiers, killed 41 people and it was in part an attack on the United Nations. Can you give us a sense, sort of since then?

ERIC SCHMITT: Yeah, that was kind of, if you will, their break out moment, uh, where they were really trying to demonstrate their [INDISCERNIBLE] on an international scale. There was a little bit of a dip in their activities, but in the last six weeks or so, as you've chronicled, they've been

responsible for a number of incidents around the region. And the big concern that kind of tours and officials have is they could spread to Europe, where the Algerian community there has traditionally had support, financial support, and logistic support for the original group.

JEB SHARP: Is there any evidence of a strong Europe connection? I mean, or that they are actually behind anything in Europe yet?

ERIC SCHMITT: Not yet. It's, again, it's primarily financial and logistical support that they provide for the group back home. One thing that officials particularly in France, Italy and Germany are watching is, if those cells could turn, as they, operational, and conduct attacks in Europe itself. That hasn't happened yet, but it's something that officials in Europe and the United States because of the American interest in Europe, are watching quite closely.

JEB SHARP: I gather there's some evidence, or at least some concern that al Qaeda types from North Africa who've been fighting in Iraq are now returning home. And I wonder if there's a relationship between Iraq stabilizing, or hopefully stabilizing, in this region, destabilizing in some sense.

ERIC SCHMITT: There is. The concern is that even if they're in small numbers, they bring back with them some very deadly skills, whether it's in bomb making, ambushes. But any kind of skill like that that they learned in Iraq, fighting against US and allied forces there, they can bring back is operators in these countries, but also as trainers in setting up small training camps. Some of the desert areas of these countries that don't have a strong militaries or securities services. Places like Mauritania and Mali, they're quite poor countries. And where they can operate with somewhat impunity.

JEB SHARP: And finally, I guess, what's the strategy? You quote an army commander who talks about the green berets, sort of redoubling efforts to train folks there to fight these terrorists in their own backyards. Is that effective? Is that the way to go? What are people talking about.

ERIC SCHMITT: Yes, there's several strategies. One is that the American government has come in, and not only is providing economic assistance and other kind of aid to these governments, but army special forces are coming in to train the militaries of some of these countries in counter and assurgency tactics and techniques. They're also sharing information intelligence with these countries, and they're trying to act as a go between among many of these countries in the region, who traditionally have not cooperated that closely on security matters to bond together against this common thread. So the US has helped sponsor conferences in training, so these countries themselves can work together, share equipment, share intelligence, share even operations to combat this threat.

JEB SHARP: Okay, I think we'll leave it there for today. Thanks so much. Eric Schmitt is reporter for the New York Times.

ERIC SCHMITT: You're welcome.