WHILE SOMALIA HAS been grabbing all the headlines, it isn't the only area of Africa that has seen a recent surge in terror activity among al Qaeda linked groups. Jihadists have been making advances in the Maghreb--that part of North Africa composed of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia--as well. While Algeria and, more recently, Morocco have been pinpointed as potential terrorist hotbeds, Tunisia was, for a long time, relatively quiet. But on December 23, 2006, and then again on January 3, 2007, Salafi terrorists armed with RPGs engaged hundreds of Tunisian police, army, and secret service in battles which saw anywhere from 12 terrorists and two security forces-official tally--to at least 60 killed according to the French daily Le Parisien. And so, Tunisia has woken up to a grim new reality. Al Qaeda is infiltrating the traditionally quiet and safe European vacation spot.
The surge of activity wasn't entirely out of the blue. As early as January 2006, a loose organization called "Al Qaeda in the Maghreb" had taken shape, formed from a coalition of the Algerian GSPC, the Moroccan GICM (responsible for the Casablanca and Madrid bombings in 2003 and 2004 respectively), and other Tunisian elements.
Still, it's interesting to note that it took Tunisia and its government controlled media 18 days to acknowledge the terrorist nature of the incidents--that this was not a group of "drug traffickers" or then "dangerous criminals" as initial reports suggested but "salafi terrorists" who intended to target foreign embassies and dignitaries. As in 2002, after the GSPC terror attack on a synagogue in Djerba, the Tunisian authorities were downplaying the gravity of the attacks in order to demonstrate their control of the situation and prevent any plunge in tourism-related revenue. In fact, the Tunisians only divulged some of the facts after the French media reported the involvement of al Qaeda elements in the recent shootings, and a subsequent release of a communiqué claiming responsibility by a group called "The Youth of Unification and Jihad in Tunisia." According to the daily Le Soir D'Algerie, Tunisian authorities decided a few days ago to ban from entering the country all Algerian males below aged 30 in an effort to prevent future attacks by the Algerian-based group.
GSPC, which officially merged with al Qaeda over the summer--underlined by al Qaeda's Ayman Al Zawahiri in a September 11, 2006 video--and changed its name a few weeks ago to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, is clearly the dominant terrorist group in the Maghreb and the countries of the Sahel. The organization's aim is to make the Maghreb a springboard to Europe with the help of the Algerian Islamist Khalid Abou Bassir, believed to be one of al Qaeda leaders in Europe. This was confirmed last year when Belgian police arrested a Moroccan Islamist named Mohamed Reha, who told police that "not only were we preparing jihad operations in Morocco, but we were working to expand our jihadist movement to all the countries of the Maghreb with the help of our Algerian brothers from the GSPC."
Also deeply troubling are reports that this new terror group has been recruiting scores of Moroccan, Tunisian, and Algerian "volunteers" to join the forces of al Qaeda in Iraq. In light of all this, it's important that Washington doesn't overlook the importance of the Maghreb--which incidentally means the West in Arabic--in the wider war on terror.
Olivier Guitta is a foreign affairs and counterterrorism consultant in Washington, DC.