Still, officials acknowledge that stitching together a regional alliance of radical groups allied with al-Qaeda remains a longer-term ambition of the extremists, hoping to increase their striking power and extend it into Europe. One sign of that was the announcement, last September, by al-Qaeda's deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, that Algeria's radical Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) had joined bin Laden's organization. After renaming itself al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the group quickly began targeting foreign interests in Algeria and warned that attacks abroad would follow. AQIM then used an al-Qaeda terror signature in its April 11 strike in Algiers multiple and coordinated suicide bombings, followed up by post-mortem video statements by the "martyrs" broadcast on jihadist web sites.
"This is a real, not virtual alliance with al-Qaeda to intensify the fight and take it to an international level," says Christophe Chaboud, head of France's Anti-Terrorism Coordination Unit. "The association with al-Qaeda is a real and major preoccupation." But, says Chaboud, such a partnership has yet to give rise to even a nascent federation of al-Qaeda groups across north Africa. Even within borders, jihadist groups remain disparate, atomized, and insulated to prevent infiltration.
French terror expert Roland Jacquard points out that the AQIM was formed by a hard core of leaders who now view with disdain the holdouts of their former organization, the GSPC, still operating in the southern part of Algeria. Similarly, Moroccan extremists are frequently divided into small, local groups who turned locally recruited impoverished youths into the hastily trained kamikazes that botched the recent Casablanca bombings. More sophisticated groups connected with Qaeda leaders in the Gulf may have recruited officers in the security forces and pilots in the national airline, but they have also been more closely monitored by the authorities.
"The discovery of an organization with those kinds of members led Moroccan authorities to come down even harder on Salafist movements than they had before," says Jacquard, noting that over 400 suspected radicals are awaiting trial in Morocco today. "Ironically, the level of police pressure means Moroccan groups actually have more active members in Spain, Italy, and France today than they do in Morocco."
In Tunisia and Libya, meanwhile, authoritarian policing has kept extremist groups from taking root. But as the January firefight that left a dozen Tunisian radicals dead after they'd returned from Algeria attests, some degree of regional cooperation already exists for al-Qaeda to build upon. Underground groups in Algeria, Niger, Mali, and Mauritania have long trafficked materiel, weapons and personnel among themselves. A January 2005 attack on a military post in Mauritania by fighters of the Algerian GSPC prompted the U.S. and certain European states to begin funding the $100 million annual Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Initiative, seeking to make the enormous region less hospitable to its free-roaming jihadists. Similar initiatives have been undertaken in remote parts of north Africa and the Sahel.
"Our best manner of preventing regional jihadist cooperation and structures from forming is by keeping groups scrambling to avoid detection at home," the French counter-terror official says. Preventing that happening in north Africa is vital for Europe, and France in particular, Jacquard notes. "If they can coordinate and become efficient through cooperation there, there's no doubt they'll export that for terror purposes here," Jacquard warns. "That's inevitable and it's why European security services view north Africa as Europe's front line in fighting terrorism."