Magazine article National Defense

Capabilities of Algerian Islamist Group Are Murky

Magazine article National Defense

Capabilities of Algerian Islamist Group Are Murky

Article excerpt

THEIR NAME IN FRENCH is the Groupe Salafiste pour la Predication et le Combat, or the Salafi group for Preaching and Combat - GSPC for short. Their goal is to unseat the Algerian government and replace it with a fundamentalist state.

The presence of the Algeria-based terrorist group in West and North Africa is a concern for U.S. European Command. Leaders there have cited its presence as one of the reasons the Trans-Saharan Counter Terrorism Initiative is needed to train regional troops.

But whether the group plans to expand beyond its borders or remain focused on attacking targets in Algeria is the subject of debate.

The group has encroached on the territories of sub-Saharan nations, mainly Mali, Chad and Mauritania. Its leaders have declared their allegiance to Osama bin Laden and al-Oaida. European officials, because of their proximity and the North African immigrant community, consider them a domestic threat. However, most of their attacks have been aimed at the Algerian government.

In 2003, Algerian forces pushed the GSPC into the south, forcing them to seek refuge in remote corners of Mali and Mauritania. In March 2004, Chadian forces, who had recently received training from EUCOM, engaged the GSPC guerillas and reportedly killed 43 combatants.

Whether the group set up permanent bases and training camps in the neighboring nations, or if its presence is merely transitory, is also unclear. U.S military officials become cagey when confronted on this point.

"Whether or not they are using these other countries, clearly the potentiality for that is there," Army Gen. William Ward, EUCOM deputy commander, told reporters in Washington.

When asked how many GSPC guerillas were currently operating in Mali, Army Col. Mark Rosengard, director of operations at Special Operations Command, Europe, said he had an idea, but declined to comment further.

The U.S. ambassador to Mali, Terence McCulley, wasn't as reticent. He estimated their numbers in Mali at about 75 to 100. "It's a relatively small group operating in a vast space," he said.

Both the ambassador and Malian military sources doubt the group can effectively spread its beliefs to larger populations. Whether the group wants to export terrorist tactics is another question.

"Although GSPC 'emirs' have pledged their allegiance to al-Qaida, it is not clear that such statements have operational significance," said an International Crisis Group report, "Islamist Terrorism in the Sahel: Fact or Fiction. …

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