Newspaper article International New York Times

State Dept. Warns of New Terrorist Group ; Officials Call Organization a Significant Threat to West's Interests in Africa

Newspaper article International New York Times

State Dept. Warns of New Terrorist Group ; Officials Call Organization a Significant Threat to West's Interests in Africa

Article excerpt

Washington has warned that a new terrorist group is "the greatest near-term threat to U.S. and Western interests" in the Sahel region of Africa.

The State Department has warned that a new terrorist group linked to an Algerian militant has emerged as "the greatest near-term threat to U.S. and Western interests" in the Sahel region of Africa.

The warning, issued Wednesday, underscored the resilience of the militant factions and their ability to forge new alliances, despite Western pressure.

"We are seeing a dangerous mutation of the threat," said Bruce Hoffman, an expert on terrorism at Georgetown University. "Splinters can become even more consequential than their parent organization."

The source of much of the concern is Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian militant who has long been a notorious figure in the Sahel region -- a vast area on the southern flank of the Sahara that stretches from Senegal to Chad -- and who appears to have become more dangerous even as his ties to Al Qaeda seem to have become more tenuous. Known as Laaouar, or the one-eyed, after losing an eye to shrapnel, Mr. Belmokhtar fought against a Soviet-installed government in Afghanistan.

After returning to Algeria in the 1990s, he joined a militant Algerian group and took refuge in Mali, where he was involved in smuggling and kidnapping for ransom, including the abduction of a Canadian diplomat in 2008.

Mr. Belmokhtar became a leading figure in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or A.Q.I.M., the Qaeda affiliate in North Africa.

But in 2012, he split with the group to lead the Al Mulathameen Battalion, which was officially designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department on Wednesday.

"The finding reflects the fact that the terrorist groups in the region are in flux, although certain individuals remain constant," said Michael R. Shurkin, a former C.I.A. analyst who is now at the RAND Corporation.

Since breaking with the Qaeda affiliate, Mr. Belmokhtar has shown a penchant for carrying out headline-grabbing attacks against Western interests. …

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