By George H. Wittman

While the White House and the American public focus on the battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan, a far more basic and immediate threat to American and European security continues to exist on the covert level of radical Islamic terrorism. One group that remains generally off the radar screen of the public, the press and — most importantly — the Obama Administration is the organization known as AQIM (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). The Maghreb is the Arabic term for North Africa west of Egypt.

To characterize AQIM as a "franchise" operation of al Qaeda is to ignore the history of a terrorist mechanism whose original leadership came of age through the same conflict in Afghanistan as al Qaeda. The difference is that these young people were the revolutionary heirs of Algeria’s own bloody war of independence from colonial France.

AQIM’s specific organizational roots go back to 1992. Elections in Algeria at that time devolved into a sanguinary civil war as various Islamic groups fought against the military-backed secular government.

Out of this conflagration grew the organization known as GIA (Armed Islamic Group), of which the most extreme element evolved as the GSPC (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat). The term "Salafist" draws directly on the Sunni Arab sense of fundamentalism and a return to the early ambitions and doctrine of Islam. In 2006 GSPC announced it had formally joined forces with al Qaeda, even though it already had declared its allegiance to Osama bin Laden’s organization three years earlier. By January 2007 the Salafist jihadi group changed its name to AQIM, apparently to align itself with the broader global objectives of al Qaeda.

The name changes are important to intelligence analysts, who are divided in their views regarding whether the official alignment of the Algerian organization with the internationalist al Qaeda was an attempt to reinforce its existing status — which was wavering — or simply to expand its thrust across North Africa and pursue further global objectives.

What is not questioned is that North Africans of the AQIM have returned from fighting in Iraq capable of escalating their group’s activity in the Maghreb and Europe. According to British sources, the AQIM has between 600-800 members led by Abdelmalik Droukdal (aka — Abou Musab Abdelwadoud), a former college science student  and  bomb-making specialist. The actual numbers are less important than the organization’s capability to covertly support and launch operations within their region and Europe.

This past October, a French citizen of Algerian origin who worked as a physicist at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) was arrested in France on charges of "criminal association with a terrorist enterprise." The suggested terrorist group was AQIM. Since the original announcement, a security blackout has been placed on any further information regarding this action. Apparently the press restriction was in line with counter-terrorist operations of the French internal intelligence agency, Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur (DCRI).

In June 2008 the Spanish internal intel service uncovered and arrested a terrorist cell of eight men for what was characterized as "providing logistical and financial support" to AQIM. A similar AQIM cell had been closed down outside of Paris by the French service a year before. Other counter-terrorism operations against AQIM-linked agents are reported to have occurred throughout Western Europe. Algerian expatriates living in Europe are said to be a continuing source of funds for their North African comrades.

Kidnapping has been another lucrative source of financing. Having collected over $5 million in ransom in 2003 for kidnapping a group of 32 European tourists on an Algerian Sahara trip, the Maghreb terrorists have subsequently been motivated to capture targets of opportunity, both civilian and diplomatic, for large ransom payments. In some instances, however, as was the case of a U.K. citizen in June 2009, the victim is killed.

In recent years there have been suicide attacks against foreign business and government staff as well as Algerian military targets, mirroring similar al Qaeda operations in Iraq. In June 2009 a platoon of Algerian police were ambushed and killed. Hostages are held in small villages in the Sahara across the border in northern Mali, where the tribal leaders usually are happy to receive AQIM subsidies.

Some counter-terrorism specialists believe AQIM is the best situated of all the al Qaeda sub-groups to perform operations in Western Europe. AQIM is considered to be physically and logistically in a position to launch substantial and well-coordinated attacks on "infidel" European and American targets. The question continues to exist as to what priority is being given by the American and European governments to address this danger while official attention is focused on Afghanistan?