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-Qaida. 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.”
Ward said, “Are they a threat to Europe? Again, this is a global environment, and these guys … are a threat anywhere.”
GSPC commander, Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, in a Jan. 3 video speech transmitted on the Internet, sent a personal message to Bin Laden, which seemingly lamented the lack of operational ties between his organization and al-Qaida.
“Only Allah knows how much we miss you, and how hard it is for us to be far from you. In the name of Allah, if we could be carried by birds, we would come to you … We ask Allah to reunite us after missing you for so long,” according to a translation of the speech posted on the Globalterroralert.com Web site.
The GSPC’s most notable impact came in 2003 when the militants began kidnapping European tourists who were traversing the Sahara. The 34 captives were eventually released unharmed, and by all accounts, were treated well. The scheme, however, netted the GSPC a reported 5 million euros in ransom money, said the ICG report.
Along with the ransom money, the group is well financed, said a Center for Policing Terrorism dossier on the group.
While the group’s most successful attacks have been in Algeria, its financial and human resource network is extensive in Europe, the New York-based think tank said. North African immigrant cells in Europe engage in petty crime to fund the war in Algeria. Police have broken up GSPC cells in the Netherlands, Spain, the United Kingdom and France, said the report, which was compiled from open sources.
The trans-Saharan trafficking of drugs, immigrants and ironically, U.S.-made Marlboro cigarettes, into Europe has also provided terrorist funding, both reports said.
Analysts note that the GSPC made one spectacular attempt at global jihad.
Before Bin Laden was a household name, a terrorist connected to a Spanish GSPC cell, the so-called “millennium bomber” Ahmad Ressem, was caught with a carload of explosives at the U.S.-Canada border. His target was the Los Angeles International Airport.
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