Deep in the Sahara Desert, along the remote southern borders of Algeria, lies an immense no man's land where militants roam. It is here that terrorists linked with al-Qaeda traffic everything from weapons and drugs to illegal migrants. They have planted at least a half-dozen cells in Europe, according to French, Italian and Belgian intelligence. Last week, they announced on the Internet that they had killed a British hostage in Mali, and are still holding a Swiss hostage.
The al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, is perhaps the best example of how al-Qaeda is morphing and broadening its reach through loose relationships with local offshoots. The shadowy network of Algerian cells recruits Islamist radicals throughout northern and western Africa, trains them and sends them to fight in the region or Iraq, according to Western and North African intelligence officials who asked to remain anonymous because of the nature of their jobs. In turn, AQIM gets al-Qaeda's brand name and some corporate know-how.
"The relationship with the al-Qaeda mother company works like in a multinational," says Jean-Louis Bruguiere, France's former top counterterrorism judge and an expert on North African networks. "There's a strong ideological link, but the local subsidiary operates on its own."
Another Western intelligence official compares AQIM to a local fast food franchise, "only for terrorism."
A picture of AQIM and its ties with al-Qaeda emerges from accounts by its victims, interviews with some of the dozens of intelligence officials following its activities and data pieced together by Western diplomats in Algeria.
It shows that the battle against radical Islam in Algeria has become crucial — and not only for North Africa. Intelligence officials throughout Europe are convinced that AQIM wants to expand in their region.
A senior counterterrorism official in France, who was not authorized to talk on the record, told The Associated Press that his services work "daily, constantly" with Algerian security to contain this threat. He says at least six AQIM-related cells, dormant or getting ready for action, have been dismantled across Europe in recent years.
Last month, the Spanish judiciary announced it had caught 12 Algerians from a suspected support cell. And last week, Italian authorities issued arrest warrants for two Tunisians, two Moroccans and an Algerian suspected of plotting attacks on a church and a subway line.
"For now, we've been good," the French official says. "But we've basically been lucky."
'We don't even know who we're fighting'
Four years ago, the Algerian terrorists — then known as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat — were running out of steam.
Born in an insurgency in 1992, the group took part in a near-civil war over the next decade that killed about 200,000 people. But its fighters had lost popular support after killing Muslim civilians. Many leaders had turned themselves in during government amnesties, and the group was weak from internal feuds.
So its new emir or leader, Abdelmalek Droukdel, reached out to the superstar of international jihad: al-Qaeda.
His emissaries met with Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, or close associates of his in countries like Sudan, Lebanon or Yemen, the Western intelligence officials told the AP.
Al-Qaeda said it couldn't give its brand away to an unreliable group: Even by jihad standards, Algerian militants had a reputation for excessive violence. But after a year of talks and tests, al-Zawahri issued a statement recognizing the "blessed union" on Sept. 11, 2006.
AQIM tried to focus more on Western targets in Algeria or tourists and Jews in Morocco. It also imported al-Qaeda techniques, such as fine-tuned, remote-controlled roadside bombs and suicide bombers.
In an apparent reference to al-Qaeda's attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11, AQIM carried out its first suicide bombings on April 11, 2007. On Dec. 11 of that year, it killed 37 people — including 17 United Nations staffers — in an attack that devastated the U.N.'s Algerian headquarters.
The key technology input seems to be public relations. Several times a month, AQIM now uses global jihadist forums on the Internet to issue political statements and videos of bombings or ambushes.
The Algerian group appears to raise its own money rather than get any from al-Qaeda, according to Bruguiere and others.
"I don't think there are many ties to headquarters other than ideological," said Bruguiere, the European Union coordinator of the Terrorism Finance Tracking Program run jointly with the U.S. Treasury Department and CIA.
The group pays its dues back to "headquarters" by trying to expand a new front for jihad in North Africa that could also serve as a forward base to hit Europe. Terrorists from Algeria or of Algerian descent have already been implicated in several devastating attacks, including the 2004 Madrid train bombings and a series of blasts in the Paris metro in the 1990s.
The Western and North African intelligence officials said expansion is underway, to a limited extent, in Tunisia and Libya.
And Moroccan security said police dismantle at least a half-dozen suspected terrorist cells on average each year. The Interior Ministry recently ordered 267 local bank branches to close because they were too vulnerable to holdups that could fund militants.
The Pentagon's new Africa Command is also striving to prevent the Algerian group's expansion south into the desert. U.S. troops or Special Forces help the weak military in Saharan states increase patrolling and cross-border cooperation.
The need is pressing. The British and Swiss hostages were among four European tourists and two senior U.N. envoys kidnapped this winter near the Mali and Niger borders. The Swiss hostage is still being held, but the others have since been released. Likely kidnapped by local gunmen, they were transferred to AQIM, which asked for a huge ransom and the release of a radical Islamist preacher held in Britain.
But the bulk of the militants' activities remain in densely populated northern Algeria, where nearly every day they traffic goods, plunder drivers at fake road blocks, kidnap, and extort money from small businessmen in exchange for safety.
"They're not al-Qaeda, they're just a mafia," said Majid Benhamiche, who regularly dons his military uniform to join the army in raids against terrorist camps across the Kabylie mountains.
Benhamiche never drives without a Kalashnikov, and carries a pistol at all times. He is part of a village militia armed by the Algerian Defense Ministry. His isolated family house has been turned into a fortress-like compound with high walls and at least three armed family members on guard.
"It's a war out there, and we don't even know who we're fighting," he said. "But we're not frightened. We're well-armed."
In this deeply macho society, Benhamiche has even taught his wife to use a Kalashnikov in case militants mount the raid they have been expecting every night for more than a decade. "She's a pretty good shot," he said.
'They're afraid of no one'
Algerian authorities describe the militants as on the run. In a rare interview with the AP during the presidential election in April, Interior Minister Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni said "the armed elements are currently being cornered."
Authorities have indeed dismantled several large cells this year. Important local "emirs," or militant leaders, have turned themselves in, and several former high-profile leaders — known as "repentants" in Algeria — are calling on militants to stop fighting. Algerian authorities believe there are 500-800 active fighters left, a mere fraction of what there used to be.
These die-hards "are hard to catch because they're taking refuge in remote mountains and forests," Zerhouni told the AP.
Still, violence is persistent. Data obtained by the AP from Western diplomats in Algeria shows 85 significant bombings in 2008. Some 639 people died that year because of terrorism-related violence: 409 suspected militants, 158 security force members and 72 civilians.
This year, there were 64 bombings from January to April alone, with deaths of 19 civilians and 61 security force members. The data also shows 167 suspected militants killed amid police sweeps, army raids and aerial bombardments.
Construction entrepreneur Mohammed remembers his terror in February, when he and his son returned late from a construction site, unarmed. They saw five gunmen blocking the road and waiting for them, said Mohammed, who asked to be identified only by his first name for fear of retaliation.
"They told me, 'You know who we are,"' the businessman recalls, still visibly shaken. "I answered, 'Yes, you are the mujahedeen."' Mohammed describes the men as young, clean-shaven and wearing nice sport shoes. "They could have been anybody."
The gunmen brought Mohammed and his son to the edge of the forest near their local base. Then they released him so he could collect a ransom for his child.
The kidnapping occurred within three miles of a police and army barracks. The AQIM fighters told Mohammed not to contact police, but he said he did anyway. They offered no assistance. An emergency law passed in the 1990s forbids discussing security matters, and officials declined to comment on any aspect of this article.
The militants asked Mohammed for $55 million. The father negotiated it down to 2 million dinars, about euro 20,000, or $28,000. Though considerable, Mohammed said this is only about half the going rate for ransoms among the 39 people he knows or has heard of as being recently kidnapped in his region.
Mohammed retrieved his son safely and thought the terrorists would kill him after taking the money.
"But they didn't even behead me. What kind of al-Qaeda is this?" he asked, speaking with a blank voice and a shadow of fear in his eyes, convinced AQIM will come back to get him sooner or later.
Mohammed said the kidnappers left him with a warning for police: They planned to attack its headquarters in the nearby town of Les Ouacifs. Some 30 militants did indeed attack on March 26, spraying the station with bullets for a half-hour and wounding four officers.
"They're afraid of no one," Mohammed said.
Algeria has ramped up its security. These days, the capital is surrounded by rings of police and army checkpoints. With 100,000 military police, 80,000 government-funded militia members and 150,000 police, the Defense and Interior ministries are by far the biggest employers in this nation of 35 million people — except possibly for the regular army, whose numbers are kept secret.
Together, the two ministries spent 656 billion dinars ($9.1 billion), according to Algeria's 2008 budget. That was more than a quarter of the state's functioning budget, more than the education, justice and industry ministries combined.
For now, Algeria can pay for this vast security apparatus because it is one of the world's largest oil and natural gas exporters. But in the global economic downturn, the burden is getting heavier.
In the meantime, poverty is rampant, unemployment is widespread, development falls far short and 70% of the population is under 30. The resulting tinderbox continues to stoke militancy that spreads far beyond Algeria's borders, especially with the help of al-Qaeda.
Security is indeed killing or arresting militants in droves, said a Western intelligence official. "But the problem is, the groups can recruit just as fast within the desperate and angry youth."