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Al Qaeda's new branch strikes again

A group affiliated with Al Qaeda has been blamed for kidnappings in North Africa.

The Mauritanian military escorts the Spanish humanitarian organization, Barcelona Accio Solidaria, against potential attacks by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The convoy is traveling through Mauritania on their way to the Senegal border, near Nouachott on December 2, 2009. (Rafael Marchante/Reuters)

RABAT, Morocco — They called it a “solidarity caravan” — a group of Spanish volunteers delivering truckloads of donated computers, wheelchairs and other gifts for Africa’s poor.

For the last eight years they had followed well-publicized routes through Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal and Gambia. This time, as the volunteers traversed the stretch of sand-swept pavement that is Mauritania’s main highway, a group of armed men lay in wait.

Rather than solidarity, it seems, the gunmen sought hostages.

Members of the convoy heard gunshots at about 8 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 29, they told reporters. Those in front raced back to the caravan’s last car. The Land Rover stood abandoned in the dark, doors gaping open. Money and equipment remained inside. The passengers had vanished.

Spanish authorities have blamed the kidnapping on an organization called "Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb." It is the same group authorities believe abducted a French man from his hotel in northern Mali just a few days earlier.

The kidnappings are the latest evidence of the group’s growing strength in a lawless region on the edge of the Sahara desert called the Sahel, which includes parts of the North African countries of Mauritania, Mali, Chad and Niger, security experts say.

"Terrorism is on the rise across the Sahel,” said Justin Crump, a head of terrorism and country risk at the British security analysis firm Stirling Assynt. “There is little doubt that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb itself is extending its reach to the south.”

Recent operations with clear links to the group have taken place in Mauritania, Mali and Niger, Crump said, but the organization first emerged in Algeria during that country’s bloody civil war in the 1990s. Initially calling themselves the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, the Islamist guerillas targeted the Algerian government with the goal of establishing a Muslim state in the region.

But in 2003 they declared allegiance to Al Qaeda and its global goals. On Sept. 11, 2006, Al Qaeda’s second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, approved the union in a video. Since then, the group has increasingly taken aim at foreign targets and expanded its membership beyond Algeria.

“Al Qaeda’s role is to offer a compelling global jihadist vision, which has great appeal to religiously minded tribesmen,” Crump said.

As the Algerian government has succeeded in limiting the organization’s movements, the fighters have spread out to other countries in the region. “Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has found itself under increasing pressure in the north, where it used to be the most active,” said Richard Barrett, who coordinates the United Nations Al Qaeda Taliban Monitoring Team. “And therefore it looks to its branches in the south to provide the logistical support, the financial support and everything else.”