By Ben Evansky
Fox News has obtained video from North African security services that shows some of the first images of Al Qaeda's growing African branch known as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM. This comes as the United Nations brokered peace talks continue in New York between Morocco and Polisario Front officials over the future of Africa's longest running territorial dispute in the Western Sahara a region that analysts say is increasingly becoming a hot bed of Al Qaeda activity.
A former Spanish colony in the north west of Africa, Western Sahara was annexed by Morocco 35 years ago which led to years of violent attacks against Morocco by the main Western Sahara independence group called The Polisario Front. This situation lasted until a United Nations brokered cease-fire in 1991. Talks have continued ever since but without any final agreement. Yet it's this lack of agreement which worries terrorism analysts who say the disputed area is increasingly being used by Al Qaeda as a base for recruiting new members and planning attacks.
Walid Phares, a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, and a Fox News terrorism analyst says "Al Qaeda is very pragmatic in its moves. Eventually it moves like a strategic force even though it is made of small cells and networks. In fact its aim is to reach the Atlantic from the Sahara. They spoke about it in their chat rooms. Hence trying to offer their services to the Polisario or even penetrating it are part of its strategy." Indeed North African security sources confirm to Fox News that fifty-nine Polisario officials and soldiers have recently been linked to AQIM.
Phares who has just released a book called ""The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East " says that given the fact that AQIM has already successfully penetrated the bordering countries such as Mali, Mauritania and Niger that it has "certainly showed interest in moving its cells or recruiting in the Sahara. It tells the people of the area that it will fight Morocco's presence and stand by them. In fact it is trying to install its own bases. It aims at creating something between a Somalia and a Yemen in the whole area."
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb which was founded in Algeria has a long and deadly record of attacks in the region. In 2007 they were behind a double suicide bombing in the Algerian capital which killed 41 people including 17 United Nations workers. Reports also describe AQIM being behind a failed attempt to sink US ships off Gibraltar, bomb the US embassy in Mali, as well as numerous kidnappings of foreign nationals and deadly attacks against countries in the region.
Indeed a recently leaked U.S. cable released by wikileaks echoed such concerns asking embassies in the so called "Sahel" region to be on the look out for "Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other terrorist-related individuals and organizations." It went onto ask for reports on "plans and intentions for operations against U.S. or allied personnel or interests. -- Links to weapons of mass destruction or related materials" and " Indications that international terrorist groups are seeking to take advantage of political, ethnic, tribal, or religious conflict."
Steve Emerson a leading terrorism analyst and Executive Director of The Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT) tells Fox News that he believes the Administration has not underestimated AQIM and that they are getting up to speed very fast on them. Emerson says that AQIM is definitely a threat to the West and to the US having targeted American interests in the last year alone. He says "It's a new war front for the US and unless aggressively attacked in the beginning, it has the potential to grow like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula."
Phares, like Emerson agrees that the administration is aware of the threat but is concerned that the overall U.S. national counter terrorism strategy "lacks the perception of AQIM's strategic threat to the whole area in terms of coordination and recruitment." He says "there is concern about what AQIM is doing but not about what it can and will do across the region." He says that "the projection capacity of our national security analysis is limited because it does not factor in the power of an ideology. It does not recognize the existence of an ideology. It doesn't name it to begin with. I call it a systemic failure in understanding, thus estimating al Qaeda's strategies."
While the United Nations peace talks continues into a second day sources knowledgeable on the negotiations worry that a final peace deal is still a long way off. Polisario has said that if they do fail AQIM will take advantage, but Walid Phares says "this is a pressure used tactically by the armed group." The Fox News terrorism analyst concludes that "Morocco is arguing that AQIM is moving into the area regardless. Hence UN talks must continue anyway for the benefit of peace, but AQIM will continue to penetrate into the Western Sahara, and even more if a Polisario state is established. These are the facts stated by al Qaeda."