“While al-Qaida’s central command is in disarray and its leaders on the run following bin Laden’s death six months ago, security experts say, the group’s 5-year-old branch in Africa is flourishing. From bases like the one in the forest just north of here, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, is infiltrating local communities, recruiting fighters, running training camps and planning suicide attacks, according to diplomats and government officials.
Even as the mother franchise struggles financially, its African offshoot has raised an estimated $130 million in under a decade by kidnapping at least 50 Westerners in neighboring countries and holding them in camps in Mali for ransom. It has tripled in size from 100 combatants in 2006 to at least 300 today, say security experts. And its growing footprint, once limited to Algeria, now stretches from one end of the Sahara desert to the other, from Mauritania in the west to Mali in the east.
The group’s stated aim is to become a player in global jihad, and suspected collaborators have been arrested throughout Europe, including in the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, England and France.
With almost no resistance, al-Qaida has implanted itself in Africa’s soft tissue, choosing as its host one of the poorest nations on earth. The terrorist group has create a refuge in this remote land through a strategy of winning hearts and minds, described in rare detail by seven locals in regular contact with the cell. The villagers agreed to speak for the first time to an Associated Press team in the “red zone,” deemed by most embassies to be too dangerous for foreigners to visit.”