North Africa: The Active Hotspot for Al Qaeda

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WASHINGTON -- Much like a corporation, Al Qaeda maintains regional franchises around the world. One of the terror group's most active branches is based in North Africa.

And Europe and America are in its crosshairs.

Top Al Qaeda leaders say that if they get their hands on Pakistan's nuclear weapons, they'll use them.

"God willing, the nuclear weapons won't fall into the hands of the Americans and they will be seized by the fighters and used against the Americans," al Qaeda leader Mustafa Abul Yazeed said in a video.

So when a physicist at this Swiss nuclear lab was arrested this month and charged with having ties to Al Qaeda, counterterrorism officials took notice.

They believe he was in contact with a group known as AQIM: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

It's an area of North Africa that extends from Morrocco to Libya on down to Mali.

AQIM has carried out deadly bombings throughout the region. A number of its members have experience fighting U.S. troops in other Al Qaeda hotspots.

"Some of them go to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq," said Rudy Atallah, CEO if White Mountain Research.

Lt. Col. Rudy Atallah worked until recently as the Pentagon's director of counterterrorism for Africa. He says AQIM's pipeline reaches into neighboring Europe.

"They have the connections to where they can move people, passports, that kind of stuff, into the European areas and back into the Middle East," Atallah said.

And the group is on the record threatening Europe and the United States.

AQIM's leader told the New York Times in 2008, his followers share the goals of Al Qaeda's hiearchy in Pakistan, saying:

"Everyone must know that we will not hesitate in targeting (the United States) whenever we can and wherever it is on this planet."

One weapon used against the West is kidnapping -- including Christian missionaries.

They're often held for ransom in the remote Sahara Desert region of Mali, where the group has several terror training camps.

"In the last year we've had Austrians, Swiss, UK citizens kidnapped. That's interesting to me, because what you see is Al Qaeda trying to make money any which way it can," Atallah said.

An Arab government official tells CBN News that AQIM has become heavily involved in the African drug trade as a way to fund its operations.

The official added that the terror group Hezbollah has also established a foothold in the region -- it, too, works closely with drug cartels.

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Erick Stakelbeck

Erick Stakelbeck

CBN News Correspondent

Erick Stakelbeck is a sought after authority on terrorism and national security issues with extensive experience in television, radio, and print media. Stakelbeck is a correspondent and terrorism analyst for CBN News.  Follow Erick on Twitter @Staks33.