Global Jihad? Al Qaeda Expands to Africa, Beyond

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WASHINGTON -- A recent study found American citizens make up more than half of those convicted for involvement with al Qaeda. Many converted from Christianity to Islam.

The stunning statistic is another sign that the face of al Qaeda is changing -- in more ways than one.

"They have these aspirations essentially to use Mali as a base to expand jihad across the entire part of Africa: North Africa, West Africa. And also from there, they can franchise into Europe," said Rudy Atallah, CEO of White Mountain Research and a former counterterrorism director for the Pentagon.

Atallah said al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, poses a growing danger to Africa and beyond.

"It's the wealthiest AQ affiliate in the world," he told CBN News. "They've made so much money -- I've heard quotes as much $90 million to $120 million -- between ransoms and drugs.

"So they're flush with cash," Atallah said. "They have a lot of weapons and they have recruits everywhere."

The northern branch of AQIM engineered a recent hostage crisis when it seized an Algerian gas plant and murdered at least 39 people, including one American.

The group's southern branch conquered much of northern Mali before being pushed back by the French military earlier this year. It threatens to go further.

"Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is the current emir of al Qaeda, said he wanted AQIM to be a bone that lodges itself in the throats of the Americans and the French," Atallah said.

AQIM's allies in Libya did just that last year, when they stormed the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11 and murdered four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

The attack shows how al Qaeda has branched out from its traditional base, or core, in the tribal regions of Pakistan to new areas around the world.

From Yemen to Iraq to Syria to Sinai and on to Somalia, Libya, Nigeria, Algeria, Mali and Europe -- al Qaeda and its affiliates are expanding their reach.

Israel is clearly in the group's crosshairs, with Egypt's Sinai Peninsula fast becoming an al Qaeda base.

"What we see today is a kind of coalition between the Salafis, some of them coming from Yemen, from Saudi Arabia, Palestinians and Bedouins," Israeli terror expert Dr. Ely Karmon explained.

Karmon told CBN News that al Qaeda sympathizers have also set up shop in the Gaza Strip along Israel's southern border.

"Many of them are ex-members of Hamas, disillusioned or because they have personal disagreements with the leadership," he said. "Although they are not affiliated with al Qaeda, they present themselves as al Qaeda."

Al Qaeda-linked groups have also taken advantage of Syria's civil war and now control some villages along that country's border with Israel.

But America remains al Qaeda's main target. The latest issue of the group's official magazine gives specific instructions on attacking targets inside the United States.

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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.