NEW YORK (Reuters) - Al Qaeda’s growing north Africa network plans to attack U.S. interests seeking control of the region’s energy riches, its Algerian-based leader said in remarks published on Tuesday.
The network of militants from Mauritania to Libya sees U.S. interests as legitimate targets because Washington backed the region’s “criminal” governments and stole Algerian oil, the New York Times quoted Abdelmalek Droukdel as saying.
“We found America building military bases in the south of our country and conducting military exercises, and plundering our oil and planning to get our gas,” Droukdel, also known as Abou Mossab Abdelouadoud, was quoted as saying.
“Therefore, it became our right and our duty to ... declare clearly the American interests are legitimate targets.”
OPEC member Algeria, Africa’s second largest country, denies it has foreign military bases on its soil.
Asked whether his group planned attacks on U.S. soil, Droukdel replied, referring to the U.S. administration: “Everyone must know that we will not hesitate in targeting it whenever we can and wherever it is on this planet.”
He said Algeria’s banking of its energy export receipts in U.S. and European financial institutions showed that the Algiers government served western interests. He added that French, Spanish and “Jewish” interests were also targets.
The newspaper said Droukdel, believed to based in mountains east of Algiers, had given recorded audio replies to a list of questions submitted by the Times.
His voice had been verified as genuine by a private voice expert who works for federal agencies, the newspaper said.
Droukdel’s group has links with like-minded militants in the region and is the most effective armed rebel organization in the OPEC member country of 33 million, which has been fighting an Islamist insurgency since 1992.
He said his group had witnessed an awakening of jihad around the Maghreb, adding without elaborating that this included militants in sub-Saharan oil power Nigeria.
Attacks on U.S. interests have been rare in Algeria.
The most recent was the bombing of a bus carrying foreign oil workers near Algiers in December 2006 which killed an Algerian and a Lebanese and wounded four Britons and an American.
An explosives expert, Droukdel was appointed leader of an Islamist rebel group called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat in 20094, six years after it was founded with the aim of toppling the government and establishing purist Islamic state.
In October 2003, the group offered its support to the al Qaeda network and in January 2007 the group changed its name to Al Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb.
Since then it has set off a string of deadly car bombings in and around Algiers, including bombings of United Nations and government buildings in Algiers that killed at least 41 people.
Droukdel said increasing numbers of young men around the region were joining the group out of persistent poverty and anger at what he called the West’s war on Islam.
“The large proportion of our mujahedeen (holy war fighters) comes from Algeria. And there is a considerable number of Mauritanians, Libyans, Moroccans, Tunisians, Malians and Nigerians,” he said, adding his group’s efforts were linked to an attack on the Israeli embassy in Mauritania in February.
He played down reports that his men included significant numbers of north African jihadists who had returned to the region from helping fight U.S. troops in Iraq.
Instead, many of the recruits were people released from prison by the Algerian government since 2006 under a national reconciliation program, he said.