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Rifts curb North Africa's war on al-Qaida

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RABAT, Morocco, Nov. 17 (UPI) -- As North African states grapple with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, old rivalries are undermining efforts to mount a concerted regional offensive against the increasingly active jihadists.

In particular, the rift between Algeria, the region's military heavyweight which sees itself as the natural leader of North Africa, and Morocco is widening.

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Morocco, a longtime U.S. ally in the region, and Algeria have been at each other's throats over the disputed, mineral-rich Western Sahara since November 1975 when it was relinquished by Spain.

Most of the territory, which covers 103,000 square miles of desert, has been held by Morocco, backed by France, since a 1991 United Nations-sponsored cease-fire.

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Rabat recently claimed that an "objective alliance" exists between AQIM and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front, which the Moroccans insist is controlled by Algeria's powerful intelligence service, the DRS.

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In April, Algeria together with Mali, Niger and Mauritania, established a joint intelligence and military command center at the Algerians' Tamanrasset air base deep in the Sahara Desert.

Algiers pointedly shunned Morocco, although the kingdom has a good track record in combating jihadists.

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The absence of Chad, Libya, Tunisia and Morocco from this security grouping will impede regional efforts to eradicate AQIM. Mali has tried several times to broaden the group, but Algiers vetoed all those attempts.

Morocco recently claimed it had broken up a 30-strong al-Qaida cell. This month it rolled up a narcotics ring and terrorist cells it said were evidence of close links between AQIM and narco-traffickers -- a situation that exists across the Sahara and the semi-arid Sahel region south of it.

AQIM's southern command operates with gangs smuggling drugs, cigarettes and arms and gets most of its funding from kidnapping foreigners and wealthy locals for ransom.

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The driving force behind Morocco's counter-terrorism campaign is Yassine Mansouri, the head of its foreign intelligence service, known as the DGED, since 2005.

He has become the top adviser on security matters to King Mohamed VI. "That pre-eminence could shortly be confirmed by sweeping changes within the intelligence community," the Intelligence Online Web site reported this week from Paris.

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Mansouri works in close cooperation with Abdel Latif Hammouchi, who heads Morocco's domestic intelligence service, known as the DGST. Mansouri pushed for him to get that key post in 2005.

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These services are aided by a third, a financial intelligence agency founded in 2009 to close financial channels to AQIM and other militant groups in the region.

In the Sahel, Morocco's point man in the counter-terrorism operation is Abderrahmane Benomar, the long-service ambassador to Mauritania, which these days is on the front line of the war against terrorism.

This Moroccan involvement annoys the Algerians, who diplomatic sources say refuse to share intelligence with the Mauritanians because of their links to Rabat.

Algeria refused to attend a meeting of the Group of Eight's Counter-Terrorism Action Group in Bamako, capital of Mali, in mid-October because a Moroccan representative was there.

Rabat constantly asserts the overwhelming majority of AQIM's members are Algerians, who have mutated from the Armed Islamic Group, one of the most ferocious groups involved in the Algerian civil war of the 1990s, and then the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, AQIM's direct predecessor.

Mali, where AQIM set up two years ago by exploiting the country's weak security infrastructure, is miffed at Algeria for what it views as its high-handed attitude to less powerful states ill equipped to slug it out with AQIM.

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Mali and other poor states in the region say that regional cooperation will make more headway against the jihadists than the military force advocated by Algeria. Niger even accused Algeria's DRS of destabilizing its northern region.

"Mali's insistence than regional cooperation is the key … must overcome significant distrust between many of the countries of the Sahel/Sahara region," says Andrew McGregor of the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington think tank that monitors global terrorism.

"Besides the seemingly intractable diplomatic conflict between Algeria and Morocco, there is also suspicion of the motives and activities of Libya's Moammar Gadhafi …

"Even inside Mali, there are misgivings regarding the sincerity of Algeria's counter-terrorism efforts … The Algeria DRS is widely believed to have infiltrated operatives into AQIM, with some suspicious Sahel observers even claiming AQIM is a false-flag operation run entirely by the Algerian intelligence service."

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