ALGIERS, Algeria, Jan. 31 (UPI) -- U.S. officials say Algerian intelligence foiled an al-Qaida plot to mount suicide attacks against U.S. and European ships in the Mediterranean at a time when the jihadists are driving to expand operations in North Africa.
The Algerian intelligence service, Direction de la Securite Interieure -- DSI -- caught the plot in its early stages and arrested three suspected members of al-Qaida's North African affiliate, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
The Algerian daily newspaper Echorouk broke the story a week ago. U.S. officials said they knew of the plot but the Algerians made the arrests.
Echorouk reported that the men had purchased a boat that they reportedly planned to pack with explosives and ram into a ship in the western Mediterranean. The plot, as outlined by the newspaper, bore a striking resemblance to tactics used by al-Qaida's Yemeni branch when it badly damaged the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Cole in Aden harbor Oct. 12, 2000, by ramming it with a small boat packed with explosives.
That attack killed 17 U.S. sailors and wounded dozens more.
An earlier attack using similar tactics against another U.S. destroyer, USS The Sullivans, failed when the attacking boat foundered.
Al-Qaida struck again with a seaborne suicide attack against the 157,000-ton French tanker Limburg off Yemen's coast as it sailed from the Persian Gulf to Malaysia Oct. 6, 2002. The vessel was holed and one crewman killed but it continued its voyage.
In May 2002, Moroccan authorities arrested three Saudi members of al-Qaida who were convicted of planning seaborne suicide attacks on U.S. and British warships in the Strait of Gibraltar.
Moroccan police said in April 2007 they were hunting a jihadist group supposedly planning similar attacks on ships, although no such strikes took place.
In the Algerian crackdown, it wasn't clear whether the Americans endorsed Algiers' decision to round up the trio of suspects, rather than wait to see how the plot developed and possibly track down other militants. However, relations between the Americans and Algeria's security establishment have been strained for some time.
Algeria, the regional military heavyweight, considers itself the leading player in the counterinsurgency campaign against AQIM, which is based in Algeria and is the backbone of the jihadist movement in North Africa.
Until September 2001, Washington and Algiers, which had fought a vicious war against Islamist militants, were greatly at odds, particularly over the Algerians' ferocious tactics to crush the insurgents. These included battle-hardened Arab veterans of the 1979-89 war in Afghanistan against the Soviet army, from which al-Qaida emerged.
After the Americans also found themselves fighting jihadists, led by al-Qaida, they sought a rapprochement with Algiers. The Algerians remain deeply suspicious of the United States.
The current rift centers on the refusal of Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah, the Algerian military's chief of staff, to allow the United States to deploy U.S. Air Force and CIA surveillance drones in Algerian air space.
The Intelligence Online web site quoted a French general that the U.S.-Algeria friction was "a big black hole." The bottom line is that the Algerians don't want U.S. or other Western forces on their soil.
The Algerians set up a joint intelligence center at their air base at Tamanrasset, deep in the Sahara Desert, in 2010 with neighboring Mauritania, Niger and Mali.
The Americans have been using a Moroccan air force base in the Sahara to conduct counter-terrorism surveillance operations using drones.
The U.S. Africa Command is running a dozen counterinsurgency training missions, mostly involving Special Forces units, in several North African countries.
The French, who once ruled North Africa, are conducting similar operations. But they've also deployed combat forces that have carried out raids, primarily with forces from Mali, on jihadist bases in the region over the last two years. AQIM currently holds several French hostages.
Meantime, the fallout from the 2011 war in Libya continues to plague the region.
Islamist fighters and rogue mercenaries, including many North Africans hired by Moammar Gadhafi to defend his ill-fated regime, along with large amounts of plundered weapons, are worsening the security situation in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and further south in Mali, Niger and Mauritania.
"AQIM is solidly entrenched across the region and has now entered the arena of interstate politics," Oxford Analytica reported in a Jan. 25 analysis.