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Al Qaeda and ally put France on hit list

Algeria Islamists join terror fold, stirring worries

PARIS -- Al Qaeda has for the first time announced a union with an Algerian insurgent group that has designated France as an enemy, saying they will act together against French and American interests.

Current and former French officials specializing in terrorism said yesterday that an Al Qaeda alliance with the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, known by its French initials GSPC, was cause for concern.

``We take these threats very seriously," Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said, adding in an interview on France-2 television that the threat to France was ``high" and ``permanent," and that ``absolute vigilance" was required.

Al Qaeda's number two, Ayman al-Zawahri, announced the ``blessed union" in a video posted this week on the Internet to mark the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.

France's leaders have repeatedly warned that the decision not to join the US-led war in Iraq would not shield the country from Islamic terrorism. French participation in the UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon could give extremists another reason to strike.

The national police had no immediate comment on the announced alliance, but officials have long regarded the GSPC as one of the main terror threats facing France.

French specialists agreed, but also pointed out the group has been severely weakened by internal divisions, security crackdowns, and defections in Algeria, a former French territory still working to put down an Islamic insurgency that reached its most murderous heights in the 1990s.

``The GSPC is losing speed and has suffered very significant losses in recent months," said Louis Caprioli, former assistant director of France's DST counterterrorism and counterintelligence agency.

Some GSPC fighters took advantage of a recent Algerian amnesty for Islamic insurgents and others have been killed, said Caprioli, who works for Geos, a risk management firm.

Of the 800 combatants that GSPC was estimated to have had last year, probably no more than 500 remain, and the group has had no operational cells in France since the late 1990s, he said.

But Caprioli and others also said an alliance of GSPC and Al Qaeda could increase the terror risk for France -- not least because Zawahri's designation of the country as a worthy target could inspire extremists to take action.

In his video, Zawahri hailed ``the joining up" of the GSPC with Al Qaeda as ``good news."

``All the praise is due to Allah for the blessed union which we ask Allah to be as a bone in the throats of the Americans and French Crusaders and their allies, and inspire distress, concern and dejection in the hearts of the traitorous, apostate sons of France," he said.

``We ask him [Allah] to guide our brothers in the Salafist Group for Call and Combat to crush the pillars of the Crusader alliance, especially their elderly immoral leader, America."

Although GSPC leaders had previously sworn allegiance to Al Qaeda, Zawahri's video marked the first Al Qaeda recognition of a union between the two, French terror specialists said.

``From now on, the links are official, legitimate, and they are taking part in the same combat," said Anne Giudicelli, a former French diplomat specializing in the Middle East who runs the Paris-based consultancy Terrorisc.

The GSPC urged other militants to also join Al Qaeda.

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