Lindsay Mackenzie, Associated Press
TUNIS, Tunisia — Western security officials worry crucial intelligence on terror groups in North Africa will dry up as repressive — but effective — security services are dismantled or reorganized following the Arab revolts.
Those concerns, expressed by European and Israeli intelligence officers in interviews with The Associated Press, add urgency to reports of foreign fighters with suspected al-Qaida crossing into Tunisia.
Extremist groups such as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are not believed to have played a big role in the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. But concerns are mounting they will exploit the instability caused by the sudden collapse of autocratic regimes that clamped down hard on terrorism and cooperated with the West.
"The intelligence coming from our partners in North Africa has been very important over the years," one European security official told AP.
"Although the agencies were seen as being particularly brutal, they were often very effective," he said. "I think it's too soon to say what will happen in North Africa, but it's fair to say that we're concerned further instability could affect intelligence exchanges."
Another intelligence official from a different European country said there already is a noticeable drop in the flow of intelligence from North Africa. "It's already happening," he said, calling it a bigger concern for Europe than the risk of reprisals by Islamist extremists for the killing of Osama bin Laden.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
While Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen are considered priority countries in the fight against al-Qaida, North Africa has been a staging ground for various terror groups affiliated with, or inspired by, al-Qaida leaders.
In a message recorded shortly before his death and released online Wednesday, bin Laden praised the protest movements in Tunisia and Egypt and predicted that revolutions would spread across the region. Bin Laden and his followers saw many Middle East governments as corrupt and hoped their collapse would lead to rule based on their austere interpretation of Islamic law.
North Africa has featured in several major terror plots in Europe, including the 2003 ricin plot in Britain in which a suspected al-Qaida operative from Algeria was convicted for trying to spread the deadly poison. Moroccans or people of Moroccan origin made up most of the 29 people tried for the 2004 Madrid train bombings that killed 191 people in Europe's deadliest Islamist terror attack.
One-third of terror suspects arrested in the European Union in 2010 were of North African origin, according to Europol, the EU's police agency.
French authorities have long trumpeted strong counterterrorism cooperation with Algeria, which suffered a bloody Islamic insurgency that peaked in the 1990s. Relatively small anti-government protests have erupted in Algeria in recent months, but nothing on the scale of that in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.
Still, Europol's latest terror assessment in April said "the instability of state security forces may weaken the ability of states such as Algeria to effectively tackle a group such as AQIM." Such groups "may be able to take advantage of the temporary reduction of state control for terrorist purposes," Europol said.
Those concerns were underscored by the recent influx of foreign fighters near the Tunisian-Algerian border. A Tunisian colonel was killed Wednesday in a clash with an armed group of Libyans, Algerians and Tunisians, local Tunisian officials said. The group's identity wasn't immediately known.
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