Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, born of a former insurgent group in Algeria, remains motivated largely out of a desire to attack former colonial power France. It currently holds four French hostages, and French officials have called the group the biggest terror threat to France and its interests.In an interview, anti-terrorism judge Marc Trevidic suggested AQIM is being forced to work hard to control parts of its traditional territory in the Sahel region along the southern Sahara.
"It's been shown that AQIM is only able to strike in its own zone, by wanting to kill tourists — and we have seen nothing emerge as a significant foreign operation in Europe that was really organized by AQIM," he said.
Still, AQIM has been active in offering statements of support through the Internet to would-be terrorists in Europe, Trevidic said, citing his recent case files.
"It's incitation without a structure behind it," he said. The group is "holed up, and already has troubles controlling its zone ... Only when a terror group is very strong in its own territory will it begin exporting."
Many European officials are more concerned. In June, Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba called AQIM a growing menace that could spread beyond its base unless Western nations step up efforts to counter it. It has rendered huge parts of Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Algeria off-limits to foreigners.
AQIM is active online and media-savvy, and has also sparked arrests in Spain and France. French counterterrorism and intelligence officials say its main source of income comes from ransom payments from hostage-takings — in the millions of dollars.
Over the last decade, the Iraq war "shuffled the cards" in the global fight against terrorism, he said, by luring dozens of youths from France — home to western Europe's largest Muslim population — to fight U.S. forces.
The global crackdown against terrorism in Europe and elsewhere has largely driven Islamic militants underground: recruiting of young fighters in mosques and open-air training camps are largely a thing of the past, he said.
The newer phenomenon is "self-radicalization" online, with Internet-savvy Islamist youths watching videos and reading inflammatory texts that are a virtual-world call to arms.
"Today, there is not a single case where group members weren't recruited on the Internet," Trevidic said in the interview at the Paris AP office, with two bodyguards in tow.
He said American officials, too, are "starting to discover this danger from within."
"They've always reasoned in the United States that 'you just have to monitor the movements, the airplane passengers, and make them strip their clothes off and everything will be fine.' Well, no," Trevidic said.
With NATO forces conducting air raids, bombing strikes and surveillance missions over Afghanistan andPakistan, that region is no longer the training ground it once was for al-Qaida and its Taliban allies, he said.
Instead, the potential al-Qaida operational bases to watch today are the Somalia-Yemen area around the Gulf of Aden, where Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has operated, and AQIM's zone.
"There's always the possibility of a bombing ... but something really organized, like on the scale of a Sept. 11, is a bit exaggerated," Trevidic said. "The entire stakes are making sure that no group becomes powerful enough, because afterward, they in fact can do what they want."
"That's the lesson of Sept. 11, 2001, let's be clear: To have allowed training camps in the light of day, to have let this Taliban-al-Qadia alliance do what it wanted, gave them the possibility to organize a massive attack."
Trevidic reserved judgment about what the "Arab Spring" — with autocratic regimes toppled in Tunisia and Egypt and those of Libya, Syria and elsewhere under pressure — would mean for the future of counterterrorism.
Trevidic also said it's too early to judge the long-term impact of France's ban on face-covering Islamic veils, which was enacted in the spring and has drawn fury in some militant Islamic circles.
According to the SITE Intelligence Group, amateur video posted online that showed the arrest of a woman who refused to remove her niqab drew chatter among jihadists — with one Internet forum user calling on AQIM to "take action."
The regional government office confirmed Friday that the woman was stopped by police Sunday in Aulnay-Sous-Bois, north of Paris. The video showed her yelling at officers about her rights, then being driven away in a police vehicle.
She has been fined and charged with resisting arrest, and the case is now in the hands of a judge, the government office said.