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Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb Active in Mauritania

No longer content with operations merely in Algeria, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is suspected of being behind a shooting attack on a family of French tourists in the northwest African nation of Mauritania. A fifth person was wounded in the attack, which occurred outside the town of Aleg in southern Mauritania on December 24. According to the BBC:

Tuesday's attack happened after the five victims stopped on the side of a road for a picnic. The gunmen opened fire with automatic weapons, before speeding off in a car that was later recovered in Aleg, about 250km (160 miles) east of the capital Nouakchott.

Mauritanian prosecutors have reported that the suspects in the attack are believed to be affiliates of AQIM, which has been particularly active in recent weeks. This terrorist organization, formerly known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) before it formally allied with al-Qaeda, also claimed responsibility for the massive dual bombings in the Algerian capital of Algiers on December 11. This suicide bombing attack, which targeted a United Nations headquarters in the city and a government building, killed dozens. One of the perpetrators of the Mauritanian attack has been apprehended, with others still on the lam. The French government has urged its nationals to avoid the area:

On its website, the French foreign ministry is advising holiday tourists to pick destinations other than Mauritania, citing threats by Al-Qaeda against "French interests in North Africa."

In more recent news, AQIM has claimed responsibility for a strike against Mauritanian soldiers outside El Ghallawiya, in northeast Mauritania, on December 27.Three soldiers were shot and killed in the incident. AQIM took credit in a recording aired on Al-Arabiya, which stated:

"We are glad to inform our Muslim nation about the victories achieved by the mujahideen of the al-Qaeda Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb through 15 simultaneous operations."

The recent string of terrorist incidents has caused concern that AQIM might also try to disrupt the upcoming Lisbon to Dakar Rally, an auto race set to begin on January 5 that draws thousands of spectators to Mauritania. These incidents provide definitive evidence that AQIM is intent on spreading its reach outside of its nation of origin, Algeria. Additionally, among counterterrorism analysts there has been a long running debate over the threat of extremist forces finding safe haven in the Sahel, a vast semi-arid region south of the Sahara Desert. The attack against the French tourists, which occurred in this region, lends further credence to this argument and also heightens fears that AQIM is expanding its operations into Senegal and Mali.