By Joe Sterling
A terrorist peril that's notorious in Africa and Europe but less publicly well known in the United States may wreak havoc in the coming year, warns the top senator on intelligence matters.
The terror group, an al Qaeda affiliate in northern Africa known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was singled out by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, who chairs the Senate's intelligence committee.
"For the past few years, AQIM has been almost an afterthought when discussing the terrorist threat. This may be about to change," she said on Tuesday during a hearing.
A report issued by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper ahead of the intelligence committee hearing made brief reference to AQIM when discussing al Qaeda's regional affiliates. Feinstein said the intelligence community needs to be ready to tackle the militant movement.
AQIM has been classified by the United States as a foreign terrorist organization and has conducted suicide bombings and kidnappings in Algeria, Niger, Mali, and Mauritania.
One example of the group's brutality occurred five years ago. Two nearly simultaneous suicide attacks - against a U.N. target and the Algerian Constitutional Council - killed 42 people.
Feinstein's remarks come as violence and instability flare in other regions of the continent - Libya and Nigeria.
"Recent public records point out that AQIM, which has traditionally operated in parts of Algeria and Mali, is well positioned to exploit instability and pockets of extremism in Libya and Nigeria, and to create new safe havens," she said.
Even though the government led by late dictator Moammar Gadhafi has been ousted from power, fighting has raged between rival militias in Libya.
In Nigeria - Africa's most populous nation - tensions have raged between Muslims and Christians. An Islamic militant group called Boko Haram has staged many attacks in recent weeks.
As for kidnappings, Feinstein notes reports about "tens of millions of dollars AQIM has received from ransom payments for hostages and other illicit activities."
In December, Daniel Benjamin, the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism, said that while the group has been "historically the weakest of the major AQ affiliates," it has in recent years filled its "coffers with ransoms from kidnappings."
Benjamin said other al Qaeda groups are adopting the practice "to considerable advantage thanks to the willingness of wealty Western nationals to pay off the hostage-takers."
He also noted that "these newfound resources together with AQIM efforts to take advantage of the recent flux-instability in Libya have raised concern about this group's trajectory."
"Of particular concern are both the issue of terrorist transit in light of instability in Libya, and the threat posted by loose munitions that were previously under Libyan government control," Benjamin said.
Andrew Lebovich, a researcher at the New America Foundation think thank, said there is much more awareness about the group among the French and others who have been singled out by AQIM.
AQIM killed an American teacher three years ago in Mauritania, but American entities haven't been targeted. Because Americans and U.S. business basically haven't been targeted, they don't "know how to conceptualize the threat," Lebovich said.
"The government isn't sure how to understand them, what kind of threat they actually pose," he added.
EU Counter-terrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove said last year that "what is concerning about AQIM is that it's a group that's Africanizing and is trying to extend its zone of influence,"