Saharan vacations are popular in the German-speaking world, but the adventure tours may have become too wild for some. Little by little, 31 European travelers have vanished in Algeria.
Some believe it could be backlash against a German move in the worldwide war on terror.
In February and March, 15 Germans, 10 Austrians, four Swiss, a Dutchman and a Swede traveling in seven separate groups disappeared in the southeastern corner of Algeria, more than 1,000 miles from the capital, Algiers. The only possible signs of them since have been an aborted satellite phone call and a note that simply said: "We are still alive."
There have been no ransom demands, fueling speculation among European media that they may have been kidnapped for financial or political motives. The Associated Press quoted an Algerian official Tuesday as saying the Europeans were being held hostage by terrorist groups, though he refused to name the groups.
Suspicions Fall on Terror Group
The official told The AP the Alegerian army had learned the tourists were being held in the region of Illizi, near the Libyan border.
"They are alive and are being held in several groups separated geographically," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The German government would not comment on the report. There was no word on what steps might be taken to free the tourists, or on what the captors' motives could be.
Last week, the Austrian weekly Profil claimed the tourists had been kidnapped as human shields because Islamisist terrorists feared a clampdown by the authorities.
A European Interpol source told ABCNEWS that the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, commonly known by the acronym GSPC, is "most likely" responsible for kidnapping the tourists. The GSPC is a splinter group of the Algerian-based Armed Islamic Group, known as GIA, and was added to the U.S. State Department's foreign terrorist list in March 2002.
GIA is believed to have killed thousands of civilians — including more than 100 foreigners — in massacres during its campaign against Algeria's military government during the 1990s.
The Sahara Desert tourists — traveling in four-wheel-drive vehicles or on motorcycles and without local guides — began disappearing in early February, coinciding with the trial in Germany of four Algerian GSPC operatives.
The four, who had been living in Frankfurt, were arrested on Christmas Day 2000 and accused of plotting to blow up a busy market in Strasbourg, France, on New Year's Eve. On March 10, the four suspects were found guilty and sentenced to prison terms of 10 to 12 years.
Intelligence sources have suggested the GSPC may have specifically kidnapped German-speaking tourists in order to exchange them for release of the convicted bombers.
Swiss, German and Austrian investigation teams have been searching for the missing tourists alongside Algerian soldiers, using ancient nomadic tracking methods as well heat-sensing radar. Searchers have been traveling in helicopter, four-wheel-drive vehicles, and on camels.
The recently reported discovery of an abandoned blue Iveco truck about 90 miles west of Illizi, close to the Libyan border, was seen as a significant breakthrough in the search because it matched the description of a truck two of the missing Germans had been using. In addition, a senior French security official told the French newspaper Le Monde the tourists had been split into two groups and were being held in caves and gullies near the town of Illizi.
‘The One-Eyed’ and ‘The Doctor’
European media have speculated that GSPC leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar — also known as Belaoeur, the "The One-Eyed" — is behind the kidnappings. A jihadi in his teens, when he volunteered to fight the Soviet invaders in Afghanistan, he later developed a reputation of a romantic outlaw that helped the poor.
Intelligence analysts claim recent activities of the GSPC are more symptomatic of a developing network of Islamist terrorism.
In 1996, the GSPC splintered from GIA, and by 1998 it had surpassed the parent organization in power and popularity. By 2000, according to Italian and French intelligence, the GSPC had taken control of GIA's external networks in Europe and North Africa and was moving to establish a pan-European terrorist organization to complement other Islamist terrorist groups in other parts of the world — such as al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden's network.
GSPC's European cells were the brainchild of Haydar Abu Doha, an Algerian known as "The Doctor." Abu Doha is alleged to have been a senior official at an al Qaeda terrorist camp in Afghanistan, and is accused of materminding the plot to bomb Los Angeles International Aiport during the millennium celebrations ushering in 2000. He was arrested in February 2001 in London and is awaiting extradition to the United States.
The Strasbourg plotters allegedly made contact with the Meliani Organization, a network headed by Algerian national Mohammed Bensakhria, who was arrested in July 2001 for allegedly planning to bomb the European Parliament in Strasboug. After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bensakhria was linked to Mohamed Atta, who is believed to have been the ringleader among the 9/11 hijackers.
Prior to the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, militants of Algerian origin were the most numerous to be found at al Qaeda terror training camps. Those who managed to escape are believed to have either returned to Algeria to join GSPC or to have gone to Continental Europe, where many established sleeper cells for the GSPC.
In recent years, the GSPC has expanded beyond its Algerian base of recruits by incorporating radical militants who have left dormant or lost conflicts such those in as Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan.
Multifront War on Terror
Europe has been a significant front in the war on terrorism, as European authorities have unearthed webs of alleged terrorists since 2001.
On Dec. 16, 2002, French officials arrested four people — two Algerians and two Moroccans — who allegedly were in possession of chemicals and a military personal protection suit.
In December 2002, a 27-year-old Algerian was arrested at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport with plastic explosives, detonators, a handgun and a machine gun, police said.
On Jan. 15, 2003, three North African men, including an Algerian, were arrested in Manchester, England, in connection with an alleged terrorist plot to use the deadly poison ricin, authorities said.