TETOUAN, Morocco – Al Qaeda is expanding its reach, recruiting a new wave of international terrorists in northern Africa who will wind up in Iraq, intelligence officials tell FOX News.
The area known as the Sahel, which runs from Niger in the south to Morocco in the north, is just miles from Spain, which offers a gateway to and from Europe. In this vast no-man's land, Al Qaeda's North African franchise, known as Al Qaeda in the Lands of Islamic Maghreb, is training new operatives.
Photos obtained exclusively by Fox News show just how big Al Qaeda's operation is in the Sahel. Images show hundreds of AK-47s, mortar shells and heavy machine guns capable of taking down aircraft. These weapons were stolen from the army of Mauritania in northwest Africa.
According to an intelligence report, Al Qaeda has smuggled up to 800 AK-47s into the region over the past two years to supply training camps.
"They train in the desert, return to Morocco and then plan attacks," said a senior intelligence official who asked not to be named. "One hundred percent of new recruits go straight to Iraq."
Al Qaeda's activity in Northern Africa are well known. In 2007, there were four major homicide bombings targeting Algeria's government and police headquarters. One of those attacks was an attempted assassination of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika . He survived, but more than 50 others were killed. In Morocco, Al Qaeda was believed to be responsible for a failed double-homicide bombing at a Spanish cultural center and the U.S. consulate. This time, only the bombers were killed.
Intelligence officials say Al Qaeda is now using the Moroccan city of Tetouan, with a population of 400,000, as a main recruitment site. They say once the new recruits are trained, an overwhelming number of Al Qaeda fighters go to Iraq and become homicide bombers.
During an annual threat assessment hearing in the U.S. Senate this month, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell warned of Al Qaeda's increased activity.
"Al Qaeda's North Africa affiliate, known as Al Qaeda in the Lands of Islamic Maghreb, that group is active in North Africa and is extending its target set to include U.S. and Western interests," McConnell said.
U.S. intelligence estimates that Algeria now has at least 800 Al Qaeda members in Africa; European intelligence puts that number at 1,200.
This comes as Usama bin Laden has issued recent audiotaped recordings encouraging recruits to unite and launch attacks against Western and Arab government targets.
While the gathering of intelligence has foiled several attacks in Northern Africa and Europe, one intelligence official cautioned there's always a new threat emerging.
"We are doing our best to stop attacks but you never know fully what you might be waking up to each day."