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ALGIERS (Reuters) - Al Qaeda's North African branch is likely to step up its attacks to stake its claim for leadership of the global network after the death of Osama bin Laden, a leading Algerian security specialist said.
Now that bin Laden has been killed by U.S. Navy SEALS in a villa in Pakistan, the different al Qaeda "franchises" will compete for supremacy, said Professor Mhand Berkouk, head of Algeria's Centre for Strategic and Security Studies.
The north African wing, known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has a claim to be the network's leading branch because it has weapons, a safe haven in the Sahara desert and huge sums of money earned from kidnapping.
"The way is open for a competition between the al Qaedas for leadership. Each branch is seeking legitimacy to lead the global network," said Berkouk, who has close ties to the Algerian security services which are involved with combating AQIM.
"AQIM will move towards more attacks, kidnapping and violence to give weight to its candidacy to lead the international terror network," Berkouk said.
Algeria has taken a leading role in combating AQIM, in part because the organisation is led by Algerian nationals and grew out of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which fought a long insurgency against Algeria's security forces.
AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droudkel, in a video posted on jihadist Internet forums, said the group would step up its violence in the wake of bin Laden's death, according to the U.S.-based SITE monitoring service.
Addressing "Americans and crusaders", Droudkel said: "With this act, you have only increased the fire of war and enraged it. With this act you increased the animosity of the Ummah (global Muslim community) towards you, its desire to retaliate against you," he said.
The other al Qaeda branches likely to be vying for influence after bin Laden's death are al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al Qaeda in Iraq and Qaeda groups operating on the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan, often referred to as "core al Qaeda."
AQIM has established an operating base for itself in the Sahara desert -- spanning northern Mali, Niger, Mauritania -- by exploiting the vast expanses, official corruption and weak militaries in the region.
Yet while deadly attacks on Algerian security forces are a regular occurrence, the group's attacks on Western targets have so far been limited.
It killed a U.S. aid worker in the Mauritanian capital in 2009. In February, suspected al Qaeda militants tried to bomb the French embassy.
However, Berkouk said instability in Libya, where leader Muammar Gaddafi is fighting a rebellion against his rule, could hand AQIM an opportunity to expand its attacks.
"The division of the country into east and west ... the dismantling of the institutional security network, will transform Libya into a battlefield for AQIM," Berkouk said.
"I think the region is going towards more fragility in terms of security in the future," he said.
Editing by Tim Pearce