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Concern grows over apparent alignment between al-Qaida central, Africa groups

In Texas on Tuesday, the FBI told Erin Lovelady that her father was one of three Americans who had been killed in the terrorist assault on an Algerian gas facility last week. The news destroyed a bit of his daughter's faith.

"My whole life he always told me that good things happen to good people and that I was a good person and good things were going to happen for me," she said Tuesday.

The grief of the Lovelady family is a poignant reminder of the growing concern among U.S. counterterrorism officials that the amorphous al-Qaida-affiliated groups contesting swathes of northern Africa are increasingly coordinating their strategy with al-Qaida central in Pakistan –  the remnants of the terrorist organization founded by Osama bin Laden.

Victor Lovelady had gone overseas because the month-on, month-off schedule gave him more time to be with his family.

"He felt 100 percent comfortable going there and he wanted that, it was never about money, it was never about that, he was going to retire and you know ...," Erin Lovelady said, her voice trailing off.

Victor Lovelady was one of at least 37 foreign hostages executed by their captors or killed in the Algerian rescue mission.  The government in Algiers, aware that Western governments were angered by what they perceived as hurried decision-making on its part, released videotape on Tuesday of kidnappers carrying out executions.

"It should have been no surprise that the Algerians were going to be aggressive," said Michael Leiter, former director of the U.S. National Counter Terrorism Center and now an NBC News counterterrorism analyst. The Algerian government  couldn't afford to have prolonged hostage crisis in the midst of their southern gas fields that are crucial to its economy, he said. 

While analysts noted that the attacks did not affect the price of natural gas, they pointed out that the price of gas has already dropped and that any instability in Algeria would make negotiating with prospective partners or financiers more problematic.

“They had to consider that," Leiter said.

Now, with the Algerian standoff ended in a bloody massacre, U.S. and other Western officials are wondering where the terrorists will strike next. They note that with the death of the three Americans in Algeria, and the killing of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others in Libya, al-Qaida in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM) has suddenly become the most active of the "affiliates" of the central terrorist organization founded by bin Laden.

They point to October's video message from bin Laden’s successor, al-Qaida central leader Ayman al-Zawahri  to al-Qaida affiliates, in which he suggested that they engage in kidnappings to free prisoners held in the West, particularly Omar Abdul Rahman. Rahman, the so-called blind sheikh imprisoned in the U.S. for his role in the 1993 conspiracy to topple the World Trade Center, was one of two convicted terrorists the Algeria hostage takers demanded in return for Americans they held and later killed.

The other was Aafia Siddiqui, convicted of planning attacks on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

Mokhtar bel Mokhtar, whose Signatories in Blood group claimed responsibility for the Algerian attack, has said that his organization been in touch with al-Qaida in Pakistan and that the assault on the natural gas plant was conducted on the umbrella group’s behalf.

Although there's no indication that AQIM is planning attacks on the U.S., there is intelligence suggesting that its members have planned attacks in France. That's one reason that France decided last week to move troops and arms into Mali to stop fundamental Islamists from reaching the capital of Bamako.

On Tuesday, the U.S. took another step in helping the French. American C-17s began transporting French troops and equipment to near the front line of the fighting in Mali.    

Richard Engel is NBC News' Chief Foreign Correspondent. Robert Windrem is a Senior Investigative Producer.

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