NEW YORK - After a series of attacks against Westerners and African forces by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, experts fear the group has become a significant security threat, The New York Times reported Friday. Citing American and European security counter-terrorism officials, the newspaper said that the attacks may signal the return of foreign fighters from the battlefields of Iraq, where they honed their bomb-making skills. The attacks also reflect Al-Qaedas growing tentacles in the northern tier of Africa, outside the groups main sanctuary in Pakistans tribal areas, the officials say. In just the past month, the group has claimed credit for killing a kidnapped British hostage in Mali, killing an American aid worker in Mauritania, murdering a senior Malian army officer in his home and ambushing a convoy of nearly two dozen Algerian paramilitary forces. Last weekend, it said, fighters from the Algeria-based affiliate, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, ambushed a Malian army patrol in Malis northern desert, killing nearly a dozen soldiers and capturing several others, said American military officials. Assessing the militant threat in North Africa is complicated, according to the Times. Some security and counter-terrorism officials claim the affiliate, based in Algeria, is more a criminal gang - ransoming kidnapped Westerners to finance its operations - than a group of ideologically committed terrorists. Other counter-terrorism officials point to the attacks as evidence of the groups intent to expand its long-time insurgency in Algeria to other N African countries and possibly Europe, where the group has financial and logistical supporters. AQIM has become much stronger in Algeria and Mauritania, and the killing of the British hostage and the American is a message they are not only concentrating on Maghreb issues, they are now part of global jihad, a senior French counter-terror official was quoted as saying. Last week, the leader of the Al-Qaeda wing, Abdelmalek Droukdal, threatened a flagrant war against France in retaliation for an effort by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to ban burqas, which he called a symbol of enslavement. The surge in violence has been less audacious than an attack by the group in December 2007, in which suicide bombers struck the United Nations and court offices in Algiers, killing 41 people and wounding 170 others. But some American intelligence analysts say there are initial signs that small numbers of foreign fighters from North Africa who fought in Iraq are returning home. Is there a threat? There sure is a threat, Gen William E Ward, the leader of the United States Africa Command, told reporters last month.