U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the al-Qaida terrorist network is expanding in North Africa, through a loose network of groups that share its ideology. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.

Secretary Gates says U.S. intelligence reports indicate that North Africa's Maghreb, which includes Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, is the latest area where al-Qaida is working to establish or affiliate with terrorist groups.

"There has basically been a merger, or whatever you want to call it, of several terrorist groups there, under the rubric of al-Qaida, in the Maghreb," he said. "I think that's probably the newest area where it has emerged as a reasonably coherent organization."

Secretary Gates says the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan destroyed al-Qaida's ability to directly control terrorist activities around the world. But he says the remnants of the network, including its senior leaders, continue to influence global terrorism from safe havens in Pakistan.

"We, I think, have pretty good evidence that, for example, al-Qaida in Iraq takes strategic guidance and inspiration from the al-Qaida in the western part of Pakistan, Osama bin Laden's organization, Zawahiri and company," he said. "They get advice. They clearly are connected. But they also have, I think, probably substantial autonomy."

Secretary Gates described al-Qaida today as a 'franchise' organization, a term also used Friday by White House spokesman Tony Snow.

"What happens now is that you have a decentralized al-Qaida, where you have franchised operations around the globe that communicate using the Internet, using video, using very sophisticated techniques," he said. "They share finances. They share tactics. They share recruiting strategies. And they share communications."

The two officials spoke the day after a U.S. government intelligence report said al-Qaida has rebuilt much of its organization in recent years, although the report says the group is still weaker than it was before 2002.

Algeria's radical Islamic group, previously known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, recently changed its name to the al-Qaida Organization in the Islamic Maghreb. It has claimed responsibility for two recent suicide bombings that killed more than 40 people.

A year and a half ago, Secretary Gates' predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, visited Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, largely to discuss counter-terrorism cooperation. During that trip, Rumsfeld praised the three countries for fighting terrorism, and said there was "an extremely low possibility" that terrorists would be able to gain a foothold in the region.

President Bush said Thursday al-Qaida is weaker than it would have been if not for U.S. military actions in recent years, but he said it is still a threat.