Al-Qaida's new African alliance eyed

Updated: 2007-06-10 13:28

WASHINGTON - US counterterrorism officials are paying renewed attention to an increasingly dangerous incubator for extremism: a swath of northern and sub-Saharan West Africa, from the Atlantic coast of Morocco and Mauritania to the harsh deserts of Chad.

The centerpiece of terrorism problems in the region is Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, better known by its French initials GSPC. Late last year, it joined forces with Osama bin Laden and renamed itself al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, an Arabic term used to refer to North Africa.

"The threat from al-Qaida's presence in the region is significant, very dangerous and potentially growing in a couple of cases," Assistant Secretary of State David Welch told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

In interviews, senior government officials go even further as they talk about recent developments in the impoverished region of North Africa, the Sahara, and the grasslands to the south known as the Sahel. The vast area has the potential to become more volatile, said three senior officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of their positions.

One senior US intelligence official said the new al-Qaida-focused GSPC is more dangerous than its predecessor because its links to bin Laden boosted morale and its new focus on government buildings and suicide attacks is a shift in targeting.

"We should be worried about it. It hasn't really blossomed yet," the official said.

While the group probably could not attack the US homeland yet, the official said, it could attack US targets in North Africa such as embassies, tourists and people on business.

The US focus on the group comes as the Bush administration finalizes plans to create a new military command in Africa, called AFRICOM. The continent now falls under the direction of three different military commands.

Officials from the Defense and State departments toured six Africa countries in April, trying to ease concerns about feared increases in US troops and resources. Pentagon officials say the new command does not mean a dramatic boost in either.

A recent Congressional Research Service report found that the command raises questions for Congress, including how to ensure that military activities do not overshadow US diplomatic efforts.

The report said the State Department and the US Agency for International Development worry the Pentagon may overstep its mandate, as well as overestimate its capabilities and its diplomatic role.

The State Department has for some time taken the lead in northwestern Africa. In June 2005, largely out of concern about the GSPC, it began a program to build cooperation with countries in the region. "The Sahara is very much a no-man's-land where they can hang out and procure weapons and training," one official said.

US officials say GPSC support cells have been dismantled in Spain, Italy, Morocco, and Mali, and the group maintains training camps across the Sahel grasslands.

After linking up with al-Qaida, the group carried out a suicide bombing in Algiers last month targeting a high-profile Government Palace and a police station. Thirty-three people died in the first suicide attacks in Algeria in a decade. The group has promised to target non-Muslim foreigners who it deems to have exploited Muslim lands - specifically diplomats, business people and tourists in North Africa.

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