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
"We should be worried about it. It hasn't really blossomed yet," the official
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
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
US officials say GPSC support cells have been dismantled in Spain, Italy,
Morocco, and Mali, and the group maintains training camps across the Sahel
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.