Al-Qaida's new African alliance eyed

Updated: 2007-06-10 13:28

Like al-Qaida, the group produces videos, a digital magazine and books, according to IntelCenter, the US government contractor that monitors the material. Just this past week it distributed a new video showing its members and operations.

US government officials note the Algerian government was successful at containing Islamic insurgents during the 1990s. But tens of thousands died in the violence.

Analysts do not yet consider North and Western Africa a safe haven for terrorists in the way Afghanistan was under Taliban rule.

In a recent examination of current and future safe havens, not discussed publicly before, counterterrorism officials concluded that al-Qaida's main organization does not have many options outside of the Afghan-Pakistani border region. It is unlikely to lose that base soon, the senior US intelligence official said.

But the official said authorities have looked at the pros and cons of different areas of the world as terrorist havens, including the ungoverned areas of the Sahel.

While the region lacks population, accessibility and hospitable living conditions, officials said the area still makes sense as an al-Qaida location in the Islamic Maghreb because of its porous borders, lax government oversight, poverty and political unrest.

Officials say such concerns are complicated by other factors, including:

Money from Persian Gulf and Middle East. US officials say private Saudi donors have funneled money to Sunni Muslim schools and mosques in the region. But one intelligence official noted much of the money is intended to counter the influence of Iran, which also funds Shiite interests in the region.

A sizable population of potentially impressionable young people. West Africa is roughly half Muslim, with higher concentrations in the Sahel. With its extensive links to the Middle East, the region is fertile ground for radical ideas.

Areas of instability. Morocco and Algerian-backed Polisario Front rebels have disputed desert lands of the largely Muslim Western Sahara for decades, forcing 100,000 people into refugee camps in Algeria. In Nigeria, which has a large Muslim population in the north, elections last month have been largely discredited. The issue has been overlooked greatly, even though the country is Africa's largest oil producer and is on the brink of becoming a failed state, especially in its southern Delta region, the official added.

This official noted that the terrorism problem shows up differently in North and Western Africa in comparison with other parts of the world.

In the Sahel, for instance, extremists are not always the poorest of the poor, but rather - as is the case in northern Nigeria - educated young people, the official said.

Rep. Jane Harman, who as a member of the House Homeland Security Committee has traveled often to Africa, said she once thought North Africa was a fragile place from which extremists could threaten Europe. Harman, D-Calif., said she now thinks it could be a staging ground for attacks worldwide.

For years, she said, Africa got too little attention. "I think we have underestimated the capabilities of al-Qaida to get a beachhead there," Harman said.


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