U.S. Thinks Qaeda Eyeing Africa

al qaeda cells around world itching to cause trouble
Squeezed out of sanctuaries elsewhere in the world, al Qaeda may be considering new havens in Africa where they can exploit weak governments and take advantage of lawless deserts or jungles to train, recruit and plan future operations, the deputy head of U.S. forces in Europe said Friday.

Key among U.S. military proposals to fight back is the temporary deployment of company-sized American units to train armies throughout the continent, patrol alongside them, or carry out U.S. missions to hunt terrorists on short notice if necessary.

"Some people compare it to draining a swamp," Air Force Gen. Charles Wald told The Associated Press, eyeing a map of Africa in his office in Stuttgart. "We need to drain the swamp."

European Command covers 93 countries from Russia to Syria, and all of Africa except the northeast Horn. It is awaiting a decision from Washington on its proposals for a major reconfiguration of forces for the war on terror.

Critics say European Command, traditionally focused on Europe, is not well-equipped to pay closer attention to Africa. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative U.S. think tank, is pushing for U.S.-based Central Command to take over responsibility for Africa.

European Command's new plans pay much more attention to Africa, whose Gulf of Guinea is seen as a possible alternative to reserves in the volatile Middle East. The region already supplies the United States with 15 percent of its oil, a figure expected to rise to 25 percent by 2015.

Wald said al Qaeda was "being squeezed significantly by the international community" out of previous strongholds in places like Afghanistan. And as that happens, "they're going to have to go some place else, somewhere they can operate … and one of them obviously could be Africa."

Africa, with its remote, unpoliced deserts and jungles and centuries-old Arab-African Saharan trade route, is one ideal location. Authorities, often poorly paid, are easily bribed. Communications are slow and in some places nonexistent.

African armies, relatively small and poorly equipped, have difficulty monitoring the vast territories they're supposed to control, Wald said.

According to a State Department Report, in 1999 central African countries had 2.5 soldiers per 1,000 citizens, and southern African countries had only 1.7 soldiers per 1,000 — compared to the United States, with 5.8 soldiers per 1,000 people.

"It's an area we think is becoming appealing potentially for terrorist organizations or individuals to operate with semi-impunity," Wald said. "It has a lot of expanses of open area that are conducive to terrorist operations or sanctuary."

Wald said some terrorists had been sent to Iraq from North Africa and there were indications that al Qaeda has established a presence and attempted to recruit in North Africa over the past two years.

Mauritania and Nigeria are among West African nations alleged by some Western think-tanks to have al Qaeda cells. Top figures from Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda circle came from Mauritania, although the government publicly cracked down hard on alleged Muslim extremism, and on alleged recruiting of fighters for Saddam Hussein's cause in Iraq.

"They're there for a purpose, whether it's looking for real-estate, or recruiting or looking for arms, whatever it is, we know there's a presence," Wald said. "It may be small but it's a bad indicator."

The chief homegrown concern, however, is the Algerian-based Salafist Group for Call and Combat, which was blamed for kidnapping 32 European tourists in the Sahara last year.

Wald said the group had issued a manifesto claiming allegiance to al Qaeda. He and others have blamed the group for kidnappings and robberies in Niger and Mali, although some dismiss the culprits as simple bandits.

Last month, CIA director George Tenet told Congress that small, independent groups like the Salafists are emerging as a potent threat, even as the larger and higher-profile al Qaeda loses leaders to arrest and assassination.

In Niger and Mali, the United States is already gaining a foothold.

About 100 U.S. special operations forces are now training armies in Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Chad as part of a State Department-funded, EUCOM-executed program called the Pan-Sahel Initiative, which aims to help those nations guard porous borders against terrorists, arms and other trafficking.

The Sahel is a vast region straddling the southern edge of the Sahara desert.

EUCOM has proposed the Pan-Sahel Initiative be expanded to include Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, where terror threats are believed to be growing.

Beyond that, EUCOM is hoping to establish a half-dozen low-maintenance bases at airports or remote camps in Africa, with agreement from local governments. About 200 troops would be deployed to each base at a time — temporarily, not permanently.

"They'd be places that we could go into for a small period of time, either train locally with those governments or actually use those to maybe execute an operation from," Wald said.

Top generals at EUCOM are recommending that remaining heavy armor units in Europe — legacies of the Cold War — be scaled down. The U.S. military presence would be maintained in part by such 200-man units.

EUCOM now has about 120,000 troops. Wald said those numbers are likely to drop after force reconfiguration, but he didn't say by how much.

"The areas (in Africa) are large, you have to be able to respond fast as intelligence becomes actionable," Wald said. "You have to be fast and get ahead of it, and that forces us to think of more mobile, smaller, lighter, nimble forces."

In Africa, al Qaeda is believed to be most active in the northeastern Horn. Al Qaeda was blamed for deadly attacks in East Africa, bombing U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and a Kenyan hotel in 2002.