Monday, March 15, 2004

Guardian - US Sends Special Forces into North Africa

So much for the canard that the war in Iraq has somehow "distracted" America from attending to Islamic terrorists elsewhere.

US special forces troops have arrived in several north African countries over recent months amid Pentagon warnings that the region runs the risk of becoming an al-Qaida recruiting ground and a possible back door into Europe.

Three days before the Madrid bombing, where the first arrests included three Moroccans detained on Saturday, the deputy commander of the Stuttgart-based US European command - which covers all of Africa except the Horn - warned that al-Qaida had an interest in north Africa.

"We have to get ahead of it," General Charles Wald told a group of African reporters in Washington.

Units of around 200 from the US army's 10th Special Forces Group are already installed, or are due to arrive, in Mauritania, Mali, Chad and Niger to train their armies in anti-terrorism tactics and to improve coordination with the US military.

Military cooperation with Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia - where many suspected violent Islamists detained in Europe over the past two years come from - is also being boosted.

Senior US generals, including the commander of the US European command, General James Jones, have been touring the region looking for temporary bases and airfields to use in possible future operations in Africa.


Unconfirmed reports have already emerged from anonymous Pentagon sources of on-the-ground operations involving the US soldiers.

One carried by Voice of America said US troops on the ground in Mali helped track and drive into the arms of the Algerian army a big haul of weapons due to be delivered to a radical Islamist group there.

The report also suggested they had requested a US air strike against a suspected terrorist target in the desert region of northern Mali and that, although this was turned down, the Pentagon did not rule out such air strikes.

A separate report said a US navy P-3 Orion aircraft guided Chad troops during a two-day battle on the border with Niger last week in which 43 suspected members of Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat were killed.


The focus on Africa also comes amid a push by some in the US, especially conservative thinktanks, to do more to secure alternatives to oil from the volatile Middle East. West Africa supplies 15% of US oil and the figure is growing.

A need for the US European command to concentrate harder on north and west Africa may explain why the US Sixth Fleet is considering moving its main base from Gaeta, in Italy, to the southern Spanish port of Rota.

A militant group that has been linked to al-Qaida has been recruiting members from mosques in northern Mali, according to security sources quoted by Reuters. The US state department advised against travel to northern Mali in December, warning that the area had become "a safe haven" for the Salafist Group.

It seems like America is now starting to pay a lot more attention to a part of the world it had previously written off as unworthy of serious consideration. Those who argued against intervention in Liberia on grounds of realpolitik turn out to have been the shortsighted ones. It is utterly stupid to imagine that Washington can avoid poisoning its image in the eyes of West Africans while avoiding any commitment to helping them when self-interest isn't at stake. In any case, America's emphasis on West African oil should make for rather ... interesting politics in religiously-divided Nigeria.