Malian soldiers training
From the New York Times comes news of an expanding front in the defense against global jihad.
STUTTGART, Germany “” The American campaign against terrorism is opening a new front in a region that military officials fear could become the next base for Al Qaeda “” the largely ungoverned swath of territory stretching from the Horn of Africa to the Western Sahara’s Atlantic coast.
Generals here at the United States European Command, which oversees the area, say the vast, arid region is a new Afghanistan, with well-financed bands of Islamic militants recruiting, training and arming themselves. Terrorist attacks like the one on March 11 in Madrid that killed 191 people seem to have a North African link, investigators say, and may presage others in Europe. …
American military officials say that Qaeda-linked militants, pushed out of Afghanistan and blocked by increased surveillance of traditional points of entry along the Mediterranean coast, are turning to overland travel in order to make contact with North African Islamic terror groups.
The officials cite the case of Emad Abdelwahid Ahmed Alwan, also known as Abu Mohamed, a Qaeda militant who traveled across Africa in 2002 to help plan attacks.
Mr. Alwan, a Yemeni and a close associate of Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was linked to the October 2000 attack on the American warship Cole. He is believed to have been helping to plan an attack on the United States Embassy in Mali’s capital, Bamako, before he was killed in late 2002 during a raid by Algerian forces in Algeria’s northeastern Batna Province.
Mr. Alwan’s appearance in the region rattled the American military and added impetus to a strategy that had been taking shape since the Sept. 11 attacks. The United States is working with the countries of the so-called Sahel, the impoverished southern fringe of the Sahara, to shore up border controls and deny sanctuary to suspected terrorists.
The program, called the Pan-Sahel Initiative, was begun with $7 million and focused on Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad. It is being expanded to include Senegal and possibly other countries. The European Command has asked for $125 million for the region over five years.
An added catalyst to the program was the kidnapping of Western tourists in the desert of southeastern Algerian early last year. A terrorist leader named Ammari Saifi, also known as Abderrezak al-Para because he was trained as an Algerian Special Forces paratrooper, took 32 European tourists hostage near the Libyan border and transported some of them to northern Mali.
To free the hostages, United States military officials say, Germany paid him a ransom of nearly $6 million “” equivalent to a quarter of Niger’s defense budget “” making him instantly one of the most powerful Islamic militants in North Africa.
He is a leader of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, or G.S.P.C., which was formed in 1998 and has many links with Al Qaeda.
Earlier this year, Mr. Saifi went on a shopping spree in northern Mali, gathering weapons, vehicles and recruits while American and Algerian intelligence monitored him with growing alarm. In February, Algerian forces intercepted a convoy carrying weapons north from Mali. Algerian officials say the cargo contained mortar launchers, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and surface-to-air missiles.
The United States European Command sent a Navy P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft to sweep the area, relaying Mr. Saifi’s position to forces in the region. Mali pushed him out of the country to Niger, which in turn chased him into Chad, where, with United States Special Forces support of an airlift of fuel and other supplies, 43 of his men were killed or captured. Mr. Saifi himself got away, American officials say. With his money and experience and broader network, G.S.P.C. remains the most dangerous group in North Africa, they say.
In the wake of the G.S.P.C. hunt, military chiefs from nine African nations were brought to European Command headquarters in Stuttgart last month. Several of the generals, like the military chiefs of neighboring Mali and Niger, had never met one another before. Others, like the military chiefs of Morocco and Algeria, were more accustomed to competing than cooperating.
All the countries expressed anxiety about the growing threat of Islamic militancy within their borders.
Government officials in Burkina Faso have complained to American officials about “bearded ones” showing up in remote areas preaching the salafist, or fundamentalist, strain of Islam that inspires the world’s Islamic militants. The foreign imams distribute cassette tapes and have greater wealth than the local imams with whom they are competing.
“These are not local extremists,” one American official said. “These are people from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, who are essentially Islamic missionaries preaching a form of Islam that is very, very different from what these countries want or grew up with.”
But can the defenders of the local form of Islam refute the Salafis’ arguments from the Qur’an and Islamic tradition?