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US sends special forces into north Africa

Pentagon fears growth of terrorist haven

Giles Tremlett
Monday March 15, 2004
The Guardian
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.

During one such trip last month, Gen Wald told
Reuters that armed Islamists
"are going to look for a place where they can do
the same thing they did in
Afghanistan, Iraq or other places. They need a
haven to train, equip,
organise, recruit.

"As you squeeze the balloon and move them, they
are migrating toward Africa."

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

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

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

States previously shunned by the international
community, such as Algeria,
are being provided with arms and military
training and may become a
cornerstone of US military interests in the
region. "We are interested in
being able to land at bases in Algeria with our
aircraft, or train
together," Gen Wald said. "We think we have a lot
to learn from the

Gen Wald even speculated that Colonel Muammar
Gadafy's Libya might one day
join the new alliance. "Who knows? Libya could be
a part of this in the not
too distant future now that they've come back
into the western world."

Britain is being brought into the north African
alliance as part of a joint
European operation called the African Clearing
House, he said.

Senior military commanders from several African
countries, including
General Amari of Algeria, will gather in
Stuttgart for a meeting with the
Americans next week.

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

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.

Greek police discovered a bomb outside a bank
in Athens yesterday, but
destroyed it in a controlled explosion. The
device comprised two sticks of
dynamite, a clock and a detonator. Greece has
called in Nato to beef up
security for the Olympic Games in August.