MAINZ, Germany — Al-Qaida’s claim of responsibility for the series of deadly attacks in Algeria on Wednesday that killed at least 23 people and wounded 160 may have confirmed U.S. military officials’ worst fears that the terrorist organization is using North Africa as a staging ground for training and attacks.
The series of bomb attacks, which heavily damaged the prime minister’s office and a police station, as well as a wave of car bombings in February that killed at least six and injured 13, have been attributed to a group called al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb.
U.S. intelligence officials also believe that a plot foiled Tuesday in Casablanca by Moroccan officials was part of a plan to carry out multiple, simultaneous attacks in the two countries.
Officials there learned of the Moroccan angle and raided an alleged bomb-making factory. Three militants then blew themselves up in the streets of Casablanca, causing the death of a policeman and injuries to a small child. Al-Qaida took responsibility for both attacks.
U.S. military officials at the European Command, EUCOM, in Germany — which handles military activities in northern Africa — have been focusing on the al-Qaida-linked group. In particular, U.S. military officials fear that the group is using the northern part of Mali as a training ground for terrorists.
North African training ground
With a population of 12 million, Mali is a small West African nation made up of largely rough terrain — the desert area north of the legendary city of Timbuktu is more or less what one senior EUCOM official called “ungoverned space” that has traditionally been occupied by Touareg nomads.
For centuries, Touareg nomads have been the principle occupants of the northern deserts of Mali and Niger, driving their camel caravans along the trading routes of the Maghreb, a region in northwest Africa. Today, the camels are gradually being replaced by four-wheel-drive vehicles and there is evidence that terrorists are using the routes for their own weapon supplies.
In addition, according to officials, the radical Islamists are using the country as a base for training foreign fighters.
"At mobile training camps recruits are receiving small-arms training, learn how to build and use improvised explosive devices, and they are highly indoctrinated by their trainers," said one EUCOM official familiar with the region.
The group is believed to have approximately 100 hard-core fighters in north-eastern Algeria and the same amount of combatants in northern Mali, where successful Algerian security operations had pushed the group in recent years.
"The extremists are equipped with AK-47s and small-arms weapons, as they continue to stage attacks on Algerian interests in order to prove that they are still a threat and can keep their ranks in line," said a senior EUCOM official.
Intelligence officials say that fighters being trained in the region are also being sent to Iraq, and possibly elsewhere.
For officials it has been extremely difficult to identify the origin and nationality of suicide bombers and insurgents in Iraq. Estimates and actual numbers are mostly based on sophisticated forensic research after attacks.
But, based on this knowledge, senior military officials in Europe believe that approximately 20 percent of all fighters in Iraq have come from northern Africa.
"We have been seeing a significant flow of fighters, mostly recruits from the African Maghreb region and Egypt," a senior EUCOM official said.
The officials say that African extremists often use Damascus, Syria, as a hub to get into Iraq, knowing that lax entry regulations, with no visa requirements, make their journey easy.
U.S. intelligence officials also say that the Maghreb militants are using Khartoum, Sudan, as a transit point to get to Damascus and ultimately Iraq. With Egyptian and Jordanian authorities on the lookout for young men headed for jihad in Iraq, the militants are now transiting through Khartoum.
The recent bombings have raised fears among European officials that these al-Qaida-trained terrorists may start waging attacks on their shores as well. The French presidential candidate and former Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy expressed his fears about more terrorists finding their way from North Africa to France in an interview with radio station Europe 1 on Thursday.
"The principal menace to France comes from Algeria, from the GSPC network that has transformed into al-Qaida,'' said Sarkozy, referring to al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb. "They have members in several European countries, including France.''
To counter these developments, U.S. military officials launched the Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative in January 2005. Its operations focus on small-scale diplomatic and military engagement in northern Africa.
"Unconventional warfare is much more powerful and appropriate [than traditional military methods] as we deal with terrorism and extremism today," said Navy Rear Adm. William H. McRaven, commander of Special Operations Command Europe, at a recent conference in Germany.
The idea is to initiate and maintain counter-terrorism cooperation and exchange among the nine Saharan-African nations — including Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Mali and Chad.
"These countries grapple with problems that contribute to terrorism," said McRaven. "Such problems include unstable governments, conflicts, refugees, pandemic diseases, human trafficking and high population growth."
For the past two years, the U.S. military has been focusing on development and security in the region, predominantly training and equipping security forces in the northern African nations.
In particular, civil-military support elements regularly visit remote villages to start infrastructure projects, and teams of Marines proficient in local languages have been training host nation personnel so that available resources, such as oil, can be used most appropriately.
The ultimate goal is to create sustainable relationships that will build regional cooperation without requiring permanent a U.S. military presence.
"We don't want northern Africa to become another Afghanistan," said one senior counter-terrorism official from EUCOM.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a congressional hearing on defense spending in February that the Pentagon will be setting up a new Africa Command “to oversee security, cooperation, building partnership capability, defense support to nonmilitary missions, and, if directed, military operations on the African continent.”
Reflecting the new priorities, the Defense to Department hopes to have the Africa Command in place by September 2008.