Al-Qaeda spreads web across Africa

Shortly before leaving the Capitol following President Obama’s inauguration Monday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was asked about an al-Qaeda affiliate’s recent attack on an Algerian gas plant in which three Americans workers were among the 37 dead.

“I’m glad we were able to get some rescued,” Panetta said. “That just tells us al-Qaeda is committed to creating terror wherever they are, and we’ve got to fight back.”

As U.S. forces have largely left Iraq and plan a withdrawal from Afghanistan, intelligence experts see a global threat emerging on a continent that has frustrated foreign forces for much of the past century and provided the world’s bad actors a refuge from international justice.

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Indeed, less than two years after the death of Osama bin Laden, recent events have shown that global terrorism is alive and well. As the fractured terrorist networks with shifting alliances adapt to this new world, counterterrorism experts say the United States and its allies need to craft a strategy to counter this ever-changing enemy.

Though al-Qaeda might be “on its heels,” as Obama declared during the presidential campaign, the terrorist organization that launched the 9/11 attacks a dozen years ago from its haven in Afghanistan is finding new life — and a new base — in North Africa and Syria. Among its most recent advances:

  • Terrorists with ties to al-Qaeda were involved in attacks on U.S. embassies in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya.
  • Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen has gone from a few hundred fighters to several thousand despite the threat of American drones.
  • Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was advancing on Mali’s capital until French troops joined the fight.
  • Much of Somalia is in the hands of al-Shabab, the sharia-imposing ally of al-Qaeda.

The “core al-Qaeda” group overseen by bin Laden deputy Ayman al-Zawahri has not conducted a successful terrorist attack in years, according to the global intelligence consulting firm Stratfor in a recent report. Its financing and communications have been seriously hampered.

However, in North Africa, al-Qaeda-aligned operatives are thriving and creating an “arc of instability” that stretches from the coast of West Africa into the Horn of Africa, says NATO Allied Command’s Civil-Military Fusion Center, which provides military data to civilian groups.

The intelligence challenge

The United States has worked to counter extremists in Africa and the Arabian desert for more than a decade, and the Obama administration emphasizes that it remains committed to relentlessly defeating terrorism wherever it festers.

The White House has “always said that we need to remain vigilant about any al-Qaeda affiliates, in particular AQIM in its efforts to exploit unrest in the region,” Tommy Vietor, spokesman for Obama’s National Security Council, said Tuesday.

“We have worked closely with countries across Africa to build up their capacity to fight terrorists and to address the political and economic instability that allows countries to become terrorist safe havens,” Vietor said. “We’ve also been in close touch with international partners like the French who share our goal of denying terrorists a safe haven.”

The efforts include support for the African Union Mission in Somalia, a multinational force that pushed the al-Shabab movement from the capital of Mogadishu in 2011.

U.S. Africa Command, established in 2007, works with military units of African countries such as Kenya and Uganda to help them fend off threats. The Obama administration supports a similar force in West Africa to take back northern Mali from Islamist extremists who overran the area last year. Drone strikes have hit targets in East Africa.

Source: USA Today

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