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Archive for Saturday, March 6, 2004

U.S. official: Al-Qaida eyeing Africa

March 6, 2004

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— Squeezed out of sanctuaries elsewhere in the world, al-Qaida may be looking to the deserts and jungles of Africa as a haven where terrorists could train recruits and plan new attacks, the deputy head of U.S. forces in Europe said Friday.

Key among U.S. military proposals to fight back is deploying American units of about 200 soldiers to train armies throughout the continent, patrol alongside them, or hunt terrorists on short notice if necessary.

"Some people compare it to draining a swamp," Air Force Gen. Charles Wald told The Associated Press, eyeing a map of Africa in his office in Stuttgart. "We need to drain the swamp."

Wald said some terrorists had been sent to Iraq from North Africa, and there were indications that al-Qaida has established a presence and tried to recruit in Africa in the past two years.

Mauritania and Nigeria are among West African nations alleged by some Western think tanks to have al-Qaida cells and top al-Qaida figures came from Mauritania. The country's government has cracked down on Muslim extremism and tried to stop recruiting of fighters for Saddam Hussein's cause in Iraq.

"They're there for a purpose, whether it's looking for real-estate, or recruiting or looking for arms, whatever it is, we know there's a presence," Wald said. "It may be small but it's a bad indicator."

Africa is an ideal location, with its remote deserts and jungles and centuries-old Arab-African Saharan trade route. Governments are weak and poorly paid authorities are easily bribed. Communications are slow and in some places don't exist.

African armies, relatively small and poorly equipped, have difficulty monitoring the vast territories they are supposed to control, Wald said.

"It's an area we think is becoming appealing potentially for terrorist organizations or individuals to operate with semi-impunity," Wald said.

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