U.S. counterterrorism officials are paying renewed attention to an increasingly dangerous incubator for extremism: a swath of northern and sub-Saharan West Africa, from the Atlantic coast of Morocco and Mauritania to the harsh deserts of Chad.
The centerpiece of terrorism problems in the region is Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, better known by its French initials GSPC. Late last year, it joined forces with Osama bin Laden and renamed itself al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, an Arabic term used to refer to North Africa.
"The threat from al-Qaida's presence in the region is significant, very dangerous and potentially growing in a couple of cases," Assistant Secretary of State David Welch told the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week.
In interviews, senior government officials go even further as they talk about recent developments in the impoverished region of North Africa, the Sahara and the grasslands to the south known as the Sahel. The vast area has the potential to become more volatile, said three senior officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of their positions.
One senior U.S. intelligence official said the new al-Qaida-focused GSPC is more dangerous than its predecessor because its links to bin Laden boosted morale and its new focus on government buildings and suicide attacks is a shift in targeting.
"We should be worried about it. It hasn't really blossomed yet," the official said.
While the group probably could not attack the U.S. homeland yet, the official said, it could attack U.S. targets in North Africa such as embassies, tourists and people on business.