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Effort Against Trans-Sahara Terrorists

Senate Hearing Examines Effort Against Trans-Sahara Terrorists

Washington - The North Africa-based terrorist group al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) continues to be a menace to parts of the Maghreb and the Sahel, but the Muslim populations there generally reject AQIM, and the group is less likely to expand operations into Europe because of pressure being applied by Algerian security forces, says Ambassador Daniel Benjamin, the U.S. State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism.

Benjamin testified at a November 17 hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Subcommittee on African Affairs.

Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson, who also testified at the hearing, said key countries in the region, including Algeria, Mali and Mauritania, have intensified efforts to coordinate their activities against AQIM. The United States has consulted with African and European partners to support regional efforts to improve the security environment in the Sahel, Carson said.

The subcommittee was examining U.S. counterterrorism priorities and strategy across Africa's Sahel region. The Sahel lies between the African grasslands to the south and the Sahara desert to the north, and runs from west to central Africa.

Carson, who is assistant secretary for African affairs, said the primary mechanism for the United States to advance counterterrorism objectives in the Sahel and Maghreb is through the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, a multiyear commitment designed to support partner countries in their efforts to "constrict and ultimately eliminate the ability of terrorist organizations to exploit the region."

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"The United States can play a helpful supporting role in the regional effort, but we must avoid taking actions that could unintentionally increase local tensions or lend credibility to AQIM's claims of legitimacy," Carson testified. "We must be sensitive to local political dynamics and avoid precipitous actions which exacerbate long-standing and often bloody conflicts."

"One of the central questions about AQIM has long been whether it would be able to establish itself in Europe and carry out attacks there," Benjamin said. "There is no question but that we need to take this possibility very seriously, especially in light of past attacks carried out by predecessors to AQIM such as Armed Islamic Group in France."

"We view the near-term likelihood of such an expansion of operations as less likely than it was just a few years ago," he said.

The primary reason, he said, is that Algerian security forces have kept considerable pressure on the terrorist group.

"The group cannot seriously threaten governments or regional stability, nor is it poised to gain significant support among the region's population," Benjamin said.

According to Lianne Kennedy-Boudali, a RAND Corporation specialist in terrorism and regional security in North Africa, the Sahel is a sparsely populated area that is extremely difficult to govern.

"National borders are remote and poorly monitored, and significant distances separate the developed areas in the south from the northern areas where terrorist activity largely takes place, making it difficult for security services to respond rapidly to terrorist activity," she said.

Kennedy-Boudali said that while terrorism is not new to the Sahel and is not the primary problem, recent terrorist incidents have drawn greater attention to it. Corruption, civil conflict, smuggling of goods and people, drug and weapons trafficking, and terrorism all contribute to insecurity in the region, she said.

AQIM maintains two separate groups of fighters in northern Mali, and has recently increased attacks and kidnappings, including Western targets, Benjamin said. The group typically relies on hostage-taking for ransom to fund its operations while carrying out murders and low-level attacks to attract news media attention, which helps bring new recruits and funding from outside sources, he said.

The terrorist group, which affiliated itself with the transnational group al-Qaida in September 2006, has stepped up its attacks in the past two years. Its agents kidnapped two Austrian tourists along the Tunisia-Algeria border in early 2008, two Canadian diplomats in Niger in December 2008, and four European tourists near the Mali-Niger border in January this year, Benjamin said. A British hostage was subsequently murdered by AQIM.

While AQIM has stepped up attacks and hostage-taking on individual Western citizens, Benjamin said, some weaknesses are apparent. AQIM has not conducted attacks or operations in Morocco, Tunisia or Libya.

Benjamin testified that AQIM will continue posing a persistent threat to Western individuals in the Sahel, including diplomats, tourists, business executives and humanitarian workers. "I would like to emphasize, however, that AQIM represents less of a threat to stability in its region than [does] al-Qaida in the Federally Administered Territories in Pakistan or al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen," he said.


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