US military sharpens focus on Africa
By Mark Trevelyan, Security Correspondent, Reuters, Sun Oct 15, 2006 12:32 PM GMT172
STUTTGART, Germany (Reuters) – The U.S. military is sharpening its focus on counterterrorism in Africa, a top general says, as it faces challenges including a newly announced alliance between a regional militant group and al Qaeda.
General William ‘Kip’ Ward also hinted it would make sense to establish a U.S. military command on African soil, instead of running operations on the continent from hundreds or even thousands of miles (km) away, as has been the case until now.
« I think … having the unified command located in the area in which it has responsibility is the preferable solution set, » Ward, number two at the U.S. European Command (EUCOM), told Reuters.
The Pentagon said in August it was considering creating a new military command for Africa. Responsibility for the continent is currently split between three separate U.S. centres, including Stuttgart-based EUCOM.
A single command, advocates argue, would help Washington focus better on its goal of denying sanctuary to militants who might otherwise find African havens in the same way that al Qaeda cultivated bases in Sudan and Afghanistan in the 1990s.
The stakes were underlined when al Qaeda announced last month, on the 5th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, that it was forging an alliance with one of the leading Islamist movements in the region: the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, known by its French initials GSPC.
Washington is wary of that development, even if it suspects the alliance is largely a marriage of convenience. It sees the GSPC as using the al Qaeda « brand » to broaden its appeal outside its country of origin, Algeria.
A French security expert who reviewed deputy al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri’s September 11 tape said he urged the GSPC to « become a bone in the throat of the American and French crusaders ».
France, which has been targeted by Algerian militants in the past, is particularly concerned about the GSPC. It has a large Algerian population and is viewed by militants as squarely in the Western camp in the perceived fight against Islam.
Within Algeria, despite mounting regular attacks on the police and army, the GSPC poses a diminishing threat to the country’s stability, a senior U.S. military official familiar with the region said.
« It’s partly what I would call the drowning man syndrome, » the official said.
« If your numbers are being decimated, one of things you look to do if you’re a group is you look to merge with someone else to maintain strength. »
Al Qaeda, for its part, « can use all the help they can get, particularly on the operational side », the official said.
He said the GSPC lacked fixed training camps but ran ad hoc « centres of excellence » which assembled militants from as far afield as Nigeria, Tunisia or Morocco at remote locations for two to three days at a time.
« THINKING ENEMY »
Ward, in an interview, declined to go into detail about the mode of operation of the GSPC and other militant groups.
« It’s a thinking enemy. They are constantly attempting to change their tactics, » he said.
« As our (African) partners get better at intervening, interdicting, capturing, they are constantly adapting what they do as well. »
He rejected criticism that Washington is exaggerating the terrorist threat in Africa in order to strengthen its military foothold in the region. « We’re not overplaying or underplaying what is going on, » he said.
But he acknowledged a U.S. interest in safeguarding oil supplies. Washington relies on the Gulf of Guinea nations — Nigeria, Angola, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and Sao Tome and Principe — for 16 percent of U.S. energy needs, and that share is expected to rise to 25 percent by 2015 as it tries to reduce reliance on Middle East producers.
« The protection of critical infrastructure and energy infrastructure is a concern all sovereign nations have. We clearly have a concern about that, » Ward said.