US defense secretary Robert Gates told a congressional panel this week that President George W. Bush had approved the plan for a special command to coordinate operations in Africa and counter threats from the continent.
The announcement was certainly timed to coincide with Chinese president Hu Jintao‘s eight-nation swing across the continent and underscored America’s strategic national interest in the continent. Eyes in Washington swiveled to keep track of the Chinese president as he hopped from one impoverished African capital to the next, shelling out vast sums of aid, investments and loans and aggressively deepening Beijing’s grip on the continent’s abundant energy and mineral resources.
Establishing the long overdue new command for integrating US operations in Africa acquired new urgency as the successful US-backed campaign to evict Islamists and their al Qaeda partners from Somalia looked like dissolving into a characteristic Somali fractional mess.
Worst of all, al Qaeda’s long-sought East African commander, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed with scores of his men made good their escape from their old haven in Somalia and are believed to have set up shop in Madagascar, within easy reach of the long East African coast and other Indian Ocean islands.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources report that their flight and speed with which they established a new base of operations attests to the efficiency of the al Qaeda setup in East Africa, its networks and communications and their ability to cross borders at will.
(See separate article below on Somalia)
Former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld had been pushing for a special Africa command from 2005, when al Qaeda and its allies launched terrorist attacks in London and Madrid from bases deep inside the Sahara.
Catalonia – home to Pakistan cells
Currently, the US defense department divides Africa among three commands: the European Command which oversees 43 countries across North and sub-Saharan Africa, Central Command, which covers the Horn of Africa, including Somalia, and the Pacific Command, which keeps an eye on Madagascar, Fazul’s new stamping ground.
Somalia and its Horn of Africa neighbors are only one of several regions of instability; Nigeria, one of America’s main oil suppliers, is prey to disruptions of supply by domestic terrorists. And North Africa, down to the Sahara, is riddled with al Qaeda networks.
The virulent Algerian Salafist Group of Preaching and Combat – the GSPC, recently merged with al Qaeda and renamed itself Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb.
The Jamaa, another North African al Qaeda affiliate is thriving, despite Morocco’s crackdown on terrorists after suicide bombings killed 45 people in Casablanca in 2003.
On Feb, 17, 2006, DEBKA-Net-Weekly 242 reported:
The rising danger also emanates from al Qaeda’s spreading use of the Saharan crime networks, which smuggle cheap labor and drugs over the Mediterranean to West Europe, to plant dozens, if not hundreds, of terrorist operatives in the West in the guise of job seekers. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter terror and military sources report that Rumsfeld is anxious to jump start a fresh initiative for re-opening this front in the war on terror.
A year later, on Tuesday, Feb. 6, Spanish police detained a Moroccan, Mbark el-Jaafari, suspected of belonging to a terrorist outfit involved in recruiting suicide bombers for Al Qaeda. He was captured in Reus, near Spain’s eastern city of Tarragona. El-Jaafari is alleged to belong to the Algerian GSPC and to have recruited 32 people for suicide bombings in Iraq and attacks in Morocco since May 2006.
El Periodico de Catalunya reported this week that the northeastern region of Catalonia had become a base for Pakistani terrorist groups, one of which had been implicated in the July 2005 London underground bombings which killed 56 people.
The Spanish province was also described as Europe’s main base for Jaish-e-Mohamed (JEM) and the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), Pakistani terrorist groups closely linked to Al Qaeda.
African nomads provide mobile training bases deep in Sahara
Spain is of special interest to Islamic extremists who aspire to restore Muslim rule to this West European nation. It is also a hop and a skip across the Mediterranean to North and West Africa, a key al Qaeda area of operations called Zone 9.
(DEBKA-Net-Weekly on July 17, 2005 was the first publication to write about the al Qaeda Sahara base and its alliance with the strange blue-faced Tuareg tribes.
See attached map http://debka-net-weekly.com/pics/africa3.jpg)
From their havens in Sahel and the Sahara, al Qaeda and its offshoots plague Algeria and Morocco. They live in hiding among the nomadic Tuareg tribes who roam the Sahara desert, mostly through the northern reaches of Mali near Timbuktu and Kidal. The Tuareg are often referred to as the Blue Men of the Desert for their men’s indigo-dyed robes and blue face veils.
The training process for al Qaeda recruits mustered in northern and western Africa begins in mobile training camps among these Saharan nomads. From there, the trainees move on to fight alongside the GSPC against Algerian and other North African governments. Cells and networks are formed the while to prepare the jihadis for more ambitious operations further afield in Europe and Iraq.
The newly emergent Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb has grown into a highly dangerous arm of the world jihadist movement, capable of smoothly crossing the Mediterranean and striking targets in the West.
The US Africa Command is faced with tasks that have defeated many previous American efforts, such as joint exercises conducted with targeted countries of North and West Africa as part of a Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Initiative. US special forces have also conducted repeated pursuits of wanted terrorist chiefs with air and spy satellite support. Most have eluded capture in the vast, lawless wastelands of Africa.