U.S. concern over terrorist activity in the desert wastelands of West Africa is linked in part to the growing influence of an Algerian-born guerrilla considered a threat to American security interests.
The suspected terrorist at the center of the latest U.S. concern in the Sahel region is Saifi Ammari, nicknamed the "para," a reference to his reported service in a parachute unit in Algeria's armed forces.
According to U.S. officials, Mr. Ammari has been operating with small mobile armed groups in areas along the Algerian-Malian border that are outside of government control.
But the officials, speaking to VOA on condition of anonymity, say he has been recruiting among potential Muslim supporters in other neighboring countries, including Mauritania, Niger and Libya. They say his influence has been growing due to his increased resources, a reference to funds his group is believed to have received as ransom payments for the kidnappings last year of some 30 European tourists, most of them German.
They say Mr. Ammari's growing strength could position him to take control of the feared Algerian terrorist organization known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. Mr. Ammari and the group are on the United Nation's list of al-Qaida related individuals and organizations.
The United States added Mr. Ammari's name to its global terrorist list last December, soon after the U.N. action. Germany has issued a warrant for his arrest. But U.S. officials say American interest has been heightened because, in the words of one official, "he seems to be watching our security efforts closely."
Defense sources have previously indicated there has been intelligence-sharing with Algeria, and the State Department calls counter-terrorism a key area of U.S.-Algerian cooperation. U.S. military trainers have also been working with Malian forces and other troops in the Sahel to improve their counter-terrorist capabilities.
The Voice of America reported last week that consideration was given on at least one occasion recently to a possible U.S. aerial bombing mission against a terrorist target in the Algerian-Malian border area.
The mission, apparently aimed at Mr. Ammari, was scrapped because officials say the target could not be confirmed, and there was concern about risking civilian casualties.
A State Department spokesperson subsequently told VOA the bombing mission was canceled because it was considered a "crazy" idea. But defense sources have indicated bombing remains a viable option.
Three senior U.S. military officials recently traveled in West Africa. One of them, Air Force General Charles Wald, the deputy commander of the U.S. military's European Command, was quoted by reporters as saying the terrorist threat in Africa is growing, not weakening. He also said al-Qaida cells under pressure elsewhere may be seeking new havens in Africa.