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US Intelligence Uncovers Suspected al-Qaida Link in West Africa - 2002-11-11

U.S. officials have uncovered what they believe is an al-Qaida terrorist connection in west Africa that could be a threat to stability in that region.

Intelligence sources say a man they identify as a former Algerian Army Colonel named Mokhtar Belmokhtar has been operating an arms smuggling network in west Africa that has links to al-Qaida.

These sources, speaking to VOA on condition of anonymity, say the man, whose group is known by the initials MBM, floats between Algeria, Mali and Mauritania.

The sources said MBM has conducted arms deals with various radical Islamic organizations, including Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat.

The Salafist group, also known by the initials GSPC, is headed by Hassan Hattab, who is considered a key al-Qaida associate. A Salafist document is among those reportedly found in the luggage of September 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta.

U.S. officials tell VOA they now view MBM as a potential threat to American interests in west Africa. They claim the group, in addition to supplying arms to al-Qaida, could also provide shelter to fugitive al-Qaida leaders.

The disclosure of U.S. interest in terrorist connections in west Africa comes as the chief Pentagon spokeswoman, Victoria Clarke, said America's armed forces are prepared to go after al-Qaida wherever they can. "We've made it very, very clear that we will go after the al-Qaida wherever we can," Ms. Clarke said.

However it is unclear whether the Pentagon might be considering creation of a new military task force like the one being deployed to the Horn of Africa to tackle possible terrorist activities in west Africa.

Algeria's problems with terrorists are well known. However little has been heard of any apparent terrorist activities in Mali, except the reported detentions of several Pakistanis shortly after the September 11 al-Qaida terrorist attacks in the United States.

Officials later said there was no evidence of any terrorist connections by the Pakistanis, who were arrested after a meeting held in support of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

At the time, there were suggestions the detentions may have been ordered by Malian authorities in an effort to show interest in cooperating with the United States in the war on terrorism.