Some U.S. military officials involved in counter terrorism training and operations in Africa say they are concerned that instability and scandals in Iraq will draw resources away from their efforts. The concern comes amid evidence that Africa-based terrorist cells are growing in number and becoming more lethal.
U.S. military officials at European Command in Stuttgart, Germany, say the latest evidence of the growing threat of Africa-based terrorism is the March 11 train bombings in Madrid, Spain.
The officials say they believe the attacks, which killed 191 people and injured more than 1600 others, may have been carried out by the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, a little-known group based in Morocco.
Security officials in Morocco have also said the organization has ties to Moroccan members of al-Qaida, believed to be behind the suicide bombings in Casablanca nearly a year ago.
A spokesman for the European Command, Army Lieutenant Colonel Powl Smith, said that such links show that al-Qaida-inspired, and possibly financed, terrorism has spread from east to north Africa and has taken root.
European Command's official area of operations includes 43 African countries.
?There are a number of terrorist groups that operate in North Africa,? he explained. ?We think it's an urgent threat, but when we're competing with trying to bring stability to Iraq, it's hard for our voices to be heard sometimes above those issues.?
With the insurgency in Iraq and Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal dominating the news in the United States, European Command officials say they are having difficulty attracting Washington's interest in African counter terrorism projects that need urgent approval and funding.
One such project is the Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative. It is an expanded version of a $7 million, State Department-funded project called the Pan-Sahel Initiative, which will be completed in a few months.
Under the Pan-Sahel Initiative, the U.S. military has assisted the countries of Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania with counter-terrorism training and by providing humanitarian aid. Colonel Smith said that the European Command now would like to see that assistance taken several steps further.
?It will be working with the same four nations plus a couple of other nations in the region to try to develop a better capability, not only for counter terrorism, but any kind of security issues and challenges,? he said. ?What we want to do is build on the training. We want to give them more radios. We want to give them more vehicles.?
Across the continent in the tiny Horn of African country of Djibouti, the U.S. military, under Central Command, has been forging similar regional alliances for the past 15 months, using a combination of counter terrorism training and humanitarian operations.
About 1400 U.S. troops are part of the combined joint task force, Horn of Africa. The task force oversees an area that is much smaller than European Command's area of operation, but East Africa is regarded as just as strategically vital to the war on terror.
Like northern and western Africa, the Horn and eastern Africa came under U.S. scrutiny after the September 11th, 2001 al-Qaida terrorist attacks in the United States. Intelligence reports indicated that al-Qaida-linked terrorists, responsible for the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam, were hiding out in lawless Somalia.
Washington feared that the terrorists would use East Africa's porous borders and lax security to recruit and plan more attacks.
That prompted the Bush administration to propose spending as much as $100 million over several years to help countries in the region improve border security and law enforcement.
Task force spokesman, Major Mitch Edgar, said that, so far, the partnership has been very successful. He added that security forces in Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and Yemen have all made arrests that have helped disrupt potential terrorist attacks in the region.
?The terrorist infrastructure is pretty much underground here,? he said. ?It's unlike Afghanistan or Iraq where combatants are pretty much above ground and you see them. Here, we work with regional host nation forces to improve border security, coastal security. They have been and continue to be a critical piece here in what we are doing in the Horn.?
Other task force officials agree that much has been achieved, but they privately acknowledge that the billions of dollars being poured into on-going U.S. military operations in Iraq could divert future money and resources away from their operations in the Horn and east Africa.