Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Algeria’s president today to back regional action aimed at routing Islamist extremists based in northern Mali.
Clinton, on an 11-hour stop in Algiers, is the latest U.S. official to visit North Africa’s most stable and prosperous country to urge backing for a move against al-Qaeda’s African affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM.
“We had an in-depth discussion of the region, particularly the situation in Mali,” Clinton said today after meeting with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
The U.S., France and other West African countries are discussing the outline of a regional intervention in Mali, led by troops from the Economic Community of West African States and the African Union. Since gaining control of much of northern Mali after a March coup that distracted the military and getting access to weapons from post-revolutionary Libya, AQIM has grown in strength.
Clinton said she and Bouteflika had “agreed to continue with in-depth, expert discussions, to work together bilaterally and with the region, along with the United Nations and the African Union and ECOWAS to determine the most effective approaches that we should be taking.”
Army General Carter Ham, the departing commander of the U.S. Africa Command, has said kidnapping and smuggling have turned AQIM into al-Qaeda’s “best-funded, wealthiest” offshoot. Ham recently visited Algeria to make the case for support of regional intervention as well.
Algeria’s role in that effort would be central, said a State Department official, who wasn’t authorized to be identified.
Surrounding countries look to Algeria, the region’s military and economic strongman, for leadership, the official said. Algeria, which shares a 1,242-mile border with Mali, has been wary that chaos caused by foreign intervention in Mali could spill over into its territory.
Clinton said that Bouteflika had outlined for her “the many complicated factors that have to be addressed to deal with the internal insecurity in Mali and the terrorist and drug trafficking threat that is posed to the region and beyond.”
The U.S. official said that, even with Algeria’s wariness, its leaders increasingly have been speaking out against the dangers of regional terrorism and are warming to the idea of intervention.
U.S. officials have been looking for any ties between Mali Islamists and Libyan militants who were involved in the deaths of four Americans in the U.S. consulate attack in Benghazi on Sept. 11.
U.S. intelligence officials have said that some members of Ansar al-Sharia, the group they have concluded carried out the attack in Benghazi, have ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. They said there is no clear evidence that either group helped plan, finance, order to execute the assault.
On the contrary, three officials said, intercepted phone calls indicate that a mid-level Ansar leader who is the main link between the Libyan group and groups loosely affiliated with al-Qaeda learned of the attack on the U.S. mission only after it had begun or had ended.
Moreover, the groups in Yemen and northern Africa are self-financed, have their own agendas, and are only loosely connected to the remnants of the core al-Qaeda group in Pakistan led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian who is Osama bin Laden’s successor, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the intelligence is classified.
The U.S. has expanded aerial surveillance operations across Africa, including in Mali, as part of an effort to conduct gather intelligence on Islamist groups such as AQIM, Nigeria’s Boko Haram and other militant groups in Yemen, Somalia and northern Africa, the U.S. intelligence officials said.
The Obama administration also has increased military aid to nations in the region and conducted joint military exercises in July with West African nations and France. The U.S. military also recently completed a two-week war-game exercise looking at the terrorist threat and ways to combat it in West Africa and the Maghreb, according to two defense officials. The exercise, they said, suggested that the tactics that have been effective against militants in Somalia may not be applicable elsewhere in Africa.