Islamist groups in northern Africa are trading personnel, equipment and expertise and pose a growing threat to potential targets there, including Western businesses and diplomats, according to U.S. officials.
Three intelligence officials said that what they called cross-pollination among groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar al-Dine and al Mulathameen have prompted U.S. agencies to focus more closely on the desert lands from Mauritania to Niger, especially in light of recent terrorist attacks in Libya, Algeria and Mali.
So far, the officials, who asked to not be named in discussing intelligence matters, said they’ve seen no evidence of new plans to attack American or other targets in the region and no indication that terrorist groups there are able to mount attacks in Europe or the U.S. They cautioned that they’re still collecting intelligence from eyewitnesses and other nations on the Jan. 16 attack on the In Amenas gas complex in Algeria.
While the U.S. officials said they couldn’t confirm reports that two Canadians participated in that attack, they said the presence in North Africa of a small number of jihadists from Western Europe and elsewhere is especially worrisome. Those who hold Western passports that let them travel in Europe without visas would pose a threat if they returned home with training and combat experience.
Aspiring Islamic radicals from 10 or more countries are being drawn to the battlegrounds in northern Africa and Syria, as the core of al-Qaeda is pinned down and battered in Pakistan and its affiliates in Yemen and Somalia are increasingly under attack by U.S. drones and local forces, the officials said.
The officials said their understanding of the disparate extremist groups and their shifting alliances and agendas is limited because the U.S. has fewer intelligence resources in the region and because local governments can’t provide even the limited support that their counterparts in Pakistan and Yemen have. While Algeria has the most competent counterterrorism forces, according to the officials, it restricts its efforts to protecting its own borders and territory.
That raises concerns that extremists may be able to carve out a safe haven in the deserts of northern Mali comparable to those that al-Qaeda once enjoyed in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the officials said.
They said that while the French military operation in Mali has wrested control of the major northern towns from extremists, success will depend not on capturing territory but on disrupting and degrading the militant groups. That, in turn, may depend on whether a United Nations or African force can maintain security in northern Mali and on French efforts to enlist some local groups to oppose the extremists.
Separately, two other U.S. officials said that a U.S. plan to base unarmed reconnaissance drones in Niger under the terms of a new security agreement could hinder the movements of extremist bands and locate their camps. They said the militants make difficult targets because they don’t use satellite or mobile phones to communicate and are hard to distinguish from other nomads in the area.