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U.S. Seeks Military Access in N. Africa

With growing evidence that Al Qaeda and other terrorism groups are organizing in the region, Washington also is increasing surveillance.

March 27, 2004|Esther Schrader | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Citing evidence that North Africa is increasingly becoming a refuge for Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, a top Pentagon official said Friday that the U.S. was stepping up efforts to win military access to small bases from Morocco to Mali and ramping up aerial and maritime surveillance of the region.

Morocco recently offered the U.S. access to its bases for exercises, and troops already are training in Tunisia, said Marine Corps Gen. James L. Jones, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Europe.

The Pentagon is also in "the embryonic stage" of seeking access for U.S. troops in countries such as Cameroon and Mauritania, he said.

Speaking at a breakfast with defense reporters, Jones said soldiers with the Army's 10th Special Forces Group were training U.S. troops in Mali and Mauritania, on the edges of the Sahara Desert.

Marines are training in Niger and Chad, he said.

There are no plans to build permanent bases in Africa, Jones added.

Instead, the U.S. European Command, which oversees military operations in most of Africa, plans to rotate troops more frequently into low-maintenance camps or airfields. A skeletal crew of U.S. forces could be based at such camps on a more permanent basis in a caretaker role, Jones said.

"We need to get a jump on this right now," Jones said, referring to intelligence that Al Qaeda operatives driven out of Afghanistan and Middle Eastern countries are organizing in Africa.

"The large, ungoverned spaces in Africa are very tempting," he said. "And we are seeing some indications that they are moving in that direction."

North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials met in Brussels this week with military chiefs from several North African countries as part of the alliance's effort to work more closely with African states.

The United States long has been reluctant to become involved militarily in such an unstable region. But the realization that such instability is a perfect breeding ground for terrorists has led to a shift in Pentagon thinking.

"There are countries where radical fundamentalism could take hold in Africa," Jones said. "I think we can get at this thing before it becomes a real problem."

The fact that a number of suspects arrested in connection with the March 11 train bombings in Madrid are North Africans, he said, "shows that this is something that we have to take seriously."

"It is factual. It is real."

For the last several months, U.S. surveillance aircraft have helped monitor and track the movements of an Islamic extremist group -- believed to have links to Al Qaeda -- that has threatened the government of Algeria, Jones said.

Those militants -- the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, based primarily in Chad -- suffered a "very significant military defeat" when Chad's army attacked it two weeks ago, Jones said.

The Chadian government said its army killed 43 terrorists. Chad shares a long border with Sudan, which once gave refuge to Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Jones said U.S. forces were not involved in the combat but that information gleaned by U.S. surveillance aircraft had aided Chad's army.

At the Moroccan government's invitation, the U.S. Navy last year began conducting exercises off the African country's northern coast. And an agreement recently was struck with Morocco to conduct U.S. training in the Atlas Mountains.

Morocco is "very hospitable to the idea of training and has offered some very exciting possibilities for training of our forces," Jones said.

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