Despite a setback in Somalia, where anti-Islamist warlords recently lost control of the capital, Mogadishu, to a jihadist militia, the United States is plunging into a far vaster set of commitments, stretching across the "Wild West" of Saharan Africa.
Over the next five years, Washington is expected to spend US$500 million on an overt counter-terror program to secure what it has dubbed the latest front in its "global war on terror". Detractors insist the move could backfire and have the same unintended consequences as in the Horn of Africa, albeit on a much larger scale with even more at stake.
The Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI) kicked off last June to provide military expertise, equipment and
development aid to nine Saharan nations whose vast, ungoverned reaches are considered fertile ground for militant Islamist groups looking to establish Afghanistan-style terror training camps and to engage in smuggling and other illicit activities.
The TSCTI represents a massive upgrade from the Pan-Sahel Initiative, a $7 million forerunner that was initiated in 2002 in what Theresa Whelan, US deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, called "just a drop in the bucket" compared with the region's security needs.
In its campaign to justify the increase, the US military has likened the Sahara to the "Wild West", and the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (Groupe Salafiste pour la Predication et le Combat, or GSPC) is its most wanted enemy. On the US State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations and estimated to have a few hundred remaining members based in Algeria, the group was formed in the late 1990s to overthrow the government in Algiers and create a hardline Islamic state. Its founders broke ranks with the notorious Armed Islamic Group over its policy of killing civilians indiscriminately during Algeria's 1992-99 civil war that left more than 100,000 dead. The GSPC was accused of kidnapping European tourists in 2003 and claimed responsibility for a spate of strikes around the Sahara last year that reportedly killed a total of 40 soldiers from Algeria and Mauritania. But some observers say terrorism in the Sahara is little more than a mirage and that protracted, high-profile US involvement could destabilize the region.
"If anything, the [initiative] ... will generate terrorism, by which I mean resistance to the overall US presence and strategy," said Jeremy Keenan, a Sahara specialist at the University of East Anglia in Britain.
Aside from the 2003 kidnapping issue, US and Algerian authorities have failed to present "indisputable verification of a single act of alleged terrorism in the Sahara", Keenan insists. "Without the GSPC, the US has no legitimacy for its presence in the region," he said, noting that a growing US dependence on African oil, which the administration of President George W Bush has declared a "national strategic interest", has moved the United States to bolster its presence in the region.
A report by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank, said that although the Sahara is "not a terrorist hotbed", repressive governments in the region are taking advantage of the Bush administration's "war on terror" to tap US largess and deny civil freedoms. The report noted that former Mauritanian president Maaoya Sid'Ahmed Ould Taya - a US ally in West Africa who was deposed last August in a bloodless coup - used the threat of terrorism to justify human-rights abuses.
Taya jailed and harassed dozens of opposition politicians, charging that they were connected to the GSPC; this fed popular discontent, and it is said that the military junta that ousted Taya while he was abroad did so to appease a simmering public. Hundreds of Mauritanians took to the streets of the capital, Nouakchott, to denounce the United States at the start of the TSCTI.
The United States is already under fire for secretly supporting the anti-Islamist warlords who last week lost control of Mogadishu to jihadist militia after a 15-year stranglehold. A number of opponents of the Central Intelligence Agency-administered program claim that enterprising warlords have exploited US fears that the lawless East African country is becoming a terrorist haven. The warlords use this fear to gain funding and arms to reinforce existing criminal operations under the pretense of fighting radicals, they argue.
They also argue that the effect of this policy at the grassroots is a witches' brew of anti-American sentiment and Islamic radicalism among Somalis fed up with US involvement in their affairs, particularly when the Americans are backing forces that have torn the country apart.
Critics say the same scenario threatens to take hold in Saharan Africa, only there the warlords are dictators, and national borders substitute for city blocks.
They also contend that the limited threat the GSPC may have posed on the African continent in recent years has been all but snuffed out. Since the isolated attacks last summer, Algerian authorities have cracked down hard on the group: the latest fatal GSPC strike resulted in just one death and the unexpected surrender two days later of three ranking militants. This supports intelligence reports that the group's leadership is in tatters and on the run. Analysts say a recent threat by one ranking militant that US military installations may come under attack is little more than hot air.
GSPC founder Hassan Hattab, now in government custody, has called on all remaining militants to take advantage of a new government amnesty under which they can give up the gun in exchange for immunity from prosecution, saying those who continue to fight do not belong to his organization, since they harm Muslims. This week the Algerian army killed five GSPC gunmen and destroyed 30 hideouts in eastern Algeria; security sources confirmed that the operation was "based on accurate information given to the army by repenting gunmen". Algeria has freed some 2,200 jailed Islamist militants under the amnesty since February.
A limited number of holdouts still stir occasional trouble in the remote Algerian countryside, but the GSPC has shifted the focus of its operations to Europe, where an elusive network of sleeper cells has shown a willingness, and means, to target civilians. Dozens of operatives have been arrested and a number of major plots foiled over the past year, including a scheme to outdo the attacks of September 11, 2001. US and European intelligence officials also have evidence that Europe-based operatives continue to recruit, train and finance North African jihadists to fight US-led forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. These factors make the GSPC-Europe "the largest, most cohesive and dangerous terrorist organization in the al-Qaeda orbit", according to a report by the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington, DC-based think-tank.
In December, three Algerian members of a GSPC cell in southern Italy were arrested in a sweep and implicated in a plot to kill "at least 10,000 people" and blow up a vessel "as big as the Titanic". More than $22 million is said to have been found in the vehicle used by the three; attacks would have targeted ships, stadiums and railway stations in a deliberate attempt to exceed the September 11 carnage, according to Italian Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu. The plan was foreshadowed in a communique issued by the GSPC four days after the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center came crashing down, pledging its support to al-Qaeda and threatening to harm "the interests of European countries and the US". It is still debated as to whether the GSPC has formally aligned itself with Osama bin Laden, but the group has repeatedly avowed a fierce allegiance.
Italy has "evolved from a logistics base" to a "de facto base of operations" for GSPC activities targeting Europe, says the Jamestown report. Algerian GSPC operatives based out of a Milan mosque were first arrested in 2002 for illegally acquiring explosives and weapons. In 2005, Italian police detained five of 11 Algerians suspected of belonging to the GSPC and investigated their involvement in a failed terrorist attack against the Spanish National Court in Madrid, among other incidents. "GSPC cells in Italy employ a dual-track approach to planning terrorist attacks and provide support infrastructure - safe houses, communications, weapons ... and [forged documents] to cells elsewhere in Europe," the report noted.
However, the terror group has singled out France as its primary foreign target. In January 2005, French authorities arrested 11 suspects with ties to the GSPC and charged them with recruiting suicide bombers to send to Iraq. In September, police seized three other Algerians affiliated with the GSPC purported to be preparing to bomb the Paris subway. "The only way to discipline France is jihad and Islamic martyrdom," group leaders said in a statement. "France is our Enemy No 1, the enemy of our religion, the enemy of our community."
Spain, too, has seen a spike in GSPC activity. Authorities there arrested 20 suspected terrorists on January 12 in Barcelona and Madrid. Among them were Moroccan-born Omar Nakhcha, the head of a GSPC cell said to recruit and give logistical support to Iraq-bound militants and suicide bombers. A spokesman for Spain's Interior Ministry said one of the group's recruits was responsible for a suicide attack in November 2003 in Nasiriyah, Iraq, that killed 19 Italians and nine Iraqis. Nakhcha, for his part, is thought to have led a cell of a shadowy GSPC affiliate, the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, that helped the escape of three suspects in the 2004 Madrid train bombings that killed 191 people and participated in the 2003 Casablanca attacks.
A prominent Spanish judge and the head of France's domestic security service are carrying out extensive inquiries into loose-knit terror networks in both countries. Those arrested have disclosed information on interconnected cells responsible for recruitment, falsifying documents and acquiring explosive materials. At least 50 French Arabs have journeyed to Iraq for suicide operations over the past two years, according to one Spanish research institute.
Western intelligence agencies estimate the GSPC has an exile network of 800-900 active operatives and supporters spread throughout Europe. So far arrests have been made in Italy, France, Spain, Belgium, Britain and the Netherlands, but authorities fear that the group may hold a growing appeal to the thousands of frustrated young Muslims who idle at the fringes of major European cities.
North America has not been bypassed by the GPSC either. A Toronto-based cell that had included an al-Qaeda-trained bomb-maker was broken up in November. Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian militant recruited by the GSPC, was arrested by US authorities in Seattle after crossing from Canada. Tried on charges he planned to blow up Los Angeles International Airport on New Year's Eve 1999, he was sentenced to 22 years in prison.