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U.S. mulls north Africa air base

by Staff Writers
Algiers, Algeria (UPI) Dec 14, 2010
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is reported to be seeking "expressions of interest" in building a military airbase in a "North African country," indicating the Americans may be planning to take a more active role in the regional war against al-Qaida.

Intelligence Online, a Paris Web site that specializes in global intelligence, reported the call was issued Dec. 2 but didn't specify which country the Pentagon might have in mind.

The report stressed that "the project is lacking both authorization and funding at the moment, and there's nothing to say that (the airbase) will ever be built."

But it is known that U.S. military planners have been interested in establishing an airbase in the desert region for some time and has in the past focused on Algeria's Tamanrasset facility deep in the Sahara Desert.

The Pentagon has reportedly wanted to find a base to mount aerial surveillance of the region where al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb -- the Arabic word for North Africa -- is operating on an expanding basis.

AQIM is one of al-Qaida's most active affiliates and has access to Europe, where it has links with Islamic cells that have supported militant operations since the early 1990s.

The U.S. military established the Africa Command in 2008 to oversee military operations on the continent, which is becoming a strategic oil-producing zone. But so far Africom, which is concerned primarily with military and counterinsurgency training programs, hasn't found any African state willing to host its headquarters, which remain in Stuttgart, Germany.

Algeria, the regional military heavyweight, is leading a regional counter-terrorism campaign against AQIM launched in 2009. This effort has headquarters in Tamanrasset.

Algiers has long resisted any intervention by U.S. or European forces. That was particularly true when the military-backed Algerian regime was fighting a civil war against Islamist militants throughout the 1990s. Energy-rich Algeria didn't want the Americans, or anyone else, poking their noses into how it was conducting its often brutal counterinsurgency operations.

But that changed somewhat after 9/11. Recent WikiLeaks documents show the government of President Abdulaziz Bouteflika is considered an important ally in the battle against al-Qaida.

U.S. cables indicate that the authoritarian Bouteflika's government became more cooperative after the Dec. 11, 2007, al-Qaida bombings of the U.N. office and the Supreme Court in Algiers that killed 41 people and severely jolted the regime.

The attacks undermined Bouteflika's controversial reconciliation program with the Islamists launched after his election in 1999.

Some 250 of the militants who had been given amnesty had rejoined al-Qaida, according to the leaked U.S. embassy cables.

The bombings "opened a debate whether President Bouteflika's amnesty program is appropriate or not; some in the security services want to cast it aside and use an iron fist," an embassy summary observed.

The cables list "major anti-terrorism successes" by the Algerians in 2008, including the killing or capture of at least 19 significant militant chieftains and a thwarted assassination attempt against U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at Algiers' Hassi Messaoud Airport when she visited in September of that year.

By February 2008, cooperation between Algerian military intelligence and the Americans had markedly improved and was paying off.

But the U.S. embassy reported "they are a prickly, paranoid lot to work with, but with them we have rolled up several networks that sent Algerian jihadis to Iraq."

In a December 2009 cable, U.S. Ambassador to Algeria David D. Pearce recounted the tough bargaining involved in securing Algerian approval for U.S. surveillance flights by EP-3 Orion aircraft to scoop up signal intelligence in the vast desert areas, including Mauritania and Mali, where the jihadists operate.

The relationship improved to the point that Pearce reported in a Jan. 6, 2010, cable: "Over the past year, we have had a green light to develop new ties across the board, from military to law enforcement. That light has now turned yellow.

"It is worth remembering that no country is more important than Algeria in the fight against al-Qaida" in the Sahara and the semi-arid Sahel region, he added.

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