- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 6, 2004

LONDON — The United States has opened a secret war against Islamic terrorists in the southern Sahara after learning that a group linked to al Qaeda bought heavy weapons with money obtained from the German government in a ransom deal, military and diplomatic sources said.

The new Islamic fundamentalist force is building what officials call “garrisons in the sand” on the border of Algeria and Mali in some of Africa’s harshest and most sparsely populated terrain, these sources said.

The Algerian-based Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which gained prominence when it kidnapped 32 European tourists last year, eventually released its captives in exchange for a $7.3 million ransom payment.

That money has been spent on surface-to-air missiles, heavy machine guns and mortars as well as satellite positioning equipment that will enable the group to relocate weapons caches buried in the Sahara, the sources said.

“There are clear indications that Muslim extremists from the Middle East and Afghanistan have moved into these massive open spaces, where they are as elusive as if they were out at sea,” said Maj. Sarah Kerwin of the U.S. Army’s European Command, which is responsible for North Africa and West Africa.

“They bring a new threat where they can bury weapons in the sand, mark the exact position with their satellite equipment, and then move off along the camel trails with other tools and equipment.”

Other targets of the United States in the region include the Moroccan Combat Group, which is held responsible for the Madrid train bombings as well as earlier attacks in Casablanca, Morocco. The group was added to the State Department list of terrorist organizations in April.

The Army plans to spend $125 million over the next five years on its Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative, aimed at preventing groups allied to al Qaeda from establishing a foothold in the region.

American Special Forces are being deployed discreetly in the region — which covers eight countries and thousands of miles of desert — to train, advise and equip pro-U.S. government troops.

In a significant breakthrough in March, the U.S. military helped orchestrate the ambush and capture in western Chad of Amari Saifi, the Salafist group’s leader.

Brahim Tchouma of the Movement of Democracy and Justice, a pro-U.S. rebel group that is holding Saifi, said they were prepared to hand the former Algerian paratrooper to the United States or its allies.

Plans for a turnover have been delayed because of objections from the military government in Chad, which opposes official contacts with its rebel opposition, but U.S. military officials expect the problem to be resolved in the coming weeks.

Governments in the Sahara region were furious when Germany approved payment of $7.3 million for 17 hostages, who included Germans, Austrians and Swedish tourists. Berlin has never officially acknowledged the deal, but it is widely believed that the government of Mali paid the ransom in return for a promise of additional aid from Berlin.

“This sum was equivalent to 25 percent of the defense budget of Niger last year. That gives the extremists a huge boost, an advantage which they can exploit to destabilize these governments,” a Western diplomat said.

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