- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 9, 2010

GAO, Mali | Dozens of Malian troops rush through the sweltering desert, yell war cries and open fire, spitting hundreds of bullets from rifles and machine guns. It’s all part of a training session — run by the United States.

The U.S. is trying to help nations bordering the Sahara and the arid Sahel region to contain a growing threat of terrorism. More than 200 U.S. Special Forces and 500 African troops trained together in May, in the latest of several large military maneuvers over the past few years.

Intelligence officers estimate there are some 400 al Qaeda extremists based in the vast emptiness north of here, up from about 200 just a year ago. They worry that the militants are teaming up with smugglers carrying cocaine across the desert to Europe and with the restless nomad tribes of the Sahara.

As the extremists get stronger and wealthier, they are attracting more recruits among local youth and Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa. While Algeria’s large military has managed to contain most terror attacks to the hinterland, militants have spread southward through the porous borders of the Sahara to take advantage of weaker African governments like Mali and Niger.

Officials fear the militants could use their safe havens to mount jihadi operations against Europe and the United States.

“You can consider they’re only 400 in the desert, but they now dominate a zone half the size of Europe,” says a French official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because his job is to monitor the zone. “It’s a threat everybody is taking very, very seriously.”

A dust bowl of adobe mud houses surrounded by sand dunes, the small town of Gao lies at the junction between al Qaeda and organized crime. The Tuareg nomads pitch tents on the town’s outskirts, along with Arab and Moorish Bedouins. The Peul, a black tribe of cattle herders, live in round, wooden huts right next to a gated hotel compound transformed into a U.S. military camp.

Gao, in northeastern Mali, marks the start of an area twice the size of Texas that has been declared a no-go zone, where al Qaeda is holding hostage two Spaniards and a Frenchman.

The northern halves of Mali and of neighboring Niger, the eastern part of Mauritania and the southern tip of Algeria are now “red zones” banned for travelers by the French Foreign Affairs Ministry, which maintains close ties to the region — a French colony until the 1960s. American and British authorities have also issued strong terrorism warnings.

Malian soldiers trying to patrol the area have lost several men during clashes with drug traffickers, arms smugglers, bandits and al Qaeda.

“The real problem is that it’s getting hard to know who’s an Islamist and who’s just a criminal,” said Col. Braihama Tagara, the military commander for Gao region. “They support each other more and more.”

The gunmen’s weaponry has improved hugely of late, Col. Tagara said. They can open fire with automatic riffles, heavy machine guns and even rocket-propelled grenades, and they all have Thuraya satellite phones to share intelligence.

The growth in the terrorist footprint in North Africa dates back to 2006, when a local militant group, the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, merged with al Qaeda.

The new group took the name of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). It operates much like a franchise from an international firm: AQIM has imported the techniques and “brand” of Osama bin Laden’s network, and pays its dues by sending militants to fight U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For now, most of AQIM’s violence has taken place outside Mali’s borders, apart from the murder of an army colonel last year and a few random desert skirmishes.

The militants openly claim on jihadi websites they want to topple the government in Mauritania to create an Islamic caliphate. A suicide bomber tried to destroy the French embassy in Mauritania’s capital, Nouakchott, last summer, and militants frequently clash with the Mauritanian army to Mali’s west.

In Niger, to the east, AQIM attacked an army unit last winter, killing several soldiers.

AQIM’s potency also has grown to the north, in Algeria, where a tourist guide was arrested this year because he planned to turn his group over to extremists. The vast area between the town of Tamanrasset and the Malian border was declared off-limits by the Algerian military this year because of insecurity, and one official said police had thwarted a plan to kidnap tourists even within the town.

The American military presence in Gao and other desert towns has become so frequent that many Malians believe the U.S. wants to establish permanent Sahara bases to track terrorists. American officials deny this, saying they offer Mali training and military gear to help it maintain its own security.

To the north of Gao is al Qaeda’s main desert base, set in mountains near Terargar. The fact that AQIM can run a training camp and resupply base in broad daylight highlights how little control local authorities have over northern Mali, Western intelligence officials say.

Many, interviewed on condition of anonymity, suspect there is a sort of “pact of nonaggression” between Mali and AQIM: Malians don’t try to dislodge al Qaeda, and in turn the militants avoid directing their attacks on Mali.

Local authorities deny this is taking place.

“The government does what it can, but the challenge is just so huge,” says Assarid ag Imbarcaounane, the deputy speaker of Mali’s national assembly and a close ally of the country’s president.

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