Al Qaeda's richest faction dominant in north Mali-US

AFRICOM does not plan to put US troops on the ground.

Reuters July 27, 2012

DAKAR: Al Qaeda's affiliate in North Africa is the militant organisation's richest faction and the dominant Islamist force among those controlling northern Mali, the head of the US military's Africa Command (AFRICOM) said on Thursday.

General Carter Ham said the international community and the
Malian government now faced a complex challenge to try to deal
with the strengthened presence in Mali's largely desert north of
al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the militant group's
North African franchise.

Mali, for a long time seen as a stable nation in an often
turbulent West African region, imploded in the space of a few
weeks after a March 22 coup sowed confusion and allowed a mix of
Tuareg separatists and Islamist rebels to occupy the northern
two-thirds of the country.

Over recent weeks, the Islamists, including AQIM fighters,
have gained control of the vast area, creating what African and
Western leaders are calling a "terrorist haven" that they say
threatens both regional and international security.

African leaders and Western governments including the United
States and France, the former colonial power in the region, have
been discussing the idea of a Western-backed African military
intervention force going in to try to expel the rebels from the
north and reunite divided Mali.

Ham said the groups now controlling Mali's north were
boosted by the spillover of arms and fighters from Libya's
conflict last year. But he criticised as "ineffective" previous
efforts to tackle AQIM in northern Mali, where its members have
held kidnapped foreigners for multi-million-dollar ransoms.
"We - the international community, the Malian government -
missed an opportunity to deal with AQIM when they were weak.

Now the situation is much more difficult and it will take greater
effort by the international community and certainly by a new
Malian government," Ham told reporters in Senegal.

The US general said relationships between the various
Islamist groups in northern Mali were complex and that it was
not clear if they were aligned on an ideological or a purely
opportunistic basis.

"We believe the most dominant organisation is AQIM. We think
they are al Qaeda's best funded, wealthiest affiliate," he said.
"AQIM gained strength, they gained a lot of money through
kidnapping for ransoms and they became a stronger and stronger
organisation," he added.

The U.N. Security Council on July 5 endorsed West African
efforts to end unrest in Mali but has stopped short of backing
military intervention, asking for a more detailed plan for such
an operation.

Experts from the African Union and the West
African regional grouping ECOWAS have been working on this plan.
Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traore, who has spent
weeks abroad after he was attacked by pro-coup mobs in May, will
return to Bamako on Friday and try to form a new government by
the end of the month, his party said.


Asked about reports that the Islamists in northern Mali
include fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ham said he did
not have independent confirmation of this. However, he estimated
the numbers of foreign fighters in the north in the "dozens and
perhaps in the low hundreds".

AQIM emerged out of Algeria's civil conflict but it has
gradually expanded south into the Sahara and has raised its
profile in recent years, partly through hit-and-run attacks on
regional armies but mainly by kidnapping Westerners for ransom.
Security experts say the group's mainly Algerian leadership
has forged strong bonds with northern Malian communities and
criminal networks trafficking in arms, drugs and migrants.
Ham repeated US offers to broadly assist regional efforts
to try to resolve Mali's crisis, which has displaced around
420,000 people, according to the U.N. Office for the
Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

But he said putting US troops on the ground could be
counter-productive and refused to comment on the possibility of
Washington using drones for air strikes similar to those carried
out on militant targets in Yemen or Pakistan.