Al-Qaeda Runs Free in Area the Size of Texas

A Democratic-led Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee learned at a hearing this week that not only is al-Qaeda not on the run, but it controls a huge chunk of west African territory as a safe haven and possible launching pad for attacks.

Earlier this year, a military coup deposed Mali's government, leaving the country split by ethic fighting and an area the size of Texas under control of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

It's now the largest territory controlled by an Islamic terrorist group in the world. To make matters worse, over the summer U.S. Africa Command noted that AQIM was inviting terror groups Boko Haram of Nigeria and Somalia's al-Shabaab to come hang, train, and join forces in this haven of plenty.

With an interesting choice of words, Chairman Chris Coons (D-Del.) said at his Subcommittee on African Affairs he's concerned that the U.S. approach to Mali might not be "forward-leaning enough" to address the security, political, and humanitarian crises there, despite the U.S. freezing assistance to the country.

"With growing ties between extremists and terrorist groups in Mali, Nigeria, Libya, Somalia, and beyond, there's growing concern AQIM will leverage its new safe haven in Mali to carry out training, and advance plan for regional, or transnational terrorist attacks," Coons said.

"I also have concern any time al-Qaeda takes advantage of a vacuum, or flows into an area because of poverty, or because of lack of governance," said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), the subcommittee's ranking member.

The UN Security Council is expected to vote in the coming weeks on authorization for regional military intervention by the Economic Community Of West African States and the African Union.

Still, a State Department official testifying before the panel ranked terrorism as the "third challenge" in Mali, after detailing concerns about the coup itself and territorial integrity.

Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson said AQIM, in conjunction with the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in west Africa (MUJOA -- listed by the State Department today as a foreign terrorist organization), has crushed much of the country "to impose their ideology on local communities." A Department of Defense official later clarified this as "a harsh version of Sharia law."

Cities controlled by the terrorists include historical Timbuktu, where Islamists have destroyed mausoleums, shrines, amulets, ritual masks, and other items of immense significance.

"Any attempt to militarily oust a AQIM from northern Mali must be African-led. It must be Malian-led. It must be well-planned, well- organized, and well-resourced to be successful," Carson said. "…Algeria, Mauritania, and Niger are all deeply concerned that any military intervention in northern Mali will cause a spillover of extremists into their own countries. These governments strongly favor exhausting all political dialogue before any intervention."

"Beyond the obvious threat to Mali's citizens and its neighbors, the growing terrorist presence in Mali also threatens U.S. citizens and interests in the region, to include the ability to attack embassies and conduct kidnapping operations," testified Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Amanda Dory. "Although AQIM has not demonstrated an ability to attack targets in the United States homeland, it does have a history of attacks in the Sahel and Maghreb and has expressed an intent to target Europe."

Under questioning from Isakson, Dory conceded AQIM "played a role" in the Benghazi attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, but "the rest is better left to a closed session."

The administration strategy is basically to encourage restoration of a democratically elected government, as existed for 20 years before the coup, in hopes that this puts pressure on AQIM.

"We are continuing to push as hard as we can for political negotiations between Tuareg groups and non-terrorist groups in the north, with the government," Carson said.